Wow, what a title. All I can hope is that one day I do this for money which comes along with having an editor which will add snappy, less literal titles to my writing. Anyway. Hi! I took a week off, which was really weird. It’s weird how fast we get used to things – whether that’s working for less than a living wage in order to be employed in our dream industry or committing deeply to a pet project that doesn’t bring you any money or notoriety.
What a vibe! Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what sets art museums apart from other types of museums. When I participate in more general museum professional development, it often feels like the content isn’t exactly for me. All museums offer wonderful things and much of what I write about here is pretty universal. In the future I’d love to drill down more into the specifics challenges and joys of working in different types of museums (yes, even more so than in Museum Nerds, Codified) and explore more about the Venn Diagram of museums Today, I’m going to talk less about museums and start with just the art part. (That’s what I ask for at the salon haha get it)
Engaging with art is different from engaging with historical information or material culture (aka the physical objects/resource/spaces that humans use to define their culture) or learning about science, etc. There is a ton to be learned from artworks. But, artworks are not merely historical documents – even when they are also historical documents. Art is material culture, but it is also something different from material culture. Art is imbued with meaning beyond the meaning assigned to it via its use, the way a teacup or sofa or battlefield has meaning. When I talk about looking being different than learning, often that means that we need to also teach the historical or social significance of an artwork, but sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes it means learning to look and learning how to engage with artwork. Art is more than the sum of its parts and what’s written on a wall label – more on that in a moment.
Sometimes I think part of what makes art seem inaccessible is that in writing about it, we tend to overcompensate for the fact that art does not always translate easily into words. Now, some art is more expressive or spiritual than others, sure. The process of making art is not always transcendent, sure. Without spending an extra 1,000 words splitting hairs over the different functions of art, let’s set the parameter today that we’re talking about art that is expressive, or engages with concepts that exist outside of language. We’re talking about human creativity.
Creativity is not always fun by any means, which is another way that we make art inaccessible. Fun can’t be serious, so we focus on the serious part of creativity, the feeling called to create, the emotional impact, the part that feels like taking activism to the streets. The fun part of creating or experiencing art gets leached out. But here’s a secret: the fun and the serious often go together in art. In fact I would (and am about to) argue that the best art marries the fun and the serious, and that art is most important when it is fun and serious.
When you work in the arts, you are constantly made to feel like art is either very serious (usually from other people who work in the arts) or that it’s a frivolous luxury that is very fun (usually from people who do not work in the arts). Like any job, it’s usually some of both and neither, but this onslaught of qualifying what art is supposed to feel like is very exhausting. Enter Blue Period, an anime (the first anime I’ve watched since Sailor Moon! Fun fact about me: I’ve always desperately wanted to do a group Sailor Moon costume but never have had enough friends. That’s why I spend my weekends blogging.) Blue Period follows a high-achieving high school student who doesn’t care about school or really anything in his life until he begins to express himself through art. What I really love is the way the narrative runs through all the tropes about going into the arts: it’s a waste of time (see the above panel in which the protagonist questions himself for wanting to do something “just for fun”; proficiency in art is “just talent” or intrinsic genius; not “getting” it. These tropes are expertly countered with depicting the rigor of study, explaining the principles and elements of art that make a compelling artwork, and constantly reminding us of art’s function in society and community (as in this panel where the protagonist using a drawing to express admiration for his mother). Watching it is helping me remember that art is more than the sum of its parts – more than the artist’s biography, more than the year it was made, more than its provenance, more than the social context it was created in.
I’ve talked before about how working in the arts, we constantly get in our own way trying to prove that art is IMPORTANT and MEANINGFUL. It’s not all on us – out society devalues what isn’t profitable, and so we turn creativity into something IMPORTANT to make it profitable via grants and corporate funding just to keep it alive. Blue Period is brilliant at balancing awareness of art not being taken seriously, while taking it seriously.
Inspired by the anime, my wheels got turning on art that I’ve been looking at for years, and how much of the best art is fun and serious. For example, Virgil Ortiz says “art saves lives,” but his art is some of the most fun. Like a lot of Native American and particularly Pueblo artists, Ortiz was born into a family of makers. Art is serious – it is a carrier of culture, connecting active artists like Ortiz to generations of ancestors, and connecting Pueblo culture to the world outside of their community. But it is also fun – art-making brings people together. Ortiz has an empire of wearables, video, ceramics, prints, and more, and his futuristic work uses the visual language of sci-fi and superheroes to appeal to broad audiences. It’s edgy, sexy, clever and undeniably cool. In other words – it’s fun.
At the same time, Ortiz’s art is serious. His edgy, sexy pieces often reflect queer culture, asserting his presence as a queer Indigenous person. His futuristic superhero themes are based in telling the true story of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt , what he calls the “first American revolution” in which Pueblo people overthrew their Spanish colonial oppressors. By continuing to retell this history, Ortiz’s work asserts Indigenous agency and acts as a constant reminder that Indigenous people have their own history, and have not been simply acted on by Euro-American history. How healing for Ortiz and his community to have this crazy, sexy, cool (sorry I had to) body of work, international notoriety, and through it all, assert their presence and strength? It’s fun, and serious.
Another icon of fun and serious art is Nick Cave – who also happens to be my favorite artist of all time. (Save these fun facts for Museum Drip trivia when I hit it big.) Soundsuits! Giant, glittering installations! For years and years I knew nothing about the source inspiration for Cave’s work – I simply delighted in the tactile nature, delightfully relatable materials and unusual spatial qualities of his work. As it turns out, his artistic practice is nearly always concerned with navigating the world in a Black body and as a Black and queer person. The first Soundsuit was inspired by the Rodney King riots in L.A. in 1991. I didn’t know this for a long time because Soundsuits are so vibrant, dynamic, exciting, and fun. But they are armor. Finding a way to express your fear and anger is armor. Thus, art = armor. And not in the fake way where you hide behind it as a coping strategy. In the real way, like in the His Dark Materials series where the polar bears’ armor is their soul. Fortunately the NY Times already published a long ass article about Nick Cave from this exact perspective – so you can read that next and we can save words here.
Forgive my all-male examples today (feel free to head over to Can you Name 500 Women Artists if you’re getting worried about me), but another art experience that this concept makes me think of is James Turrell. My first-ever Turrell time happened this past summer at Mass MoCA and it was VERY silly and also, very serious. I was alone and I’m so happy that I was. First, I walked down a pitch-black corridor into a pitch-black room, having to keep one hand out in front of me so I didn’t walk face-first into a wall. Then, I sat in pitch-blackness alone, freaking out that someone else was going to come into the pitch-black room. I alternated between feeling peace and wonder, and picturing what exact circumstances could lead to my being murdered inside of an artwork. Next, I put on plastic booties and walked through a picture frame into a room of pure light with four strangers who happened to be on a double date. It was awkward, but it was also one of the most mesmerizing, calming and magical experiences I’ve ever had. I could easily teach a class about what Turrell’s artwork means and how the trajectory of Western art history culminated in his immersive and experiential explorations of light, but I can’t teach how it feels to feel the call of the neon pink void and to want to lay down on a lavender cloud and leave all worldly concerns behind. It’s fun, and it’s serious.
These examples may lead you to believe that only contemporary art is fun and serious. I could give you endless examples of specific artists or works of art that fit the brief (and they wouldn’t all be men, I promise), but the purpose of this conversation is to recognize that the fun is equally important to the serious. It’s something we frequently miss the mark on in the art world. I wrote about art & preserving our humanity a little over a year ago and to this day it’s one of my least-viewed posts, which I can’t help but feel speaks to our discomfort with admitting that art makes us happy. The tricky thing here is that being happy is important. Things that strengthen our sense of self, bring us joy, connect us to our communities and to ourselves – those things are important. AOC didn’t specifically call out the arts, but in an Instagram live this week about the censure of Rep. Paul Gosar, she talked about how nihilism and supremacy are inextricably tied. We make a lot of jokes in the arts and in museums about nothing mattering because, well, we are very tired. But as AOC talks about towards the end of the video, community, helping one another, finding joyful moments of connection are the opposite of nihilism. Art and creativity fit into that category, I think. Lizzo also says that we can save the world, if we save ourselves. It’s hard to save ourselves if we don’t enjoy life.
So, what is the museum’s role in all this? I’d say it’s to not throw the Van Gogh babies out with the racist bathwater, right? And to balance explaining the problems with the history of art and museums with making the art museum a welcoming place . Teach visitors that whatever artwork makes them feel, is o.k., and that we are there to help them learn why the artwork is in a museum if they want that. Provide hands-on opportunities to make space for feeling that surge of creativity. Translate some of the experiences for children into moments of playfulness for adults. Encourage people to take fashion show pics with artworks. Encourage joy. Remind people that they are human and that artists are actually also human. Let people touch the art. Let them steal a suit of armor if they want. Haha what?