Art: Check the backpack at the door

A couple of pandas imitate life behind the glass at a museum in Chengdu, China. Adam Fotos

A couple of pandas imitate life behind the glass at a museum in Chengdu, China. Adam Fotos

By Adam Fotos

I don’t have a problem with art museums. I understand their importance. They tend to have art, and they tend to be good places to see art (lots of it) at the same time. Eventually I’ll hold my own shows in them, and perhaps someday they will even buy my work. Sure, now if I walk into an art museum, the guards inevitably tackle me, breaking off both of my arms like an old G.I. Joe to remove my backpack, but that’s forgivable. The guards have to enforce the rules, and I don’t need arms to see art.

I just wish something were different. The art museum’s clean, white walls with polished wood floors don’t exactly seem to be the best places for art to live. Sterile and reality-free, these places are full of a kind of formaldehyde that preserves paintings and sculpture in a presupposed eternal nexus where the art is not in the “real” world, but where people from the real world can come to see it.

If the only place a person ever experiences art is at an art museum, it’s as if they’ve gone through their whole life and only experienced animals as stuffed carcasses – not even visiting zoos where at least the animals breathe and eat, but only knowing the animals as glass-eyed objects of taxidermy. They may be posed in an environment that is accurately recreated down to the last leaf, but the animal is never going to attack, even if the thin plate of glass weren’t there. That transparent barrier isn’t for the dead beasts but for the viewer.

Similarly, art museums pluck a painting from its context in the real world and plop it down in a simulated art world, the museum gallery. The museum institutionalizes, formalizes and contextualizes with a small card that gives us its name, genus, place of origin and a brief description on why we’re looking at this two-dimensional plane set in a beautiful gold frame and maybe behind glass.

As an institution, the art museum acts as a medium between the viewers and the painting. Many people still have in their mind that we need the museum to direct us as to what is “good,” or what is even “art.”

We let the museums tell us what we’re seeing. More and more people seem to be wandering around museums with headphones, as a voice reveals the mystery behind a particular painting or sculpture. Only certain works are explained, and those “explained” works always have more clusters of people, while a beautiful piece that has evaded art history books sits next to it, quietly unobserved.

We often find ourselves looking for titles and labels when we see a work with which we’re unfamiliar. When I was in China, I went to an exhibition of Pablo Picasso’s etchings. All of the works had titles, but since they were written solely in Chinese, I could only read the date. As I walked around the art museum, I was thinking about how these works fit into my ideas about Picasso and how his ink drawings resonated with the Chinese calligraphy I had seen earlier that day. While I was looking at a brushstroke that was now a matador, a Chinese woman asked me in English, “How do you understand these without titles?”

I was kind of thrown off and I said that, well, I was a painter and had studied a lot of Picasso, but did understanding really come from being “studied?” I was engaged with the forms and figures so simply rendered, yet conveying grand drama on a little piece of paper. Did I really need the titles, even if I didn’t know who this Picasso guy was, to appreciate what I was seeing?

If we allow the art museum to direct us as viewers of art, we allow the art museum to direct what art is and what art is capable of being. The museum seeks only a passive dialogue with the viewer, not active engagement. The viewer is not asked to inform the work or really bring anything to the museum.

Art can be seen as a product of experience, but it can also be a field on which our varying perspectives can play. We all have accumulated perspectives and ways of seeing the world that we carry with us, be they from other cultures, literature or lived experiences. These things can all inform a work of art and bring higher value, but what are we asked when we approach the museum? Please leave your backpacks at the door.

Adam Fotos is a graduate student in FAA. His column appears on alternate Mondays. He can be reached at [email protected]