Last summer, the New York Times published a letter that I wrote (it’s the third one on the page) in response to Judith Dobrzynski’s “High Culture Goes Hands-On”. The gist of Dobrzynski’s opinion piece was that art museums have become too loud, too interactive, and too entertaining. Most of the public response to the article was supportive of her view. I wrote from a different perspective.
Having worked behind the scenes in the museum world, I thought it was important to point out that museums have many responsibilities to the public, and that getting them through the door is one of those responsibilities. My argument was based on the idea that museums, which are obliged to care for objects that (at their best) define who we are as humans, must to remain open and to do so they have to change along with their visitors. Dobrzynski’s complaints were misplaced – museums need visitors, and they need to be given a little slack as they figure out how to get people to visit and what to offer them when they do.
The New York Times will publish only 150 words in their Letters to the Editor, so I could make just that one argument. But there’s another argument I would have made if they’d given me a couple more column inches: Dobrzynski pointed out several artists whose work she criticized. Yet she made no effort to understand what those artists are really up to. Why did Carsten Holler install a giant slide at the New Museum? (Among other things, he’s interested in whether experiences of untrammeled joy change the way people think in some permanent way.) Or why did Tomas Saraceno install a walk-through, climb-on work on the Metropolitan Museum’s roof garden? (He’s thinking about how to design floating cities.)
This is the world we live in: There are a lot of people visiting art museums, and many of them don’t have any experience with art or its history, and therefore little or no incentive, or context within which, to contemplate a Dutch painting. There are a lot of artists working, and many of them are asking big questions by directly engaging with those same people. So sometimes museum experiences are a little superficial.
But what if the untrammeled joy of sliding down a slide leads some visitor to wander into another gallery and then, because they’re joyful, to see something in a Rembrandt self-portrait that they also see in themselves?