What if we were to look at a museum like we look at a menu: with the intention of choosing one thing to spend the next 30 minutes (or hours of you are a nice, slow, eater) enjoying. Who has ever heard of going into a museum for less than two hours? Is there even any value in that? You have paid you ten bucks for entrance, maybe you have waited in a line of sorts, not to mention you found the museum; you want to get cultured, you want your time and money’s worth. The other day I went to a talk with cultural commentator, Philippe Daverio (for all those Italian speakers out there) and he brought up some good points about the way we consume culture. It got me thinking: what if the whole way we are approaching “getting our moneys worth of culture” is flawed? What if one “gets cultured” not by spending infrequent long, arduous, hours in cultural institutions but instead learns from sporadic whims of curiosity that leads him or her to want to pop into a museums, for the sake of answering a question maybe, or seeing something specific. Going into a museum in order to answer a question, that’s a thought. Of course, one can go into a museum to just look. That is the epitome of art: aesthetic. But how long can looking last you until it just makes you over saturated, numb, and exhausted?
To begin to answer these questions, lets think about another art form: music. Nowadays people rarely buy music, they download it online. There are a variety of music stations online that curate playlists for you, and help you discover new tunes. YouTube videos pepper everyones Facebook new feed, and new songs are a staple of peoples cultural diet. Why is it that people talk about music casually, and in the everyday, while the discussion of a painting is mainly reserved for those who have defined themselves as “art” people. Everyone listens to some kind of music, does everyone look at some kind of art? I argue no. So what is it about music that is more approachable, shall we say. For one it is a more direct experience. You hear it and you have an immediate reaction to it. It also allows you to be involved right away; learn the words and you can sing along at any point. Music is also something that can be browsed quickly. If you don’t like what you hear, you skip it. Or, if you really liked what you heard, you can repeat it. One can have and experience music on their terms.
Now, visual art is not so easily malleable. To experience it in its full glory you have to move, you have to walk around. Yes, you can skip over something if you want, but let’s be honest. When you look at a work of art, almost everyone I know wants to “get it.” People want to at least try to decipher it before moving on. But my question is: what is there to decipher? Do people feel the same need about music? If they skip over a song they don’t like, so they feel like they are culturally ignorant? I argue no, they just have other tastes. What is it about visual arts that people feel as though there is a “right” way to look at art, that there are certain things one must see? Well, this could be thanks to the art historical cannon which has declared famous artists, artistic trends, and categories for all visual objects. Now, these categories are important because they help us see shifts in our culture, and they help us to understand what social fabrics allowed for what kind of aesthetic objects to be conjured up, what caused certain inspirations for artists. But, by the same token these categories also have created a rigid structure into which people feel they need to fit their tastes. The funny thing is, these tastes were created by collectors, people who were following their own tastes free from societal dictates.
So say there was no cannon. Say we entered into a museum just to view one object that we liked, or to see one time periods art that intrigued us. Say we did not spend hours on end walking through museums in order to gain some kind of educated insight. Say museums were spaces that breathed a bit more in that people would come and go for 30 minutes. How would that kind of an institution feel? What kind of learning materials would be needed? What then would the role of the museum be? Quite a few questions here to say the least. And I also want to say: art should not aim to be music, or any other form of art than visual. That is where its value (whatever it may be for any individual) comes from. But, why is it that music can be casually accepted into one’s identity while art has a barrier to entry? In making the museums a space for coming and going on a whim as opposed to planned day long visits change the perception of how we learn and appreciate art? Is it that art presents us with more layers of meaning thus we have a harder time simply browsing as if the museum was a Pandora station? I commend those who put in long days in museums, but I also encourage more infrequent visits. Who knows what you might find in a corner tucked away that strikes your fancy for no other reason than because it, well, strikes your fancy. This is art speaking to you, and only you. That sounds like a productive start to grasping this infamous “culture” thing to me.