A few months back, I was standing at the West entrance to the MFA Boston on a Wednesday at 3:50 waiting to get into the MFA for free at 4:00 when I was forced out of boredom to look at the big brown sculpture in front of the museum.
“This thing looks like shit.” I said, meaning it quite literally. (Take a look at the piece. Really, doesn't it look like shit?) “It’s a de Kooning,” a mother with a teenager and a baby in carriage said to me in an “educational” voice.
I was a little surprised she had heard me at all, because no one else was looking at the sculpture. It became clear that she had simply wanted to teach someone about something that day since her kids were clearly not being entertained enough to pay attention. The teenager was wearing an “i see dumb people” t-shirt. (All true wisdom is found on t-shirts.) Eventually, the family walked away, leaving me alone with Standing Figure until the museum finally opened up to the riff-raff and I could see the piece I had really come to see: Kara Walker’s The Rich Soil Down There. When I got there, Kara Walker’s piece was in a tiny section at the top of the escalator and it was mobbed. I could barely see the piece because someone was always in front of it looking at it. I was simultaneously pissed and delighted at my experience of trying to see Walker’s piece.
Enough people have written about Kara Walker that I don’t have anything to add about her work, except that I had similar experience in viewing her work last week when I went to see Kara Walker’s installation at the Met in NYC. Kara Walker’s exhibit at the Met After the Deluge was in a tiny section at the top of the stairs that was next to the huge Modern art section. What I noticed was that people were responding to the art in the same way in Boston as they were in NYC. Everyone was ignoring the Modern art and actively interacting with Kara Walker’s work.
I don’t know anything about museum science, but I sure see a lot of art that I think curators have put on display in order to be “accessible”. Modern art is viewed as accessible and easy to explain on a tour. Look everyone: line, shape, form, etc. The fact that it frequently looks like shit (literally) does not seem to matter because it is viewed as inclusive and no one can be offended (although I don’t know why a huge shit in front of the MFA is not considered offensive). Kara Walker’s work is challenging, threatening, offensive, not easily explained, and demands serious inspection. Kara Walker’s work deals with sex, race, class, violence, and many other subjects that do not appeal to all segments of society.
It appears to me that museums are often less interested in showing work that actually requires “work” for the viewer to gain anything of value and are more interested in showing work that is easily digestible and fits more into the realm of entertainment. This, of course, allows the museum to have huge wall texts and write catalogs that explain the work in a simplified way. I’m not sure if curators believe that accessible work is what people really want or if they feel they have to cater to the notion that viewing art should not be “work” because all they see is “dumb” people entering their institution.
However, my observation is that the notion of accessibility does not address what people actually go to the museum to see. Not all art can be simplified and made inclusive, but more importantly, it appears that no one wants it simplified and inclusive anymore. Everyone, both at the MFA in Boston and the Met in NYC, was cramming in to see Kara Walker’s work, leaving the huge Modernist pieces in silence in their huge Modernist galleries. Just look at the video. The proof is there!
As an artist, none of this matters to me because I just make work and I really don’t think about the audience or their reaction very much. But as someone who goes to museums and is continually “educated” about my own culture, I question if curators ever go and actually watch the social interactions around the work they display. If they do, I wonder if they realize that the museum space could be re-appropriated to put in a lot more art that requires real “work” because that is what people actually want. Or a least that's what I want to see. I want to see more art that by definition, will not appeal to everyone and can not be explained in wall text or on a tour. I don't want to see "Americans in Paris, 1860-1900" and I don't think anyone else really does either. I want to see more work that risks offending me and forces me to think.