Friday, August 7, 2009

Looking at People Looking at Art

When I go to an art museum, I often spend almost as much time watching other people breeze by some works of art, while choosing to linger over others, as I do looking at the art itself. It thus came as a pleasant surprise when the front page of the August 3rd New York Times included a story by the cultural critic Michael Kimmelman, writing from Paris, regarding how people experience the Louvre. Kimmelman’s understandable bias is to go to museums with an open mind, without concern for historical context or wall labels, or at least not before steeping oneself in the works. Of course, that works for someone like Kimmelman who is already steeped in these traditions, but may be less effective for someone without his extensive background knowledge. Still, Kimmelman’s agenda - to encourage people to experience and enjoy art without preconceptions or worries about critical assessments – seems like a good one and worth keeping in mind the next time you visit a museum. He also urges people not to try to cover everything, but rather to give just a few works ample time for close consideration. This is another habit worth adopting, though not always feasible for everyone. Let me add that one of the reasons I like to have memberships to art museums is to give myself permission to look at just a handful of works during a visit, even if I’m only there for 15 or 30 minutes. Without that membership, you are going to feel obligated to stay for many wearying hours to make that admission price of 10 or even 20 dollars worthwhile.

So what do I notice when I am noticing other people notice the art in a museum? For one thing, if I’m in some place like the Met, I see that the closest observers are often speaking French or German or Italian or Japanese. My extremely inexact and informal survey of art patrons In New York suggests that more than half do not speak English as their first language. I’m not sure what to make of this, but it does prompt me to wonder how dependent museums like the Met are on international tourists to keep them going. Kimmelman made no mention of possible differences between Americans and others in his article, and I probably shouldn’t either, but I have observed that non-Americans seem to talk a lot more about what they are seeing. Visiting a museum seems to be more of an occasion for reacting to art, particularly for those speaking French. But then when you think about French cafĂ© society and the like, perhaps such a penchant for dialogue and analysis is exactly what you should expect. In short, on the whole, the non-Americans seem to be having more fun than the Americans, and somehow, at the same time, taking it more seriously, too.

One of the many other things I have observed as I watch people wander through art museums is how hard parents work to get their children interested. They point out the beautiful colors or the background story for a particular picture or how heavily the paint is applied in another, trying anything to keep the kids engaged. I admire the efforts of these parents, but it feels like a losing battle to me. No matter what, especially if the children are young boys, there is no way to keep them engaged for very long. Which returns me with a bit of a jolt to Kimmelman’s ideas. If you do have a membership to an art museum and live fairly close by, try turning your visit into a very specific quest to stop by three specific works you want to view together for, say, ten minutes each. And vary them, too. Pick one from 19th century Europe, one from ancient China, and another from Polynesia, or whatever choices make sense for you. And then spend the time looking and talking about what you see, without resorting, at least right away, to evaluations of what’s good and what isn’t, or as Kimmelman has suggested, without concern about how they fit into the history of art. Something tells me that such a focus might stimulate all of us to think about art more deeply and, at the same time, enjoy it more fully, too.


  1. I know three boys whose rec room in the basement was decorated with prints from the Chicago Art Institute, Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Rouault, Utrillo, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Van Gogh. Going to the museum itself was like visiting old friends and it was only natural to expand the view with 'friends of friends' that filled the galleries. Those boys were engaged because they were lucky to have parents who realized that art isn't just for museums.
    I understand your advice to slow down, think and talk about the art. But I have to add that sometimes a membership is just an easy way to visit an old friend and bask in the glow.

  2. Yes, well said. I have often had the same feelings and have sometimes been startled to see that Picasso or Rouault or Seurat (remember the circus painting) as originals in museums. Thanks for reminding us that "art isn't just for museums."