How to Look at Art Without Really Trying
“When you go to a museum,” he said, “you look at the painting, observe it, take it in. Then you look down and read the little plaque. Does the picture have meaning before you read the plaque? Does its meaning change because of the plaque?”
I wasn’t happy with this contemplation, thinking about how I consumed art and how that consumption was controlled by small plaques, tour guides, and everything but the art itself. In the context of my class deconstructing post-modernism, this was exactly the sort of uncomfortable feeling my professor wanted to instill. I soon found myself reading the plaque as a separate work when standing at galleries, wondering how my judgement of art worked, wondering if I could appreciate the art for itself without the context. I would wander through, staring at the art, actively ignoring he plaque, not caring about the context.
But often the plaque was a validation for me. That’s a Van Gogh, I’d think before glancing at the small brass trophy as if it were the backside of a Trivial Pursuit card. If I were right, I would get the endorphin rush of winning at Jeopardy; if I were wrong, I’d get the joy of learning and be able to look once more and try to spot why I thought it was Van Gogh instead of Cezanne or whomever. Regardless, no matter how hard I tried, the plaques remained a part of my art world experience.
Yesterday, our camp went to the Denver Museum of Art. I haven’t been there in two years, the last time a camp at which I was working headed there on a field trip. In my previous trip, travelling through the museum with the oldest kids, grades 4-7, allowed me to have fascinating conversations, give them a bit more freedom, and really enjoy the experience. This time, however, I was with 2nd and 3rd graders; this time, I felt as though I was herding cats.
The kids ran from picture to picture, sculpture to sculpture, never pausing long enough to truly take it in, often spreading like a disease across each gallery, ducking around patrons and visitors. Whenever we reached an interactive portion, they would descend like wild hyenas, devouring whatever paper, stamps, scissors and pencils were there with which to grab, scribble and cut. To be honest, I preferred this to the alternative.
In many galleries, the Denver Museum of Art has moved with the times, installing ipads and interactive video screens in an attempt to offer more information and a touch of the modern day. These screens were like kid magnets. They didn’t care what was on them, often pounding buttons just to watch the flashing colors, never sitting through even a 10-second snippet of the videos they pulled up. They didn’t observe the art and wonder why these people were talking or what they were talking about.
“Where are the games?” they would ask.
“Where are the cartoons?” they’d whine.
These tablets are nouveaux plaques, adding context and meaning. But how much meaning can they add when the kids won’t actually look at the art with more than a passing glance.
And I, meanwhile, would be pulling one or two kids back in with cries of annoyance or worry as four others burned into the outer recesses of our group like a fire in the wind.
I was shocked to see a giant Land O’ Lakes box in the Native American gallery. A little further, the kids congregated around a ginormous pack of American Spirits.
I tried to grab the opportunity.
“Who do you think chose to put pictures of Native Americans on these things?” I asked.
“The Indians!” cried some.
“I dunno,” said a few.
“No, it wasn’t the Indians,” said a few others.
“Then who?” I asked. “Would you want your face plastered on a pack of cigarettes?”
“No!” they yelled.
“What about packs of butter?”
“I would,” said one boy with a mischievous grin.
“How would you feel if you image showed up on stuff and no one asked you if they could.”
“Bad,” I heard them say. “Angry.”
“So who has the right to decide what your picture is used for?” I didn’t even think of telling them that every time they’re out in public, anyone can snap their photo and use it in the press. I didn’t even think of telling them that the lines of ownership of one’s own image isn’t as black and white as we feel it to be. Instead, I basked in the singular moment in the entire day where the whole group, even the fast and loose troublemakers stood there, staring at artwork, thinking.
In the next gallery, they fought over a couch with ipods and headphones, playing music intended to enhance the African art. They chopped up cardboard and punched holes, using twist ties to create found art… or merely to chop up cardboard and punch holes. And soon, they were fighting over who got to stand closest to a panoply of screens in the shape of a man and trying to figure out a seven and a half-minute clip show of people from movies and TV on phones.
On the bus ride home, I was at once relieved I had survived the museum with them. No one had smeared a painting, no one had knocked over a sculpture, and no one had broken the elevator. Still, watching them ignore art, ignore history, and ignore myriad interesting things for small tablets locked into walls, comfy chairs intended for contemplation and rest, and abuse every interactive element they could find left me sad.
I wonder how much I have contributed to their screen addiction. When it’s late in the day and I’m tired, I’ve handed my phone to a kid with a game pulled up. When they can’t find a playmate and I don’t have time to play with them, or worse yet don’t want to, I’ve given in to the stopgap of technology as a quick fix. And when they ask me a question that a YouTube video, wiki page, or Google image search can answer better than I can, I’ve held the phone up like a holy grail and let them jockey and push for a better view.
On the bus ride home, I glanced around and saw five counselors, their heads buried in their phones beneath seats. Every once in a while one would look up and yell at a kid to sit down or pull their feet out of the aisle or stop sticking their hand out of the window. Slowly, I tucked my phone away, since I often used bus time to check in on texts and emails. I was left feeling guilty of the example we were setting.
As an arbiter of technology with the kids at work, I like to think I do a better job than mom or dad, who probably abuse it more often out of frustration and annoyance. Then again, given the way these kids gravitated toward screens and ignored the discussions I tried to initiate, perhaps I’m still contributing too much. When I see the other staff pulling out their phones and collecting at the staff table rather than integrating with the kids, it’s really started eating at me.
And what makes it worse is that a small part of me wishes I couldn’t care just as much.