Friday, September 16, 2011

To See, or Say You Saw? - Musings on Museum Behavior

I love art. I love museums. But I do not love your average museum-goer.

Yesterday, my sister published a piece on museum admission prices, the very day that I took in the Picasso exhibit at the De Young, where general admission is $25 a head. While the exhibit itself was stimulating (though I have a few bones to pick with the curator), the gallery crowd got on my nerves, and not just because of its size.

It's always a problem, with a big-name artist: lots of people go just to say they went. With Picasso, this issue seemed to be magnified to the nth degree, because his work can be so difficult to absorb. I first noticed it as I stood for a good 5 minutes in front of "Musicien assis" (which translates as "seated musician"), pictured right. As I let the sketch soak in, I became aware that everyone around me was giving it a cursory glance and moving on.

When I experience art, it is the pieces that are hard to wrap my mind around that I enjoy most. But as I moved through the galleries, paying more attention to the behavior of the other visitors, I was reminded that this is the opposite attitude to most museum patrons. They come to see the famous pieces--the ones they recognize. They'll look at "problematic" pieces, as long as they recognize them. They'll look at pieces they don't recognize, as long as they're not difficult to take in. But if it's not famous, and it's not obvious, it's not worth looking at.

My friend Kay, my mother, and my better half were with me. When I shared my thoughts, my partner chimed in that he had heard several people commenting on the lovely picture frames. Picture frames? There are 6 rooms of Picassos around you, and you're looking at the picture frames? Kay then told me about a trip to a museum in Barcelona, where she observed visitors pausing in front of the art only as long as it took to take a photo. This kind of stuff boggles my mind. Nobody wants to see your amateur pictures of art, when there are hundreds of websites selling quality prints online.

Maybe my memory's faulty, but I think these visitors were more the exception than the norm when I was growing up. But increasingly (and I think social networking websites are partly to blame for this), people are doing things more for the documentation than for the experience. So next time you're thinking of going to a museum just to say you went, do me a favor. Save yourself the $25, and go only as far as the gift shop. From there, you can check in on FourSquare and Facebook, buy yourself a couple of postcards, and you've as good as gone.


Brendan Dwyer said...

At least there was the little girl telling her dad "that there are kids in kindergarden who could do that" to almost make up for the obnoxiousness of a lot of the grown ups. Priceless.

Sally's Trove said...

Food for thought, indeed. Several years ago I attended a Van Gogh exhibit in Philadelphia. It was so packed with people and the space so depressingly claustrophobic that it took all my will power to focus on what I was spending my $25 for. To your point about experiencing lesser known works, I found myself completely engrossed in the artist's earliest sketches, landscapes and portraits, most of which I'd never seen before. Although I was in the oppressive gallery and wanting to rip my hair out at first, focusing on these early works took me far, far away from the maddening crowd. Now that I look back, I do wish those other people had just gone to the gift shop.