Monday, August 03, 2009

Tours, grand and less so

Michael Kimmelman asks why we bother lining up to look at art, and concludes the following:

So tourists now wander through museums, seeking to fulfill their lifetime’s art history requirement in a day, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of material they pass by rather than the quality of concentration they bring to what few things they choose to focus upon that determines whether they have “done” the Louvre. It’s self-improvement on the fly.
According to Kimmelman, The Culture is in bad shape because we rush through museums. He relates this complaint to that of the Slow Food movement - as with all negative responses to modern times, it all comes down to Things Today Just Move So Fast Not Like In My Day. First the railroads, and for the slow-pace nostalgic, it's been downhill ever since. And as with all arguments about the failings of Young People Today (or in this case, People Today), we are provided with a Golden Age against which we may contrast our own:
Travelers who took the Grand Tour across Europe during the 18th century spent months and years learning languages, meeting politicians, philosophers and artists and bore sketchbooks in which to draw and paint — to record their memories and help them see better. Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look.
He's right that technology comes into play, but it seems that the main difference isn't so much the camera (or the camera-phone) as the airplane, particularly cheap air travel. Going to Europe is no longer restricted to the cultural elite. Nor, for that matter, is going to America for a Western European - if that were the case, the hordes around every lower Broadway shoe store would not be quite so impressive. Crossing the Atlantic is hardly free, but it's now available to those for whom "meeting politicians" is not an option.

So, why do people - tourists and locals alike - go to museums? The easy answer is, because it's expected. With tourists, it's embarrassing to return from a European trip and, when asked what you did while you were away, to say, "Rome Pub Crawl 2009!!! Woohooo!" So museums thus attract a fair number of visitors who would really rather be enjoying a lower drinking age, or shopping for shoes. And with locals, it's a sign of a deprived background to have, say, grown up in NY and not seen the Met, which partly explains why schoolchildren are so often shuttled there against their will.

Kimmelman writes, dare I say sneeringly, of a trip to the Louvre, "A few game tourists glanced vainly in guidebooks or hopefully at wall labels, as if learning that one or another of these sculptures came from Papua New Guinea or Hawaii or the Archipelago of Santa Cruz, or that a work was three centuries old or maybe four might help them see what was, plain as day, just before them." He goes on to explain, "If you have ever gone to a museum with a good artist you probably discovered that they don’t worry so much about what art history books or wall labels tell them is right or wrong, because they’re selfish consumers, freed to look by their own interests."

Asking visitors not to look at wall labels isn't a way of liberating them to 'just look', but is instead ordering them to have blind faith in The Curator, to believe that just because an object is in a museum, it is Important, and is thus worth more than a minute of your time. The labels, if done right, tell you why the sculpture of a dog you're supposed to ponder with such intensity is of more interest than the actual dogs outside, the painting of a socialite more special than the real-life ones lunching around the Met. If we did not know why certain objects were supposed to be of more significance than others, most museum visitors would find as many compelling things to look at on the block surrounding a given museum as within the museum itself. If we are to accept that some objects matter more than others, and that experts are within their rights to determine which, it's only fair that we, the ignoramuses to whom this is not immediately apparent upon glancing, context-free, at a given work, should be in on what led these experts to make their decisions.

Unless there's a particular museum I've been wanting to see - and for whatever reason, these museums, or the parts of the permanent collections I've been looking forward to, are always closed whenever I visit a place. Brussels, Antwerp, and Amsterdam, why must you keep 'refurbishing' your late medieval paintings whenever I'm nearby? - I prefer just walking around either tourist or residential areas to lining up, getting the ticket, proving to the security team that I am in fact not there to blow the place up, and then, when the payment ('see, I'm a student, look at this weird purple card you've never seen before, I promise that's what it means') and metal detection is over, catching all kinds of new colds from all over the First World, what with being so tightly packed before each work. Wandering around gives you a better sense of a city than does finding out which works from around the world that city's museum managed, for whatever reasons, to acquire. Entering a major European art museum, much like going into an H&M, you all of a sudden feel you could be anywhere. Whereas getting yelled at for not having exact change at a Parisian patisserie, but then finding that the pastry well makes up for it, that you need to go to Paris for.

What I do appreciate about museums is sometimes but not always the art. Often, it's just fun to look at all the people from around the world who've congregated, to see how they dress and wear their hair, to listen to the various languages they speak and attempt to guess what countries they're from, to attempt to figure out whether harem pants are on their way out or, rather, about to gain a following across the Atlantic, and so forth. This activity also works just fine in non-museum settings, but on rainy days, a museum can't be beat.


Anonymous said...

This is just another variant on NY Times writers perennial complaint that they have to share Paris with tourists from flyover country.

Phoebe said...

Perhaps, but it goes well beyond just one newspaper, and I tend to think the complaint is not only about gauche American tourists, but also about lower-class European ones. Or... maybe it is just about Americans, because for the subset in question, Europe can do no wrong, and all that is aesthetically problematic for such an individual in Europe (packaged, processed foods, obesity, people who haven't read Dante and Goethe) can be conveniently ignored.

PG said...

I don't think places like the Louvre or MOMA ought to have permanent collections; it's simply a too-muchness to have the Mona Lisa jostling Greek statues. They ought to be used for large exhibitions drawing from others' collections. I thought the Matisse-Picasso exhibit that MOMA did several years ago in Queens was exactly what their mission ought to be: providing a specific perspective for viewers on these artists by borrowing from other museums' collections in order to raise questions about influence, friendship, etc.

The museums, as opposed to specific exhibits, that I have enjoyed -- maybe even loved -- have been those dedicated to smaller slices instead of presuming to gobble up all the world's art: the Picasso museum in Paris, the Rodin house in Paris, the Dali house outside Barcelona, the Cloisters in NYC. A little less comfy but still good: the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam (the museum quarter was the only part of the city I liked). They are small enough to be cohesive and have a ... theme? atmosphere? something like that. They don't have that Supermarket of Culture feeling I get from the big museums, and they tend to be well-integrated with their surroundings and to have nice, fun gardens instead of terrifyingly formal ones. Also, I thought it was hugely appropriate, in an entirely negative way, for the Louvre to play a role in the Da Vinci Code, itself a kind of McD's of Culture.

As for wall labels, I find them absolutely necessary if I don't already know what I'm looking at. I found Japan a very difficult place to be a tourist because the Japanese seem to assume that if you're coming to the shogun's palace, you must already know who the shogun was exactly, why he was important, what's so cool about the bloody floorboards, etc. The only museum in Japan that I really liked was the Manga museum in Kyoto, not because I have any interest in Manga (I've never read any), but because of the copious, multi-lingual explanations of what the hell I was seeing.

Dr. Psycho said...

If you haven't read Mark Twain's _The Innocents Abroad_, you might find it of interest -- it's basically the Gilded Age version of the same complaint about how "just anybody" can travel to Europe these days, leavened by an acute awareness on Mr. Clemens' part that he was one of the "anybody".

-- Dr. Psycho (formerly known as misterniceguy1960)

kei said...

I've been meaning to blog about art museums! The Art Institute just opened up their new modern wing, which is a great building and it's nice to be reunited with all the permanent collection that was in storage for almost a year now. I share many of your sentiments, especially the one about people-watching. Listening to kids is the best, especially in French! Also, my mom is as snooty as this Kimmelman guy, except in the opposite direction. She calls art museums out for housing lots of "garbage"; a nice contrast for thinking about this Times piece, haha. I have some pictures of her and my grandma at the new wing, so I'll have to post those and some comments on art museums. Thanks for the reminder/inspiration!

Phoebe said...


Agreed re: the Cloisters and the Picasso Museum - both go beyond just presenting the art, but without becoming theme-park experiences in their use of space. I'd be all for permanent collections if they had something to do with the geographical area of the museum, but as it now stands, it's very easy to forget if you're in the Louvre, the Met, etc., until you encounter one of the works they're known for holding. I really liked the museum in Bruges, which had a lot of Flemish and Netherlandish art and, if I remember right, not much else. I wouldn't say there should be nothing else, but a slant towards something specific to the area would make the whole enterprise more interesting, both for tourists and for locals wanting to know about their own place's history.

Dr. Psycho,

Nice name, huh. But yes, that book sounds interesting.


Kimmelman doesn't really allow for the possibility that people refrain from staring at a given work for hours on end because they do actually know/feel something about art, and don't think that work is worth their time. You should get your mother in on the discussion as well!

PG said...

"Kimmelman doesn't really allow for the possibility that people refrain from staring at a given work for hours on end because they do actually know/feel something about art, and don't think that work is worth their time."

But Kimmelman says,

"So tourists now wander through museums, seeking to fulfill their lifetime’s art history requirement in a day, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of material they pass by rather than the quality of concentration they bring to what few things they choose to focus upon that determines whether they have “done” the Louvre."

There's also what you quoted from Kimmelman, about artists knowing by their own lights rather than those of the books what is worth their looking at.

Phoebe said...


The "quality" referred to in the passage you cite is of the concentration the anonymous art ignoramus walking through the museum brings to certain pieces of art. What I'm saying Kimmelman ignores is the possibility that there are people who are not necessarily art professionals, who nevertheless form opinions on art the way one expects people do on books - something is either good or it isn't, should have been published/hoisted up at the Met or not. His comment about getting an art history education all in one go suggests he imagines visitors with any pre-existing ideas about art from somewhere other than guide books and wall labels (either other books, coursework, previous museum visits, or just a keen aesthetic sense) to be a negligible minority. And while I'd agree with him that there may well be more people indifferent to art at museums Now than Then (although one does see this in at least one 19th C French novel), I seriously doubt the hordes are as uniformly hopeless as he claims, and tend to agree with Anonymous here that Kimmelman's argument comes down to someone sophisticated judging, in one swoop, the crowds from Jordache country.

That you bring up his quote about artists here suggests my point re: labels didn't come across, so let me explain. My point was that this approach is hardly 'liberation' from labels, because deciding which things in a museum 'inspire' you still means believing that because something's in a museum, it's inherently of value. If you truly don't care why an object is supposed to be important, you'd just as easily find one outside the museum.

Anyway, I found that bit about artists absurd, because it's not as though most artists - save the rare self-taught genius - enter a museum free of book knowledge of the art they're about to see. If they don't need to look at the labels, it's perhaps because they already have this information at the ready.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Phoebe on whom Kimmelman leaves out. I am educated on the history of the humanities in the West; I believe I can sit and tell you precisely why some of the motifs and techniques used in Dutch art of the Golden Age were critical to shaping so many of the dominant Western mores in modernism.

So when I visited the Rijksmuseum, I felt I was seeing something personally and professionally meaningful, something that had, at a deep social and cultural level, a fairly profound influence even on the incredibly local world I inhabit.

Of course, I am no art historian, nor anything remotely professional about art. But I enjoy museums. In the end, I don't really see the mystery, at least not for anyone with the slightest interest in critically reflecting on the importance of knowing anything at all about history. Without it, as some famous historian whose name escapes me said, one is like a leaf that does not know it is part of a tree.

I offer no opinion on what percentages of museum visitors actually maintain the latter interest, but I agree with Phoebe that Kimmelman is ignorant of such people.