This last year I’ve had the fortune to visit the Museum of Modern Art, and this last month, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art here in Kansas City.
The experience of visiting a museum is not unlike visiting a zoo. While zoos carry the bonus moral quandary associated with the efforts to acquire large varieties of exotic animals for the purpose of bolstering attendance, in America we’ve mostly done away with the archaic model of placing animals in metal cages for crude exhibition. Modern zoos tend to place much more focus on accomodating the needs of the animals by replicating their natural environments. As a result, many zoos are now an active part of global efforts to understand and protect endangered species.
Similarly, museums offer the opportunity to do more than just celebrate beautiful or interesting objects and their creators, but can become a part of a larger effort to properly understand history in all of its enormous complexity. One of the features I enjoyed most about the Nelson-Atkins Museum was that it was just as much about history as it was art. Paintings and sculptures were surrounded by relevant architechture, furniture, pottery, clothing, weapons, and armor, providing context and a little bit of immersion into the culture and time from which they came. While it’s unfair to compare museums when they have such decidedly different goals and purposes, there is much value and importance to the way in which art is experienced and appreciated. Nothing is created in a vaccuum, and most of these artists didn’t spend hundreds of hours crafting a piece just for it to occupy a closet, let alone a museum. Most art is made to live inside a specific time and a precise location.
This was one of the things that bothered me about the MOMA – so much emphasis was placed on how creations are justified. Predictably, this was most prevalent in the post-modern exhibits, which are accompanied by paragraphs of text explaining the inspiration, symbolism, and intent of each piece. There’s certainly value in the meta-analysis that these pieces embody, but I have a difficult time in respecting their inaccessibility and obscurity. It’s art for artists, rather than art that society can tangibly benefit from.
One downside of museums, historically, is that when something gets placed on a pedastel to be viewed publicly, there’s a natural tendency for other artists to crave the fame they see these pieces acquiring. It encourages the desire for artists to impress other artists, resulting in sometimes laughably irrelevant inside jokes and obscure references. However, by emphasizing context and relationship to society rather than singular artists or creations, a museum can becomes less about celebrating the genius of an individual, and more about the genius of a culture.