A lot of buzz has surrounded Catholic League president Bill Donohue's attack on public funding for art museums based on his assertion that museums cater mostly to affluent white people and offer nothing to the majority of "working class" Americans. He has also suggested that funding would be put to better use on professional wrestling that is enjoyed by working-class Americans.
This is my cue to rail against the absurdity of such a proposal and defend museums as repositories of all forms of human creativity through the ages, etc.
I could, and in the past I have.
But a germ of truth lies in this misguided rant that all who love museums and wish for their success should think about. Museums too often do, in fact, fail a large part of the public, though not through lack of mighty efforts and good intentions.
Several decades ago, many museums came to a similar conclusion, acknowledging that there was a general perception of museums as elitist and unwelcoming. That recognition ushered in an era of populist programming. All kinds of activities were staged, often for free or very cheaply. Temporary exhibitions would frequently lean toward more general, even commercial interests. You could go to one and dance and drink to popular music, get your face painted, have your fortune read. The thinking was: We're getting people into the museum, new people who have never visited before. This is good.
Woohoo! Museums are FUN!
The sad reality became clear that people may come in droves for such spectacles, but they aren't there for a museum experience. And rarely do they make a return visit for one.
The question should not be about getting people into a museum, whatever it takes. It should be: What will make people want to go an art museum because it is an art museum?
In fairness, museums have mostly had to go it alone in seeking the hearts and minds of a larger population. The media are little help, and schools are no better. But imagine the shift if they began giving even half as much attention to art as they do to sports. That's a tired argument, lost long ago.
Nope, it's up to the institutions themselves.
But how to make people feel that a museum visit is worth their time and money in the same way they would choose to spend money on a sporting event, a movie or a restaurant meal? And to return again and again, in the same way they might watch reruns of Seinfeld or The Office?
They're all about sensory and mental pleasure.
Instead, we go to a Picasso show mostly because it's PICASSO, which seems sort of dutiful and right, like ordering a salad with low-fat dressing instead of the fried corn dog we're craving. A museum show should be the corn dog, not the salad, in people's minds.
Here's what I would love to hear in a gallery instead of a reverential hush:
(He) "That dude Picasso, painting his naked girlfriend with her nose on the side of her face and her body all deformed. What was he thinking?"
(She) "What was she thinking?"
A heated discussion ensues, ending with:
(She) "Fine, but forget naked videos in the name of love that could wind up on Facebook."
(He) "Right. But you do have a great body."
I'm being facetious, but only a little.
What's missing from most museums is a sense, for the people who visit them, of what surrounds the art, a feeling of real life, of activity that gets the blood up and going.
Museums, as museums, can be fun. They can be thrilling and infuriating, too. Just like a wrestling match, a movie, a meal. But most people don't think of museums in the same way as they do those latter diversions. They don't know how.
Art is a story, and the viewer is part of its plot. It can be a narrative stopped in time, waiting for its backstory and its future. It seeks your attention and asks for your opinion. You're allowed love, hate or indifference toward it, and you'll always have another chance to change your mind. The art is always there, always ready for a new look, a new story.
I wish I had some brilliant ideas about getting more people into that story. I do know that when things are at their worst, people recognize art museums as places that represent the best. Museums around the country reported a significant uptick in attendance immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Instead of at a mall or a sports arena, they found comfort and a sense of permanence, continuity, in museums.
I wish for all those people the joy a museum can also impart.
I think back to the first time I took my two children (7 and 9) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. We were in the 18th century galleries, and I was prepared to extol the beauty of the paintings. Instead, my youngsters couldn't stop giggling about the immense "bosoms" of the women in the paintings. They stared, for comparison's sake, at my (flat, covered) chest. I started laughing, too, and even the guard cracked a smile. So then they asked why it was okay to stare at bosoms in paintings but not on TV or in movies or, most especially, in real life. They were too young for me to explain "context," and besides, wouldn't that have been a dodge? They knew they had me.
And I knew they had made a connection of some sort, a link between then and now, and it came from nothing at all profound. They could look at a plenitude of flesh for the first time in their lives without my judgment or censure. They could relax, smile and chatter at will. It was a small thing but a valuable lesson for me.