On art, on access, on the reason why

Image credits below.

Tangential thoughts, from the past few days –

First, museums: I visited the Smithsonian American Art Museum – and, housed in the same building, the National Portrait Gallery – today. (It was quite cool, actually, how the two were intertwined: I suppose its easy – easier? – to pull off when the museums all make up the same institution, but the presentation was delightful. There are sings which indicate which museum you’re in – art versus portraiture, I suppose – but often, I couldn’t tell the difference. Maybe that was the point. Maybe I don’t know enough about art.)

I’ve internalized – subconsciously – this idea that there’s a right way to view art, I think. A right way to peruse a museum. I tend to rush through museums: I’m not interested in – and my brain can’t handle – seeing everything. I wander too quickly through rooms, and I skip entire exhibits, and I catch a lot of things peripherally. (At the Holocaust Museum, a guide told me that average visitors spend about three hours within the exhibit, though the Museum houses twelve hours of material. I was in and out in an hour and a half.) And here, I was going to pen an apology for my quick pace – how embarrassing, for an archivist, to be so blasé about hours of material, right in front of her nose. But, instead, here’s a defense:

I spent most of my time at the Smithsonian looking at art that interested me at first glance – the four paintings above were my favorite, and I spent about ten minutes with each. (The second painting, in particular, reminds me of this piece by Picasso, which is why I liked it. It’s the feeling, more than anything. When my grandparents – my dad’s parents – lived in Skokie, there was a print of the Picasso painting in their living room. It’s what I remember most about their house: even more than the plastic covers on the furniture, the out-of-tune piano, the pink bathroom, the blue bathroom, the tiled basement. That painting, more than anything.)

But when I wasn’t admiring the art, I was watching people: people looking at art, people ignoring art, people taking pictures of art. I watched a middle-aged man, at the museum solo, stand in front of a bust of Emerson for about twenty minutes. (I didn’t watch him the whole time: I left the room, looked elsewhere, and wandered back, seeing that he hadn’t moved.) I saw someone taking a nap on a couch in front of a painting that spanned the entire wall. I saw a group of teenagers taking pictures of the Bill and Melinda gates portrait. And on, and on. Months ago, a picture surfaced of a bunch of teenagers paying attention to their phone – and not the art – at a museum in Amsterdam. People all over the internet were enraged – I mean, it is the Internet – but why?

It comes – I think, think – from the Kindle versus The Physical Book argument which – I think, think – is old and worn, and so tired. And we must put our tired, old feet down: there is a proper way to read a book, there is a proper way to interact with art. Except that there isn’t. (Or, shouldn’t be.)

I’m going to defend all viewers of art (all readers of literature, all seekers of information): interact with it on your own terms. That’s the point, right? I took thirty-four pictures at the Smithsonian: I uploaded three to Instagram, I sent five via text, I saved the rest and so I could Google artists when I got home. I took the museum home with me, really. (I’m not saying that this wasn’t possible before the iPhone, before film, before whatever technological innovation you insert here, because it certainly was. Pencil, paper, notes.) I am not envious of those I saw today who were lost in the art – well, a little, because I’d like to have the ability to be that immersed in anything – nor was I annoyed with the teenager taking a nap, or the kid running from one room to the next. Really, I want the museum – the archive, the library – to cater to us all. (You see where I’m going with this.) It’s not my job, as an archivist, to dictate how one interacts with the record, and I don’t want it to be. It is my job to make sure that the record is there to exist and be interacted with. And it’s a dangerous line to walk, I think, to start policing the record, to keep it for our own, to confine it, to say to someone, “I’m sorry, but you’re looking at this all wrong.” There’s no proper way, friends.

I like this, from Brian Doyle, on literature: “Your book ceases to be yours the moment it enters a single reader’s head, and what you thought, dreamed, intuited, discovered, and were rattled by, in the making of it, becomes mere opinion, however informed your opinion might be.”

The same holds true for the record.


Second: records.

I’ll keep this short – I want to obtain a copy of my father’s death certificate for a project I’m working on, but I can’t because I’m not a funeral director. As per Howard County’s instructionDeath Certificates may be obtained by Funeral Directors only. 

Odd, no? Look, being honest: I’m sure there’s a legal way to obtain a copy. I can visit the Maryland State Archives*, for one, and I have documents to prove that I am a direct relative of the deceased. But: it’s that immediate limit – that immediate rule – that frustrates me. That a funeral director has immediate access to a record that helps explain my own life. It speaks a lot to the issue of access, I think: of authority in the archive, of records and how they classify them. For one: I’m glad, of course, that there are restrictions on certain records – my medical records are not your business, for instance. On the other hand, though: who decided that I can’t get my hands on this record? Who decided that the funeral director has a greater need – and more of a right – than I do?

I have no answers to this point. But it’s something I’ve been thinking about.


Finally: on the reason why.

It was pouring when I left the Portrait Gallery and so I stood, under my orange umbrella, and hailed a cab. I learned a lot about the individual who picked me up: he came to the United States through Seattle, for one, and he likes Frank Kaminsky, and he lives in Northern Virginia. I told him a little about me: that I’m from Wisconsin, that I once lived in Baltimore, that I’m interning at the Library of Congress. He asked me what I did there, and I told him I am an intern, helping preserve the Web. He said, What’s that mean? And I explained, as best I could, that we’re preserving the Web just like we preserve more traditional documents: newspapers, photographs, film, and on. He laughed and said, People do that? Why do people do that? And I said, you know, that it’s just like anything else: we need to remember the Web, what it told us, who it was created by, who used it. And he said Why? again, and I said something about how the Internet impacts all of our lives, entirely, and he said – I swear he did –, Why save anything?

I laughed and I told him that I’d been thinking a lot about that this week, and that I wasn’t sure I had a good answer. He laughed and said, This is your job, you must have an answer, and I said – and this is the honest truth – that, no, I don’t have an answer, not yet, but I’m working on it.

(1) Johnson, William H. Café. 1939–1940. Oil on paperboard. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
(2) Johnson, William H. Flowers. 1939–1940. Oil on plywood. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.
(3) Wonner, Paul. Model Drinking Coffee. 1964. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC.
(4) Johnson, William H. Art Class. 1939-1940. Oil on plywood. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Guess I really liked William Johnson today.


* Interestingly, I think: the Maryland State Archives houses state death records up through 2001. My father died in 2002. So, I’m out of luck there.

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