I like art museums. I’ve been to the museums and frequented museums in every city I’ve ever spent any time in. Seeing Jackson Pollock at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was like a religious experience, a moment of revelation, and I saw what I never could have seen in the art book reprints and cheap, dorm room posters of Pollock’s drip paintings. The Howard Finsters at Atlanta’s High Museum are amazing. Toledo has a surprisingly good museum, for a little industrial city, and Portland has some really good examples of American painting, including Albert Bierstadt‘s Mount Hood, and George de Forest Brush’s paintings of Native Americans, including The Sculptor and the King. I got to see Gustav Klimt‘s work in Vienna, and discovered and immediately loved HAP Grieshaber‘s woodcuts in a castle that’s been converted into a museum on the edge of the Bodensee.
I worry about museums, though. They can add a seriousness that weighs a work down until it’s dragged down to the ground. They can add a weigh that’s like chain mail on a sparrow. Sometimes the seriousness and officialness, the somber formality of a museum, means art is void of joy.
And joy is good in art.
Art can be light, and it can be fun. It can convert one into a child with surprise, and I like art that does that.
I like art that’s like a sudden laugh. Art that’s unexpected joy.
The thing that bothers me about museums occurred to me when I was in a museum. I was in the one in Philadelphia, the one with the famed “Rocky Steps” — by any measure one of the best museums in the US — and there was a group of people standing around one of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. It was the bike wheel that’s attached, upside down, to a kitchen stool. A couple of more people were peering carefully at the plaque where the title of the work, which is the most self-obvious title in the history of art titles, was duly inscribed. The whole scene was very somber. People weren’t stroking their chins and saying in faux foreign accents, “very interesting,” but they could have been.
Then, walking away, I heard a woman say to her friend that she just didn’t get it. “It’s just a bike wheel,” she said.
I really wanted to say, “exactly!” I could be wrong, and maybe some disagree, but to me, for me, Duchamp’s work is hilarious. I like Dada and early Salvador Dali specifically because it’s so unserious. Lobster phones are funny. Signed toilets are funny. I don’t think you’re supposed to “get it,” but just supposed to laugh. This is a ridiculous situation we’re in, being human, and to “get it” is to laugh, at least sometimes. The hush of a museum can make that hard, though. It all seems so high art.
If I had a bike wheel screwed in to a stool in my apartment, I think it would be fun, sometimes, to just give it a whirl. I think that’s the point, and I think it’s too bad that sometimes, in museums, the presentation of the art what makes it great.
To some conservative tastes that silliness means the art is not art. It doesn’t strike the right tone. Yet, I find that the ridiculousness of this art is liberating. It allows me to see things in new ways, and think about things in different ways, and always makes me want to go out and create. Which means, for me, it does exactly what I want art to do.
One of my favorite sculptures is Leo Sewell’s Rolling Suitcase. There are personal reasons for this — I used to live right by the airport, so close the airplanes would fly about 50 feet overhead, the jets overwhelming everything with their roar, and I could drive by the sculpture every day — but I love the fact the whole idea of the permanent installation is art as surprise. The suitcase is made out of old road signs: INTERSTATE, and STOP, ONE WAY and WARNING CHANGED SIGNAL AHEAD. If you sit outside the airport and watch people as they wheel their suitcases from the parking garage to the Delta counter, sometimes they stop and stare at the sculpture, sometimes they laugh, or point, or sometimes they take pictures.
I got to talk to Sewell, once, and ask him about the suitcase. He said he liked the idea of his art at the airport because he liked the idea of art as unexpected. People don’t go to the airport expecting to see art; they’re in a rush, with things to do, and they’re thinking about their ticket and boarding pass and passport. They’re hoping the line won’t be too long and the security check will go smoothly and they’ll get off the ground on time. And then, right there, in the midst of all those practical worries and everyday concerns, maybe they’ll see the giant suitcase made out of road sign scraps, and maybe they’ll smile.
All of Sewell’s work is like this, fun and inspiring, full of the joy of a kid at the dump. I think it’s great:
I wouldn’t want to suggest that art should never be serious. I find Cormac McCarthy more compelling than almost anything, and I love Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner. I think Michael Herr’s Dispatches is a work of genius and find I cyclically need to re-read the part of Roberto Bolano’s 2666 that most people found too violent to bear. Whether dark or light, though, I want art to surprise me. I want it to put the world off kilter, and to make me think, and to make me think about what it is to be human.
Sometimes, I know, this idea of art works out to odd ends. For instance, I think the world’s largest ball of twine is really interesting. I know why it wouldn’t normally be considered art, but I don’t really know how not to take it as art. It’s not like I disagree with any of the points one might make in dismissing it as ridiculous, but I look at it in its ridiculousness and think, this is us, this is human. This is what it’s like to be alive. On the other hand, I find a lot of poetry readings unbearable. The stilted, self-serious, breathless and constipated style of reading so common among contemporary poets has, I find, almost nothing to do with world I know. If anything, that imbued seriousness insulates the listener from any serious thoughts: rather than surprising us out our normal torpor, it confirms in us our own sense of being serious.
If all art does is make us stroke our chins and say in somber tones, “very interesting,” then art isn’t worth it to me. I worry, sometimes, even though I love museums, that what they do is lay this hush down over art, smothering it with the kind of officialness. A formality. There’s something about the space, the lighting, the tone of the presentation, that can, too often, be inhibiting instead of liberating. It’s as if the art communicates its own artness, and the aura of high culture, and we’re ensconced in that like bugs in amber. There’s something about it that makes it so we can’t laugh, even though, look, it’s a bike wheel on a stool! Even though, look!, the title of this work is “Bicycle Wheel,” and it’s not even the original one, like that would matter or be extra special, it’s a replica!
I still love museums. There’s all sorts of really amazing work I never would have had access to, without them. In a world without museums, all the Vermers and Rembrants and Twomblys and Picassos would be owned by the rich, and I would have only ever seen photos in books. Without museums, and their guiding idea of democratic access to art, a person like me might never have been exposed to great art at all.
I’ve also learned to really love the kind of art that thrives outside formality, though. The stuff that will never be and can never be enshrouded in the hush of officialness. I love the extra crazy art that exists outside of art environments, the art that’s “out there,” in the wild, so to speak, ready to surprise. There’s something liberating and wonderful about the junk sculptures at the airport in Atlanta, something liberating and wonderful about the skittery strandbeasts on the beaches of Holland:
If anyone wants to say what Theo Jansen’s doing isn’t art, then I say let’s all give up art and do what he’s doing instead. It would be, I think, a wonderful thing to see his giant bug-devices centipede-stepping up the beach, wings aflutter in the wind from the sea. We wouldn’t have to “get it.” There would be no hush or stilted seriousness, but I think if I was walking one way on a beach, and Jansen’s art went walking the other, then I could rightly say, “this is what it’s like to be alive.”
I think it’s a plausible mission for artists to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit, to steal from something Kurt Vonnegut once said. I think it’s good for art to surprise us, and that might be the only way to make us appreciate what it is to be human. If I had to name a living artist who pulled that off, I might reply, “Leo Sewell and Theo Jansen did.”