There’s No Law That Says Art Museums Have to Be Pretentious

If Curators Want Their Institutions to Survive and Thrive, Their Exhibitions Should Appeal to Primary Human Themes, Memories, and Desires

Three weeks ago, I was traipsing through London’s Victoria and Albert Museum with a friend of mine who has the attention span of a hummingbird. One minute we were admiring the intense reds in Ottoman-era ceramic tiles from Turkey, the next we were surrounded by the ferocious beasts that had been woven 600 years ago into wool English hunting tapestries. By the time we stumbled on an ornately carved, stunningly out-of-place 16th-century oak staircase from Brittany, I felt not only jet-lagged, but completely lost. At that point, my friend gave me a compassionate, slightly condescending glance and reassured me that that’s what museums are for: getting lost.

She was right of course. Losing one’s self in the colors, textures, and stories of long-gone or faraway worlds is one of the principal joys of wandering through museums.

But I’ve recently also come to appreciate how much museums can give us a chance to go home. Since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed visiting Rembrandt’s tender portrait of his son, Titus, at my favorite museum in Los Angeles, the Norton Simon. Whenever I go to Madrid, I stop into the Prado to visit Velázquez’s slightly ridiculous depiction of Prince Balthasar Carlos riding an oddly plump horse. I learned to love the portraits of these boys when I myself was a boy, and over the years, each time I gaze upon them, I can recall the fascination I felt when we first met.

A few days ago in Chicago I got a chance to see an exhibition at the Art Institute that brought into focus the power of curating art around primary human themes. “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” brought together approximately 36 of the Dutch artist’s drawings, illustrated letters, and paintings, culminating in the side-by-side presentation of the three versions he painted of his bedroom in Southern France. The crowds were large and poorly managed—to the point of tainting the experience. But the exhibition’s success suggests to me that museums could do a lot more to make art speak to people where they live, both literally and figuratively.

Too much of the way we talk about art flows from the pretentious modern cult of the artist as countercultural alchemist or seer. Modern art museums in particular often glorify the marginal—read detached and superior—status of artists in our society. The worst exhibitions can feel like elaborate inside jokes in which socially ambitious visitors try their damnedest to enter the ranks of the cognescenti. In other words, the purpose of their gaze is to boost them up the social ladder rather than to understand how the artists’ work or life might cast light on their own lives.

Van Gogh was one of the first artists to be romanticized way out of proportion, not only for supposedly sacrificing his life for his art but for exhibiting a sensitivity that the world could not or would not understand. Remember the lyrics of Don McLean’s hit single, “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night)”? “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”

Oh please.

I just finished reading Steve Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s biography of Van Gogh, and let me tell you, the poor Dutchman was no self-righteous bohemian who felt himself above social norms. He desperately longed for the things we all do: family, a sense of belonging, and a place he could call home.

Van Gogh himself was an avid reader of artists’ biographies. He wholeheartedly agreed with Emile Zola’s famous dictum that when looking at art, one must look for the artist behind it. In other words, you shouldn’t appreciate art for beauty or ideas alone, but for the way it helps you connect with the creator, whose pains and pleasures, insights and insecurities, might very well teach you something about your own.

Too much of the way we talk about art flows from the pretentious modern cult of the artist as countercultural alchemist or seer.

When Van Gogh painted “The Bedroom” in October 1888, he had just finished fixing up the one-half of a dilapidated yellow house he had rented in a seedy neighborhood in Arles. Paul Gauguin had just agreed to come live with him, and Van Gogh was anticipating the joys of having a home of his own where he could “live and breathe and think and paint.”

The painting was instantly one of his favorites. He felt it captured the feeling of “overall rest or sleep.” Simple, intense, and painted in saturated colors, “The Bedroom”’s oversized furniture, elongated floorboards, and walls that seem to lean inward gently pull the viewer forward. Van Gogh was proud of its ability to monumentalize something so ordinary.

The painting’s restful beauty stands on its own. But what the Art Institute’s “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” exhibition does for the original painting as well as for the subsequent two—which were painted in an asylum after Vincent’s dream of a happy home had collapsed—is to contextualize them within the life of the artist.

The exhibition invites guests not merely to revere Van Gogh as a painter, but to empathize with him as a man whose desires and longings were not unlike our own. The entry hall to the exhibition details Van Gogh’s peripatetic life. In his 37 years on earth, he lived under 37 roofs across 24 cities. The first line of the first sign of the exhibition states simply that Van Gogh’s life “was marked by a persistent search for a home and a place of belonging.” The rest of the exhibition flows directly from that one sentence.

You wouldn’t know it from the lines outside the Art Institute of Chicago these days, but museum administrators across the Western World are scrambling to keep their institutions relevant in the face of rapidly changing demographics.

And yet for all the concern about the future viability of museums, few people are talking about the need for museum curators to change the way they frame and present exhibitions, to move beyond the insider art history mumbo jumbo curators use to narrate exhibitions. Labels emphasizing shifting techniques of craft, highfalutin intellectual concepts, or the minutiae of artistic movements seem to be written by Ph.D.s for Ph.D.s. The curators evidently assume that visitors should come to learn about art rather than to experience it.

But surely one can do both. To do that most effectively, it helps to frame and present works of art in terms that the broadest possible cross section of the public can understand.

It’s become a truism in the era of data overload that the curator is king. How we frame and present knowledge have become as important as the knowledge itself. Swiss-born curator Hans Ulrich Obrist has written that curating at its most basic should be about making connections between cultures and humans. You might describe it, he explains, “as a form of mapmaking that opens new routes through a city, a people or a world.”

Those routes should be drawn to arrive where people live, to appeal to their most fundamental memories, hopes, fears, and desires. Because neither the cult of the artist nor an undue focus on style or technique come close to shedding light on what it means to be human. And this, it seems to me, is the truest purpose of art.

  • Don Fels

    The author’s friend is quite correct- the finest art museums allow the visitor to become ‘lost’ and in the process find meaning, pleasure and joy. In fact the V&A is the perfect example of such a thing, and a wonderful place. It wasn’t always so, but over the last decade they have made a strong effort to mix bits and pieces of contemporary work with their vast trove of (mostly ‘taken’ it should be admitted) pieces of far away times and cultures. The idea is brilliant- the path is not linear, nor is it talking down to the viewer- but rather it allows discovery of beauty, grace and history by people of vastly different educations, languages, points of view.

    I was for twenty years a trustee of a contemporary art museum, and I agree completely with the author. It seems, consciously or not, that the idea operating in most contemporary museums most of the time, is to befuddle. As a contemporary artist, that attitude in turn befuddles me, I don’t understand why curators and/or artists have to pretend to be above their audience to be considered authentic. The making of and looking at art have been human activities forever- the artist is a human being, and it seems to me ought to be able to communicate with other persons. That would seem the goal of art, and therefore the author is correct, museums would do well to function as communicators, not confusers.

    Donald Fels

  • JamesKoenig

    Wonderfully written commentary on art and museums. I first “met” Van Gough at the Chicago Art Institute– same with Picasso– and love to visit certain museums “to be in the presence of old friends” — that is, the works themselves. But I am at the same time frustrated with museums and often in travel, postpone going to museums because there is something about the experience that is akin to seeing a sad tiger in a cage, or “remains” in a mausoleum. Or worse yet, taking it all to the realm of an intellectual exercise rather than an art experience– and being, as stated, a pretentious endeavor. I’ve often commented that museums are something of a necessary evil. The art of curating a collection or structuring an exhibition— an experience– is truly an art in itself.

    I am a musician, and the comments about Van Gough and Gaugin remind me of Verlaine and Rimbaud and Faure’s wonderful setting of “Prison.”

    Even the structural placement of museums comes to mind reading this piece. The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is a wonderful (and manageable) sized collection– and gives that feeling of access to someone’s collection as opposed to entrance to an institution. Yet a formidable institution like the Metropolitan Museum in New York is right there on 5th Avenue and more or less offers access to the wide diversity of the city. A seventh grader from Harlem may wonder into the many worlds of the museum and may one day be the artist whose work is in the museum. That’s my modest outrage at The Getty in Los Angeles. As wonderful as it is– it is still an art fortress on a hill in an affluent neighborhood. That may not in itself be pretentious. But it does limit access. No seventh grader from from South Central or East L.A. is not going to wander in and be transported. LACMA, growing wildly in every direction, may not be architecturally congruent but at least its Wilshire Boulevard location is on a major artery (and bus line) of the city.

    A great museum setting that comes to mind (in a totally different genre) is the archeological museum in Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. It’s one of the world’s great museum settings.

    We tend to do the same thing to music as we do art– that is, relegate to the realm of the pretentious. The answer isn’t to dumb down or get cutesy with ad-on light shows and hokey staging of concert works. That creates obstacle rather than access. I read an essay in college days at Northwestern about Van Gough’s sun flowers. It was actually an essay on art. The premise was that the “art” was what took place at some crucial meeting point between the painting and the one observing the painting. If curators and museums keep that in mind we’ll be spared a mausoleum experience and be accommodated for an art experience.

    Still, I would advise that when visiting some great city with a great art museum for the first time, like Paris, for instance– wander around the city first, and absorb, get lost and discover something. Then, if there’s time– duck into the Louvre and make eyes at the Mona Lisa.

    Philosopher and mathematician Alfre North Whitehead “The second-handedness of the learned world is the secret of its mediocrity.” We must strive to not turn our experience of art– visual or musical– into either a second-handed or pretentious experience.

  • Susana Bautista

    Thank you Gregory for bringing us back to what happens behind the scenes in museums, for them to produce truly accessible and relevant exhibitions that become memorable experiences that teach as well as inspire. As a museum professional and scholar for many years, I have seen the field change so that museums are now trying very hard to be more socially relevant and to reach a variety of audiences. But more importantly, there is also change happening internally. Successful and courageous museums have learned to create cross-departmental exhibition teams, where education, marketing, visitor services, development, and curatorial staff meet early on to decide on everything from the very exhibition topics to pursue, audiences to target, community partners, programming and interpretive materials. Some museums even crowdsource some of these factors, inviting the public to co-create either exhibitions or the knowledge surrounding them. I completely agree with you that the framing and contextualization of knowledge is paramount to today’s museum audience, and that this requires a holistic perspective of the object from all the expertise held by museums.

  • williamjkelleherphd

    RE: “scrambling to keep their institutions relevant in the face of rapidly changing demographics.”

    The Natural History Museum in Chicago used to have several life size dioramas depicting cave dwellers from 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. When I was a teen, I was so impressed, I used to take the suburban train downtown frequently to view them. I ditched school so I could learn something meaningful to me at the time. Then under new Modern Minded Management, they took out the dioramas and let McDonald’s install a restaurant in their place. Some official told me the dioramas were not aesthetically appropriate (bare breasts?) The Museum became “relevant” by removing nudity, and installing McDonald’s.

    Museums ought to be reserved for people, of all ages, who want to learn and who appreciate the objects on display. Let the pretenders parade about The Broad!

    Anyway, I had become so interested that decades later I wrote a book about the period (The Human Birth Defect).

    William J. Kelleher, Ph.D.

  • Mindy Riesenberg

    Spot-on, but it’s already being done in many museums. As someone who worked in museums for 20 years across the U.S. on the marketing side of things, I completely agree with your take. However, you mention, “And yet for all the concern about the future viability of museums, few people are talking about the need for museum curators to change the way they frame and present exhibitions, to move beyond the insider art history mumbo jumbo curators use to narrate exhibitions.” But take a look around, and you’ll see that many museums are already moving (or have moved) in this direction of relating to their audience. It’s been a constant discussion since I started in the field in the late 90s, so the idea is nothing new. Museums are more prone now to create cross-departmental teams, so the curators are also listening to and working with the folks who are actually on the front lines with guests (visitor services, marketing), as well as the educators who work with school children (from ESL students to recent refugees who absolutely won’t want to see curatorial mumbo jumbo). Trust me, I’ve had my fair share of discussions with curators who wanted to write some pretentious drivel on the wall to explain a painting. And I’m sure many museums still stick to the old model. But rest assured, many museums are working towards doing exactly what you are talking about, and it’s definitely the “movement of the moment” in art museum circles to connect visitors more closely with the artworks, the artists and the surroundings. P.S. I’m a master’s student in Andres’ class at ASU. 😉 Keep up the interesting work!