I have a lot of plans for my sabbatical. Yesterday I discovered that my sabbatical may have a few plans for me.
Through a series of events not entirely of my making, over the past six weeks or so I have visited an unusually high number of museums, most either dedicated to or housing some contemporary art. It started in St. Paul de Vence, where our class trip took us to the Fondation Maeght. Since then, I have also hit the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice; the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston; the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and finally, yesterday, the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln.
None of this may seem unusual if you’re a “museum person”. For many people, visiting museums is the highlight, if not the purpose, of travel. I’m not one of those people.
The first of my recent string of museums, the Fondation Maeght, was a particular challenge, as most of the art there was odd and, frankly, ugly. (I’d share pictures, but the museum charged an addition 5€ for the privilege of taking photographs.) Think animal skulls and wire and huge frames filled with black bird feathers or evergreen branches. I walked around, laughing occasionally at some of the truly bizarre pieces, regarding the art with one overwhelming thought: I don’t get it.
Things were a bit better at the MAMAC in Nice, in part because the museum provided greater context for the different works. Sometimes a little information about the artist’s background and the cultural moment in which he or she worked goes a long way.
Still, there were a number of pieces – like the one on the left there, that I looked at and thought, C’mon, really? Is that art? One exhibit, by the artist known only as “ben”, asked that very question in his installation (see photo above).
In a way, I think all of these earlier museum visits, coupled with a debate in my French class about art, primed me for my experience at the DeCordova.
The DeCordova currently has an exhibit called Work Out. It is the Museum’s first outdoor exhibition. Every month they provide a guided tour of the four installations and I happened to be there for the July tour. I also happened to be the only person on the tour. The docent, a very interesting young man who is himself a sculptor and art educator (soon to be heading to medical school), was engaging and earnest and open in the way that only Midwesterners can be, and the tour was terrific.
The four pieces that make up Work Out can generally be classified as social practice or social engagement art, which is something I’d never heard of before yesterday. The tour was interesting enough that I failed to take any pictures of the four works, but I’ll talk about one of them. Several trees from the DeCordova were felled during Hurricane Sandy, and a group called FutureFarmers will be leading workshops, or a “Tree University”, to turn the trees into something else. Maybe a canoe or a boat; there will be lessons for the public in pencil-making. All of their activities are being done to further explore Thoreau’s statement that “Men have become the tools of their tools”.
The docent and I had a lively discussion about this, and about each of the four installations, many of which I’d classify as social or community education activities. They seem like the kind of thing you’d provide at a botanical garden, or a workshop on environmental stewardship. Interesting, sure, but art? Where is the art? Is it in the process? Or in the performance of instructing others? Or in the impact of the experience on the participants? Where is the distinction between art and craftsmanship? Since all of the exhibits are temporary, by design, how do you conceive of art when there is no resulting object, nothing left to admire or engage with when all is said and done?
We talked a lot, too, about the “I don’t get it” response. Our conversation helped me rethink that response, and to see it for what it is: it’s insufficient. More than that, it’s lazy. (Particularly if one has willingly paid money – as I did at all but one museum – to be exposed to this art.) It’s a failure of my curiosity. There’s a sort of stubbornness in my refusal to ask questions, or my unwillingness to have my perspective changed.
I realized yesterday that if I’m going to put myself in proximity to this kind of art – or any art – then I have an obligation to engage with it, question it. I don’t have to like it – that’s an important distinction. It’s perfectly ok to decide that a work doesn’t speak to me, or I can’t relate to it, or I just flat-out don’t like it. (Edited to add: after thinking about it for a few days, even with this attempt at seeing art through a new lens, I stand by my original assessment of the Fondation Maeght. The art there was angry, and ugly, and pretentious. Plus, laughing my way through that museum with Ian, like a couple of badly behaved school kids, remains one of my favorite memories of France.) But it’s not ok to write something off because it doesn’t immediately match up with my (admittedly narrow) understanding of “Art”.
I sound like a bit of a scold, which is not at all my intention. This message is really self-directed. It’s fine if you don’t like art, and opt NOT to put yourself in proximity to art, and thus avoid these questions altogether. There’s no human obligation to look at paintings or sculpture or any other form of art. It is safe to say, however, that there is a human impulse for self-expression, for beauty, and for sense-making. The ways in which artists satisfy those impulses and respond to the frequent chaos of our world deserve my attention and my attempts at understanding. It’s not a lesson I expected to learn during this time, but like I said, it seems that my sabbatical has some plans of its own…