Saturday, March 17, 2007

the disquieted american

I have a clear, vividly embarrassing memory of visiting the National Gallery of Art when I was 11 or 12. I don't remember if I was on a field trip (Isn't it strange how the quality of elementary school field trips depends on one's home state? I was lucky to grow up outside of D.C.), but I do remember searching for the least representational, most abstract painting I could find--I think it may have been a Rothko--and sitting in front of it for a while, furrowing my brows and trying to appear pensive.

In retrospect, this awkward performance betrays two desires:

1. A genuine wish to unlock the meaning of a work of art that I had been told was complex and interesting.
2. A genuine wish for passerby to think to themselves, "How bright and sensitive she must be to appreciate such difficult art! How unlike her female peers, who, despite their more advanced physical maturation, lack this girl's emotional depth!

Over a decade later, I still recognize the same motivations--minus my ardent jealousy of my classmates and their training bras--when I visit or tour cultural sites. It's inevitable: I arrive at any museum/gallery/landmark burdened with at least ten different prescriptions' worth of anxieties, including my desire to think historically, my desire to think theoretically, my consciousness of the viewers around me (as in, I don't want to act like the dumb tourists
taking cheesy pictures), and my self-consciousness of my own overdetermined response. And then there's the lingering fear that I'm simply thinking too damn hard instead of just enjoying the experience, like John and Jane Doe from Iowa, who are talking too loudly, wearing the souvenir t-shirts they bought yesterday, and taking pictures of each other replicating the sexual poses in statues and paintings.

Since arriving in Italy, I've seen the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Forum, the Piazza Navona, the Fountain of Trevi, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Vatican. I've gazed at the Pieta (small and gleaming) and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (small and dark). After studying the relevant art historical periods at Yale, I feel intellectually prepared for these sights; such knowledge, however, only plays a small role in my ability to withdraw inspiration from them. I've found a greater sense of awe in basic things like sheer size (the piazza in front of St. Peter's Basilica, which is pictured, could fit a cozy neighborhood), intricate detail and workmanship, mandated silence or darkness, and a communal sense of wonder.

It's difficult to say if education and maturation have made erc a better tourist. A snobbier one, certainly. But while I'm no longer conscious of how others perceive me, I've grown regrettably self-conscious of my own perception. And also deeply resentful of John and Jane Doe's seemingly unadulterated spectatorial pleasure.


Mr.Wrongway said...

great post.

Mark B. said...

your hair looks good in these pictures. Rothko rocks too - simplicity is underappreciated in art.

PEG said...

Dammit, seeing you in Rome makes me want to be back there. I like to think historical or cultural knowledge doesn't enhance the tourist experience, what you feel when you're there is what matters -- but then I acquire that knowledge and it always does.

Jacey said...

Ha ha! I always felt the same way. When I worked at the art museum in Tucson, I would constantly give those "Jane and John Doe" types dirty looks. The nerve of them!

(By the way, I'm so glad I stumbled across your blog. I hope you're doing well!)

randall said...

There was a great line on Six Feet Under in which the art teacher (Olivier) says something along the lines of "You know great art because it makes you want to vomit".

During that episode I sat back and chuckled to myself that I must never have seen great art.

Soon after that I was in the Tate Modern in which I saw some art that was exceptionally viscerally evocative. Olivier was right.

Shakespeare's plays were performed for the masses and loved by them. Nobody had a Ph.D in English lit, but it was entertaining in a relevant, visceral way.

Art should be experienced first at this level.

One's experience can be enhanced by special knowledge of the artist's time, his/her other work, etc., but one must be careful not to let this knowledge interfere with the visceral aspect, as it often does.

Punchline? Try dressing like a tourist for a day and feel yourself melt into the masses and try to find the visceral stuff in all of the work. Then go and have some fried food dipped in Ranch dressing and watch CSI or American Idol... :)

Patrick said...

Always with the ribbing DC.

Come back more European.

Jonthn said...

Blah. Yet, meh.

dc said...

I was PHX born and raised, so I got to go to the Herd (Hurd? Heard?) Museum fifty or so times. You know how much I love scorpions and native American blankets, but it was a little much even for me.

I hate people who carry notebooks around museums.

elmrockcity said...

Hahaha, the Heard Museum--one of like, four cultural loci in the greater Phoenix Area...

We need to get together and have an Arizona nostalgia-sesh asap.

I'll go first:
1. Scottsdale Fashion Square
2. Modified
3. Pita Jungle

Chad said...

I should have paid more attention to your nuanced approach to art when we were at the gallery.

In its entire history, the visual arts have almost always been symbolic; colors, shapes, words, objects, gestures were all imbued with specific meaning and well understood by the population they were prepared for. Once a piece is removed from that context, that meaning becomes cryptic and the piece itself less accessible.

No reference book is needed for appreciating the built environment. Architecture is all about the experience-- the visceral response. You might actively engage a space, but you receive it passively, subconsciously.

In short, architecture rulez and on closer inspection I look drunk in that picture.

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