Unless you're really rich or have close relationships with some amazing artists, you probably don't get to see really good visual art very often. Computer screens don't count. Books only kind of count. If you think Lord of the Rings and similar crap CGI tripe count, you're reading the wrong blog.
There's probably only one kind of place that you can see a Cezanne, a Monet, or a popular Picasso: an art museum. (If you want to see an unpopular Picasso, go to your rich uncle's house. It's occasionally possible to buy his work for a few hundred dollars since he made a lot of stuff and lived to be freaking 91 years old.) The same goes for living artists. Good luck finding an affordable Helen Pashgian for sale.
Last summer, I flew to New York specifically so I could see the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim. (I could have bypassed NYC for New Haven, my ultimate destination, but I had to stop to see what is probably going to be one of the last great things done by a rapidly aging artist.) His pieces can reportedly cost millions just to install. If you're not familiar, Turrell tends to use a lot of computers that control light in mysterious ways. He also uses some weirdo membrane fabric that I can't identify.
This summer, I was lucky enough to be in LA for a couple days, so I checked out the Turrell exhibit at LACMA, which might be even more impressive than the NYC setup. Viewing his work is a transformative experience for me. It's a short-lived transformation, but for a few hours my brain is firing on unknown cylinders and managing to find inspiration, thoughts, and pockets of euphoria that had gone previously unmined.
Even Louisville gets (and has) a good share of impressive art. If you go see it, you'll thank yourself.
And if you're like me, you'll come away enlightened and angry.
I'm routinely antagonistic to the poor, bored security guards who have to follow orders that they probably don't give a shit about. Recently when someone took a picture of a Pashgian sculpture, a security guard yelled out "no pictures, please!" I looked at the guilty woman and said something like "god forbid that your camera might harm the light." The sculpture was a large plastic tube with light shining into it. A work of beauty, but also something that a camera flash would never harm.
(I've also been very kind to a handful of security guards in hopes of breaking museum rules. It works occasionally, mostly on young women guarding things in the dark. For some reason I have an easier time charming women in poorly lit places.)
It comes down to my fundamental belief that art is interactive and that I should be able to touch it, play with it, and discover what makes it amazing. If a painting has thick layers of paint, I need to put my face against it to see how thick those layers are. It's not a desire. It's a need. And I will do it until someone stops me.
At the Guggenheim Turrell exhibit, I ran my hand along the odd membrane while no one was looking. I pushed in gently to feel its give. I encourage you to do the same because it feels unlike anything you'll ever touch. It's stretchy yet firm. The color warps as you push in.
Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum has some of the coolest things I've ever seen. When you display a ten-foot boat made of matchsticks, you're a fool for thinking that I won't bend over the security rope to see what's inside the boat. Is it empty? Are there more matches? Does it have moving parts? These are questions that I have to answer before I can leave the room.
I understand why museums protect art in this way. Some of them probably do so because they aren't allowed to let patrons take pictures. It's a legal thing that they can't control. Others don't want you touching, breathing, or getting, I don't know, you're fucking aura or something on the art because it will degrade it somehow.
I understand this position. Human fingers are covered in nasty oils that can damage practically anything when given enough time.
I understand that they want to preserve these things for future generations.
I understand it, but I don't care.
No, it's more than that I don't care. I think it's bullshit.
If we, the people living now, don't get to enjoy and explore art as fully as possible, then it's worthless. Throw it away. Set it on fire. I'll come back every few years to see how the landfill has altered it. I'll stand and watch it's beauty as it burns.
When museums don't let us experience the fullness of art, they discredit patrons and the artists. No, I don't care whether the artist wants people touching it or not. If you don't want people touching it, keep it in your home.
We're so worried about preservation that we forget about experience.
We have to protect these things for the next generation? Why? Let the next generation start from scratch. It might even be better that way. They don't need our baggage. Let them start over and discover what they can.
What makes us think it's okay to alter the surface of the planet by building suburbs, blowing up mountains, and filling cities with concrete that turns otherwise fine land into flood-prone hot spots... yet it's a unthinkable that we should touch a painting?
There's also an underlying classism that has always existed in the art world.
Museums are wonderful because they house art, but they are places where people of modest means go to see mindblowing things. They often get to do this because an extremely wealthy owner has lent the exhibit for viewing. Extremely wealthy people do not have to experience art in the same way as me and you.
What happens when the wealthy owner sits in her mansion watching a Calder mobile that doesn't have enough breeze to move? She gets out a fan, or she gives it a little tap. She sets it in motion. She gets to do this because she owns the art. She possesses it. She can do what she wants.
The rest of us have to stand, waiting for someone to open a door that will set the mobile to life.
What a shame.
At times, I'd rather see it melted down to make computer parts. Without interaction, it's just half of what it could be. We're holding it back. We're holding ourselves back. We're only letting ourselves see what should be experienced with our whole bodies.
We've found a way to demean the patron, the artist, and the art. When we worry more about protection than discovery, none of us will reach our full potential.