November 3, 2007

Still, Pissed At The National Gallery


I've got a ton of things to do and write, but I can't, because I've got this really depressing incident I saw the National Gallery of Art yesterday lodged in my brain. I'm not a big believer of writing-as-catharsis, but at this point, I'll try anything.

Yesterday morning, the kid and I dropped off my wife for her doctor's appointment--we're at the every-2-weeks stage now, just nine weeks to go, uh yikes?--and headed off to our traditional post-OB-dropoff breakfast, at least during pumpkin pie season: McDonald's hotcakes & sausage.

I wanted to go to the Hirshhorn Museum, to see both the Morris Louis retrospective, and a light art exhibit that includes a spotlight-and-prism installation by our friend Olafur Eliasson. The kid's on a bit of a rainbow kick at the moment, so I asked if she'd like to go see some rainbow art, knowing full well what her answer would be.

hirshhorn_mlouis_stripes.jpgTaking the kid to see art, contemporary or otherwise, just seems like the most natural thing in the world to me. The scale, the abstraction, the diversity, it all seems perfect for engaging a little kid's attention, far more than traditional paintings-in-a-frame galleries, which are usually too high and too small for a knee-high or stroller-bound kid to even see. And kids don't have a prejudice that art has to be "about" something; visual interest, stimulation, and discovery are often plenty to make a work a success.

Louis made his giant, abstract works by pouring and channeling paint across his canvas. The kid was fascinated at the idea, and would pick out the colors and the overlaps, and she asked questions that frankly stump art historians, like how did he keep the paint from splashing, and how did he make straight lines? [Louis didn't let people watch him paint, even his wife, so the specific secrets of his techniques died with him.]

Upon seeing the Hirshhorn's own painting, Where, 1960 [top], she pronounced it her "very favoritest painting ever," an honor bestowed on only a handful of works in the last few months. Then as she entered the last room of the exhibition, which was filled with Louis's stripe paintings [Color Line, 1961 is at left], her face lit up, and she exclaimed, "Zips!"

It's the kid of mistake that warms a museum-going dad's heart. She was referring, as you know, to the vertical stripes--whether they're symbolic of man or a light source, or straightforward demarcations of space is open for discussion--Barnett Newman made by painting over masking tape, then pulling the tape off. [That's MoMA's Vir Heroicus Sublimus, 1950-51, below.]


Hunting for zips is what we do when we look at Newmans, so I said if she wanted to, we could go on a "zip trip," [we're big on rhyming these days] and find some more zips at another museum across the Mall. Much overeager jumping ensued.

[Oh yeah, the Eliasson installation elicited much jumping as well. The round, rotating prismatic donut sweeps the room with rainbows and light beams, which the kid chased and jumped over for at least 10 minutes. Then she declared that she wanted a spinning rainbow machine in her house, too, and I'm like, "You and me both, kid, but between the auction prices and the euro..." Here's a video of Round Rainbow, 2005, with voiceover from an annoying hipster math nerd.]

So off we went to the National Gallery, where Newman's 14-panel Stations of the Cross offers probably the highest concentration of zips on the planet. And so it was that, after chasing a 3-year-old, who was so excited to see the most austere Abstract Expressionism, she actually ran across the Mall, we entered the National Gallery. After a detour to blow on the Calder mobiles, we were crossing through the Rothko/Pollock/Clyfford Still room, where a docent was explaining a Still painting to a class of maybe 20 middle school kids seated on the floor:


"Who wonders why this is here? Who wonders why it's even art?" She waits and waits for sheepish hands to keep rising.

"Well, there are curators--do you know what that is? art experts who study and know what art is important enough to be in a museum--curators and art historians and other experts who say this is art, and even if it doesn't look like it's about anything and it doesn't make any sense, you just have to bear with it sometimes.

And with that, the arts education professional at America's Museum could go home for the weekend, confident that she'd successfully bored another 20 impressionable young minds out of caring about abstraction, modern art, and museums that don't have Archie Bunker's chair on display.

I just stood there, stunned, and part of me wanted to interrupt this idiot and singlehandedly save these kids from certain cultural oblivion by pointing out that Still was probably the first American artist to actually make an abstract painting, art that wasn't about something, and that even so, it still bears a remarkable resemblance to the landscapes of California and the West where he grew up. And that his incredible influence on the other artists in the room, who took up abstraction after him was only now being understood. And that he actually hated the art world merry-go-round of curators and critics and "experts" so much, he all but abandoned it and moved to a farm in Maryland to paint, and only a very few of his works are even in museums, and almost 95% of the art he made has never been seen by anyone outside his own family, but they're building an entire Clyfford Still museum right now in Denver...

But the kid had finished being a snake and crawling across the bench on her belly, and now she wanted to see her zips. And anyway, I don't know how much it'd help these kids' artistic futures if they thought of museums as the place where crazy-bearded yuppies let their kids run loose while they're rambling incoherently about the desert sun. Still, I hope Museum Lady gets saddled with a desk job before she can do any more harm.

PS And now that I'm done, I can't say it feels any better, because it only makes me realize how few people probably give a damn about art in general and modern art in particular, and how many people are probably thinking, "Dude, you know what, you are a crazy yuppie snob. Lighten up and let the kid watch Spongebob for Pete's sake." Also, now the day's shot.


sometimes, one must simply take a tip from the toddlers and put your hands over your ears and shout, 'I can't hear you, I can't hear you, lalalalal, so there!'

This does nothing for your eyes, however

that is incredibly lame. i've been really bummed about the state of customer service lately. and as more museums are trying to bring in customers and not art lovers, this falls in that category of shit service. and middle school kids?! they are old enough and just spongey enough to let her lesson sink in and become their reality about modern art. a couple years earlier or later, and they probably would have argued with her about it. now i'm pissed.

I don't know anything about Clyfford Still, but going by what comes up on a quick google image search, I like what I see.

oh yeah... "bearded"?

[it sounds better than "unshaven" -ed.]

"you just have to bear with it sometimes"

that's what my english teacher said about finnegans wake when I was twelve. I was all, "25 monkeys with a typewriter could have done that!"

[well, that I can understand. -ed.]

Yuppie snob or not, you're right. And you've made me feel sorry I haven't hunted down more art for my children to experience... yet!

Now I'm off to find out if you've blogged more about art elsewhere. I'd love to read or hear more!

[thanks for confirming what I long suspected: that I am indeed a yuppie snob. -ed.]

Today was Community Family Day at our local university's museum. It was billed as "a day of discovery transforming ordinary materials in to works of art for the whole family." Great. My mom is visiting and will love to take my almost 3 there. And we've been meaning to get to that museum. Theme sounds cool; he'll like checking out the art and will always dabble in a project.
My mom showed up and had to pay $3 for each of them (not a huge sum, but annoying. It is "Community Day" and all, and the fee not mentioned in PR or on website.)
They were hustled upstairs to a closed room where the project was. Each child was handed a styrofoam ball; at table there were different things to stick in it (pipecleaners, fake flower stems.) Not terrible, but NO connection to anything. Apparently if your doing a craft project in a building that has art in other rooms somewhere you are having a museum experience.
Are you kidding me? Way to get your community interested in art and your organization. Though mom and kiddo had a good time looking at and running around some sculptures outside.

Your story and today's museum experience are depressing. Art education can be so fun and so exciting. I once had a group of pre-k kids sitting in front of a huge Helen Frankenthaler painting. They loved it; you see them twitch with excitement. You ask them questions about what they see. You ask them to pick out a color, shape. You have them stand up, act like the color, act like the shape. They say, "That red bounces," "Green is sliding." Inevitably they ask about the artist, how she did it, etc. They offer more and more opinions. Totally amazing. And you look at the work anew.

Whew, thanks for letting me vent. On a more positive note this is reminding me that some of my favorite children's art books were recently re-released. I highly recommend Philip Yenawine's series for MoMA- titles like People, Places, etc. He was the art ed director (i think.) Books are fantastic with any age.

it's always best not to listen to people in museums. heh.

my wife (one of those art curators) was just talking about a local elementary school art teacher who showed her school kids an Andy Goldsworthy film and then took them down to the local pond and had them make their own Andy-Goldsworthy-sculptures. That's the kind of art teacher we want, not someone who just sticks pipe-cleaners into styrofoam balls. (although i could do that with the kids and not feel bad about it).

I love your approach to the art with the kid -- focusing on a theme or a style. our kids are still young, that we end up focusing on any figure/animal. But since they're becoming experts on colors, we can just say, "ok, let's find a red one!" and presto! we all get to enjoy art.

[we compared the NGA's Goldsworthy piles of stones to the giant pile of mulch in the sculpture garden. -ed.]

Well, I hate to hear stories like this. I hope you took the time to go to the customer service/information desk in the museum and speak to someone about it, best would be the head docent-type person. The docents should really be doing a better job than "this is art because I/we say so." I love the NGA and hate to hear that this is the level of teaching that goes on there. I think it feels like tattling, but sometimes you've got to do it.

For me, the Phillips Gallery is one of the better museums in DC. It's even nicer that it's off the Mall and gets more visitors for just the art instead of those just hitting all the museums on the Mall. Better docents, guided talks and more informative write ups of the art. And I like that it's in Phillips' old house, a more homey feel.

[it's hell with a stroller, but the kid loves walking up and down all those convoluted stairs connecting all the various annexes. -ed.]

That just makes me so mad. I always wondered why so many people considered museums a drag -now I know why.
I've been taking my Little Man to museums since he was born -he loves the colors, themes, excitement of the crowds, the feel of the rooms and of course the attention of the security guards. He's learned so much without my commentary because I want him to experience/discover it in his own way. In fact the very 1st time he said "WOW!" was in the Uffizi when he was 5 months.
I think I'm passing my love of art (in all forms) and museums to him and I would have seriously ripped into that docent. To squash young minds like that is inexcusable.

[I's say "wow" and someone roadtripping to the Uffizi with a 5mo baby, too. congrats. -ed.]

oh yeah, and I'm a yuppie snob -if that means I'm culturally literate!

I was so glad that your story didn't end with, "and then the docent turned to me and said, 'Please keep your child by your side at all times!'"
We lived in a truly artless town for a few years and the one time I tried to take my daughter to an art exhibit the sixteen year old girl reading a book at the front entrance said to me, "Be sure to keep your kid quiet. People want to look at the art in peace." Needless to say it wasn't quite the art experience I was looking for.
I grew up just a few streets down from a great sculpture park in St. Louis (Laumeier). It was a great introduction to art and the part it can play in your daily life (In fact I just looked at their site and it has a bunch of kids playing in one of the sculptures!). It is such a shame that as a society we isolate art from our lives. Placing it in a place where you feel you need to be on good behavior to enjoy it. Or that you only have access to it if you can afford to be a part of it. I love that your teaching your daughter to enjoy art on her own terms. That it is her own opinions that make the art real, not the choices of curators.

[now some of my best friends are curators, so I don't want to bag them completely. I would expect any real curator would be appalled at the crap the docent was shoveling out. also, the kid practices her art hands--behind the back--at home all the time. -ed.]

I love this story, especially reading about how excited your daughter was about visiting the galleries. My mother took me to see lots of art when I was young too, and I loved it.

you're a yuppie snob AND you're right.

fortunately there IS good art education for public schools out there, and not just for the privileged. my 5 yr old and her 6 yr old friend, both attending very diverse nyc public schools without gifted and talented programs, were at storm king (the upstate ny sculpture garden) together. when the tram operator said "andy goldsworthy" the 6 yr old said to the 5 yr old, "oh, my art teacher told us about him! he made giant collages, using materials from nature!" and when the tram operator said, "alexander calder" the 5 yr old said to the 6 yr old, "ooh, i know him! he made a cool circus out of wire!"

and my kid's class went on a field trip to the rubin museum of tibetan art last year. i chaperoned. the museum's educators ranged from decent to terrific, and we were accompanied by a grad student at bank street's museum education program who then came back to school and reinforced some of what the kids had learned and were most interested in, providing further projects for them. i'm used to field trips existing in a vacuum, so it was awesome to have this one actually integrated into class activities. (here's the kid's attempt at drawing a medicine buddha:

finally, my brother's a longtime museum curator. i know docents can be...a challenge. some are good; some, well, you have to bear with them sometimes.

The silver lining for this is that the middle school students probably weren't paying any attention to what she was saying.

I, too, was afraid she was going to chastise you for taking your daughter there. I wish my folks had gotten me started with art at such a young age. It took me quite some time to get rolling with it on my own.

I love to imagine the two of you wandering the art museums in DC. Maybe my 4-year-old and I will run into you there one day!

[re the paying attention thing, I totally agree. see you at the museum, -ed.]

[My comment isn't going to add value and it's not constructive, but I feel compelled to respond anyway.] I was in the gallery this weekend with my mother. We were in town for the WIMSA dedication, and I think our time trolling through the snapshots and Rauschenberg exhibits were more important to me. It's because my sisters and I were so often hauled out to the museum on conference days or Saturdays to see the art that is always on display and touring exhibits. When I was your daughter's age I picked out a Monet painting the same way she did. I came home with a $3 version of it and it's in my college apartment now, even though I'm not a big fan of impressionism, and I feel the same way. Part of me hope she is fond of paintings she likes now when she is older, too.
Because I live in the area, I've never been taken to the gallery with a class. I wander in frequently with my own ipod and tune out the tours and tourists and have never actually paid attention to any of the curators or students. I'm glad now that I haven't because I know I would interrupt and leave the gallery frustrated.
So I know that what happened is terrible, and part of me is heartsick to think that art has been "ruined" by someone else, but I have found so much delight in your experience, that I'm overwhelmed by giggles and my own fondness.
(I'm terribly sorry this has rambled and provided very little value to you, but thank you.)

I work at an art museum in Denver, Colorado--and denver has been given the entire Clyfford Still estate and is building a new museum for it--
Let's hope that all art museums can become more like Toby's Diner in this quote from Ray Oldenburg's book--

Where once there were places, we now find nonplaces. In real places the human being is a person. He or she is an individual, unique and possessing a character. In nonplaces, individuality disappears. In nonplaces, character is irrelevant and one is only a customer, shopper, client, patient or visitor, a body to be seated, an address to be billed, a person to be counted. In nonplaces one cannot be an individual or become one, for one's individuality is not only irrelevant but gets in the way. Toby's Diner was a place. The Wonder Whopper, which stands there now, is a nonplace.

[quoted with liberties from The Great Good Place by Ray Oldenburg]

Wow. That's so, so depressing.

I find the NGA to be pretty frustrating to visit with kids in general. Depending on the guard, they may or may not make me check my diaper bag, and combined with exhibits divided by spiral staircases and the lack of changing tables in some of the restrooms, there has to be a show that I'm dying to see before I'll take the kids there.

ANYWAY, the docent doesn't sound like a fan of the art, does she? It's a shame, because I'd think middle-schoolers -- showing early signs of cranky know-it-all teens but also still a bit malleable in their thinking -- could be a great audience for a discussion of art, commodity, and kitsch.

[the Hirshhorn, on the other hand, has the most spectacular stainless steel changing table on the market. But the guards there gave us way too much grief about seeing the Turrell installation with a kid, trying to get me to practically sign off on the warning sign about the darkness even after I told them we knew it well and had been there before. It's possibly the first time I've ever seen a Hirshhorn guard with a pulse. -ed.]

Currently working at a contemporary art museum here in Kansas City, I can confidently assure you that there are very, very few museum docents that deserve to be called "arts education professionals."

These people come out of nowhere, and they hurt as much as they help.

Museums are like all of the other institutions in our society in that they are primarily interested in enlarging, enriching, and expanding themselves. They are unlike other institutions in that they do this in ways most people aren't familiar with or don't understand.
"Why is this here" and "Is this art" are two different questions entirely, and are both difficult to answer in one breath. But the post-modern construct that "art is whatever people who have the power to define art say it is" is a pretty good starting point. The docent is, albeit naively, essentially correct.

Thanks for this posting, and for telling us about your experience. I am an art museum educator, and train all of our museum's docents, and I must say, it's a tough job.

Here's the situation: docents outnumber professional education staff more than 10 to 1 in most museums in this country, yet they are very often required to attend less than 30 hours of training per year (yep, I'm thinking the same thing . . . yikes!). At a single large art museum, docents can give tours to tens of thousands of visitors and school students each year (double yikes!).

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not blaming the docents themselves -- there are some phenomenal docent-educators out there, no doubt about it. But why do we have docents to begin with? Because museums have never allocated enough funds to Education departments so they can pay the proper staff of educators and specialized gallery teachers. So we get community members and students to volunteer based on their love for art. We send them through "docent bootcamp," and they begin leading young impressionable minds through the galleries.

I think museums need to dedicate more resources toward museum/gallery teaching, and take museum education more seriously. And keep the docents, but take their education and training more seriously. Teach them how to construct dialogues in the galleries, how to ask questions, and how to respond to statements like "I don't think this is art" or "my kid could paint that," which are some of the few truly educable moments in art museums.

I agree she was wrong to comment like that if they were paying her - but completely right in what she said nonetheless! The problem with art today is that anyone and i mean 'anyone' can make an abstract piece without needing talent - all you need is the right family connections, money and you are suddenly a famous artist demanding high prices for work that can be made by 3 year olds. As an artist who paints fantasy work I have become famous using only my talent and sheer hard work - I have friends who cannot paint yet attended the same Art colleges as me and only through having the 'right surname' can demand extortiate amounts of money per painting. This would not bother me if I thought they put expression and meaning, feelings...into it - but no - they laugh and say 'this is my latest piece of ****' pointing to a 'zip' - 'I already have a buyer for it and it took me about an hour - that's my holiday in the Caribbean - now all I have to do is talk some bull**** about the 'meaning' behind it.'
So excuse me for not being as enthusiastic as you lot about abstract art - the art galleries are run and controlled by the elite and not the talented - stay at home and watch your kid paint 'zips' for free mate!!!!LOL

[the sheer intellectual emptiness of this line of argument is almost embarrassing, especially coming from someone who claims to be an artist. Do you make art to dupe people or afford Carribbean vacations? If so, you're a failure. I suspect you make it for other reasons, though. As for abstraction, why don't you put some names to these supposed stories, rather than make shit like this up? As for the zips and Barnett Newman and Clifford Still, the artists specifically mentioned in the post, if you have any familiarity with art history at all, you'll know that neither of them were the kind of cynical bullshit hacks you claim your friends to be. Go study up on their histories--including the decades-long stretches they spent working on their abstract art with next to no recognition from the artworld, and no sales--then come back with your whining, self-justifying crap. -ed.]

I see that we have both had different experiences with abstract art - I am famous for my 'fantasy realism' work in another country as this one does not value my work. I am lucky to make money from my work although I know I could make much more if I gave up my morals. I have never painted for money or fame like my aquaintances and they know how I feel about their 'two-facedness' on the subject - the one face for press, gallery owners and customers and another for 'friends'.
I did have a similar experience to you yesterday however when I joined my 3 year olds school trip to an art gallery. The 'art education teacher' for the gallery thought my kids expanation for a Barbara Hepworth sculpture was the most appropriate ' a circle with a hole on a square' - boy did I laugh at that one!
But his best speech that left 30 mothers open mouthed and 30 children looking in horror was his description of a painting of the Aberfan Disaster - yes a painting of mothers weeping over their dead children's coffins - so maybe we do agree on one thing - art museams have not got a clue how to educate our children about art - abstract or otherwise!!!!


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Found you via stumble. I was raised by parents like you and didn't realize until I was about 30 that not everyone goes to art galleries FOR FUN. Hang in there -- and hope that your kids continue the tradition. There will always be fools ...

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