Eight years ago street artist Banksy disguised himself, entered the British Museum, and put a piece of his own work up on a wall. It was a slab of concrete, on which he had painted a cave figure drawing of a man with a shopping cart. Banksy even added an object label reading that this cave drawing pictured “early man venturing towards the out-of-town hunting grounds,” and was created by artist “Banksymus Maximus.”
Aside from showing that museums have very little security preventing people from adding their art to walls, an unanticipated effect of Banksy’s prank was that visitors didn’t question the validity of this new “addition” for three full days. They simply walked by, assumed the piece was really a part of the permanent collection and did not even ask docents for more information.
Banksy’s hoax was in a natural history museum, but I’ve noticed this short attention span in art museums as well. Our reactions to art museums are strange. We enter a building to look at images that have been given days and years of thought, that are considered to truly portray the human experience, only to mill around and glance at a few.
We find a painting that intrigues us, and thirty seconds later, friends are waiting. Next painting. Then we find something famous. We read the object label and move on. An intriguing sculpture merits a snapchat. A photograph we don’t understand makes us consider buying the audio tour the next time we go to a museum.
In these kinds of interactions with art we base our entire visual experience off preconceived notions and brief sound bites of official interpretations. The emotions and ideas we get from observing a piece of art should be sufficient and separate from the additional information we receive, whether that be the assumed value of the creator or interpretations provided by the museum. The fact that one primary means for deriving meaning from a piece of art is by looking at the name of the artist and a paragraph written by the curator is a bit ludicrous. Paintings and sculptures are visual forms that take time to absorb, and any insights experts have should aid, not constitute, our interpretations.
It’s as though the experience of art museums has become a rushed blur of name-dropping famous works and artists and techniques. O’Keeffe-Warhol-Pollock-avant-expressionism-garde-look-I-went-to-a-museum-this-weekend.
Our experience of a work should get more credit than its reputation or audio tours and information panels. Of course any interpretation, even if it is presented by the museum, goes deeper into a work than surface level reputation, but the central issue is that visual contemplation of the visitor himself is undervalued. I too find myself visiting museums this way—just looking at art without really trying to figure it out. Last semester I remember finding myself standing in front of a Dorothea Tanning surrealist painting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, pen and notebook in hand, so unused to visual analysis in that setting that I was unable to glean any meaning from the canvas in front of me.
4:15 p.m. I am given 45 minutes of observation as the basis of what will become a 12-page research paper.
I should check the object label. Nothing but the name of the painting and artist. Fantastic.
I looked at my watch. It’s 4:25 pm. 35 more minutes to look at this one painting.
Fuck it. I’m sitting.
Cross-legged on the floor, I take a breath while accepting the fact that this is not something I could figure out standing for a few minutes like I usually do, and confronted the small, unobtrusive canvas on the wall.
I guess I’ll start writing everything I notice in this weird painting.
Left to right. Okay. There’s this semi-human thing pushing up against this wooden structure. Is it pushing or leaning? I don’t get this.
It’s weird that the wooden structure looks like the beginnings of an architecture sketch. It’s as though society—buildings, realism—is pushing through into the dreamscape.
At that point, the first of many museumgoers stepped on me. Well, he stepped on my left hand resting on the floor. Which makes sense, given that also to my left was a pretty impressive Ernst painting (and people were dodging Nikons to get a closer look). I looked up to apologize, only to receive a dirty look from a couple discussing dinner plans. More than the angry looks, I just got strange looks. Curious looks. Looks over my shoulder to see my notebook. I gathered fairly conclusively from these reactions that sitting down in the MoMA just to stare at a piece of art was out of the ordinary.
4:39 pm. I think I’m starting to get something from this. The architectural structure could very well be symbolic of society—it’s so realistically depicted in the context of all the surreal, twisted images. It’s stretching across the canvas; the subconscious is influencing reality. Hey. That’s interesting.
Looking back now, I don’t think I had ever done that before. Before that day in MoMA I had never taken a lengthy look at a piece of art in a major museum before, unless to briefly admire it or offer a half-baked interpretation to a friend.
Banksy’s prank brought up a major flaw in our museum culture that I also noticed while sitting on the floor at MoMA. As much as his hoax was mainly intended to poke fun at the artistic establishment, it also showed that many people aren’t used to long-term visual contemplation in a museum.
Possibly because in a place such as MoMA or the British Museum, where it’s crowded and cameras are out and there are so many masterpieces to see and so many labels and tours and gift shops, there isn’t really room for pure, unadulterated looking anymore.
In the last 20 minutes, I continued staring. Sometimes I spaced out and people-watched, or tried to test my Spanish comprehension by listening in on a conversation of a couple from Madrid. But I also discovered (sometime in the last five minutes of staring) that all the images in the painting were pointing or moving up in some way—an upwards-facing sunflower, bubbles coming from the man’s mouth, the flames. I still don’t know what that means, but it’s intriguing and inspiring mostly because I doubt I would have seen it at all if I hadn’t simply looked.
Next time I go to a museum I plan on fitting this kind of authentic contemplation back into how I view art. I know I can’t spend 45 minutes at each work, but I’ll find one painting that’s confusing and challenging and just stare.
I won’t get the kind of objective truth or a stamp of value that I could find in an artist’s reputation or in the object label or tour. But hopefully in the process I’ll get a bit more confused. And a bit more inspired.