My mother and I walk into an art museum. Already, this sounds like the set-up for a joke, and really it is. You could call it a small miracle that my mother was even willing to step foot inside a building with something called “art” on its walls. Probably the last time we entered the National Gallery together was for my class field trip in fifth grade when, just to be nice, she signed up to be a chaperone.
We get tickets, and she tells me she will treat for lunch after we are all done — the first reason I brought her along. And as we walk toward the modern wing, she now discovers the second.
“Mom, is it okay if I write down your responses to the art?” I ask, pulling a small black notebook out of my backpack before she answers.
“Yeah, I guess so,” she says.
We walk toward the wall in front of us.
“What do you think of this one?” I ask her.
In front of us a canvas stretches across the wall, the length and height of a man, except that no forms or colors are painted onto the canvas’ surface.
“Well…” she says, “Am I missing something?”
“What do you mean?” I say.
“I mean… is this it?” she asks. I stand next to her, just to her right.
“Hmm. I see what you mean,” I say. Then suddenly I step backward. “Let’s look at it from back here,” I say.
My mother joins me, taking steps backward, continuing to stare at the canvas in front of her, her head still. We look for a few more seconds.
“I think there may be a white paint on the surface,” I say, watching my mother’s face. My mother squints her eyes. Her mouth squirms. Then she sighs, turning to look at me.
“I’m sorry, Lizzy,” she says, “I just don’t see anything at all. It just looks like a blank canvas to me.”
“Fair enough,” I say, grinning. I make a note in pen on a page in my notebook.
We move on to a sculpture hanging on the wall just a few steps away. We pause in front of it.
“Is that what I think it is?” asks my mom.
I laugh. “Almost definitely,” I say, “Marcel Duchamp was famous for his urinals.”
“And that is ‘art’?” says my mother, pointing at the urinal, “Who decides these things?” She makes a few furious hand motions and then turns to leave.
“Hold on, hold on,” I say, scribbling in my notebook. “I came to find one piece in particular. We can leave after I see it.”
My mother sighs and follows me deeper into the gallery. Soon I catch a glimpse of purple and grey paint from a few rooms away: one of Jackson Pollock’s lavender masterpieces.
“Here it is,” I tell my mom. We sit down in front of it on a wooden bench. “Okay, so what do you think of this one?” I ask.
“Well,” says my mother, “On a first glance, it looks like some of the paintings you created in pre-school.” I laugh.
“And on a second glance?” I say.
My mom stares at the painting for a bit before answering. “As I stare at it,” she says, “I begin to feel sad. It seems sad to me. Is that right?”
“Sure,” I say.
“And… it looks like it might be raining. Isn’t it called ‘Lavender Mist?’”
“Yeah, that’s great, Mom,” I say. I nod, trying to encourage her to go on.
Instead she says, “But, hun, I still don’t get it. So can we leave now? I’d like to grab some lunch before we head home.”
I smile. “Okay, Mom,” I say, and we make our way toward the cafeteria and then out into the open air, both convinced our outing was a success: for me because my mother was willing to stare at modern art for thirty whole minutes, and for my mother because she knows I will not force her to step into another art gallery for another ten years at least.
The truth is, most visual artists I know have mothers and fathers like mine — they love their children, they may have even paid for art classes or a creative degree, but they do not understand why in the world their children are so enthralled with the visual art of our time (or the time before us). They may not even understand the art their own children create.
Yet I have found that the world of museum art has no respect for such viewers, even if the artists have a personal connection to this broader non-artist audience through their own families. The audience that seems to matter most in this circle is the world of curators and critics and collectors: those people who ultimately choose the art that will hang on blank gallery walls, who write articles about its place in art history, and who pay thousands of dollars for a piece of history to hang above their stone fireplaces.
Artists in this culture find it an insult to have to sit down with an art-illiterate person to explain their work. It is beneath them; the work should speak for itself. But what if it doesn’t? What if someone needs help in understanding why an artist’s work matters?
This is troubling. If an ordinary person, like my mother, has no interest in stepping into the National Gallery on her vacation, then art has become entirely irrelevant to the general public. Visual art does not matter anymore. It holds no power to move culture, to touch children, to change hearts and minds.
And in fact, the public’s views about art are not really that surprising. When you look at the art that has been lauded for the past sixty years, you can see why most people feel that visual art, particularly art that hangs on the walls of art museums, was not made for them. They “just don’t get it.” (Though, really, who does?)
The public is not willing to work at understanding a piece of art, and artists are not willing to explain themselves. We find ourselves at a tragic impasse.
However, in this chasm between art and the public exists a movement of local artistry — artists who are showing and selling their work in their local communities, who are telling stories through their artwork, who are painting real people they know, who are willing to sit down and explain the abstraction in their work. They are not afraid of the public. In fact, to them, the public is their primary audience.
In my hometown in Colorado, a gallery, the Modbo, has formed a collective of local figurative painters who meet together monthly to critique each other’s work. The owners of the gallery have developed a reputation for the art they show, and the community has responded: the work sells. Non-artists can stop into openings and talk with artists directly about their work, asking questions and developing a relationship with the artists in the collective.
I cannot tell you that this group is single-handedly changing the art world, but I know they are fighting a movement of artists who care less and less about audience, and more and more about self-expression. These visual artists are held accountable: they exist in a community of artists who critique their work, and they exist in a community of people who will buy their work only if they connect on a personal level with the art and the artist.
I wonder if visual artists already accepted into the museum world could use their influence to change the cultural attitudes of audiences and artists towards each other. The larger the audience, the more true fame and influence an artist has.
I also wonder how often we consider our audiences in our art-making. Our audience matters. Art loses impact if we create only for ourselves, and often, our best art comes from considering others.
Perhaps we can hope for a turning of the tide, a swing back toward the center of the pendulum arc. Self-expression has had its heyday. Now, let us return home, back toward art made with others in mind. I can tell you that my mother, and perhaps yours too, might even venture inside a gallery to take a peek at what we make.