Too Serious?

I realized something today about myself. One of my struggles with my involvement in the arts has been that I am a pretty serious person. I grew up in healthcare and worked a good chunk of my life in that space and IT. Details matter there, often having correlation to disease, suffering, death. Early in my life I considered the human psyche as central to health, and as art explores the mind and our cultural influences on it, I was always attracted to culture.

Too often, though, the arts are placed in the context of entertainment, a distraction, a way to pass the time. I tend to see it as a vital expression of the human condition where someone (an artist) has put forth their whole life’s work and others walk by casually, perhaps ignoring it altogether. I get upset. I’ve seen too much depression, isolation, suicide in the arts to feel otherwise.

In Cuba, for example, last year we visited artist’s studios. These arranged visits that brought wealthy visitors to buy art were heartbreaking for me. On the one hand I could see the very humble and deeply good intentions of those visiting the studios. Our guide said to me, “why don’t you talk to the artist’s mother” who was standing nearby.  She shared with me how nervous they would get many hours leading up to the visits. With good reason: a work of art that casually sells for $12,000 represents 50 YEARS of the average Cuban’s annual income. Practically a lifetime. And that’s nothing as far as art goes in the international market. If the sale doesn’t happen, I know the despondent feeling that ensues. It was that desperation for hope, for a way out into the global community, that was heartbreaking for me. When my little Cuban cousin gave me her art, knowing I am in the art world, I thought to myself: “My child, I hope you never learn what I know.” I was there with very generous people wanting to learn and to make a difference and yet I knew her path would be very hard in the current circumstances.

I feel sadness when I see things reduced to spectacle. In an effort to help people connect with the ideas being presented and to be approachable, often the arts are presented in the realm of “entertainment.” In The Denver Post, for example, the section is literally called “entertainment.”

In the important book, Whose Muse: Art Museums and the Public Trust, about the purpose of art in our lives and of art museums in society, the former long-time director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, and fellow museum director James Cuno, discussed the trend in our society for giant blockbuster art exhibitions. Instead they encouraged us to try to connect our communities with our permanent collections and shared, long cultural histories. Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Pg 55 † “I offer an alternative museum experience: the permanent collection and the opportunity it affords for sustained and repeated engagements with individual works of art, presented without the hyperbolic promotional apparatus of the temporary exhibition. In this case, the permanent collection one object at a time.” (James Cuno)

Pg 73 † “The public has entrusted in us the authority and responsibility to select, preserve, and provide its access to works of art that can enhance, even change, people’s lives. And in turn, we have agreed to dedicate all of our resources – financial, physical, and intellectual – to this purpose. Art museums are a public trust.   …we can best earn that trust simply, by remaining open as places of refuge and spiritual and cultural nourishment.” (James Cuno)

Pg 199 † “I am still uneasy with the split between the public’s and the media’s perception of the museum. It has to do, I think, with the two worlds that have been created by museums: the world of the museum as an experience in and of itself, and the world of experiencing works of art….It’s now about “the experience of the museum,” of which the art is only a small part.” (Philippe de Montebello)

I experienced this at the international art fair, Art Basel, in Switzerland a couple of years ago. The first day I wore a jacket and pants and walked alone. I didn’t speak to many people. The next day I dressed very casually, with walking sandals, and casual clothes. I met a banker from Brussels on the train into town; we spent the whole day together walking around, seeing art. Everyone must have thought we were a collector couple, he my banker husband and me, casually holding culture in my disposable paper cup, dipping from the abundant punchbowl at my heart’s content. We spoke to half the fair.

I find the arts a very beautiful expression of the human condition and capable of transforming our psychology, something that medicine cannot always do. Somehow I will have to find a way for my participation in it to reflect my empathy for all that I have (sadly) now seen. I think I’ve concluded that it boils down to DIGNITY for me, helping artists feel dignity and heard, and helping those that want to share in cultural expressions feel welcome and validated.


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