How to Behave in an Art Museum

This piece first appeared at Paper Monument.


On one of MoMA’s free Friday evenings in January, I went to see the room with the giant video projections where everyone lies around, which I’d heard about probably third-hand, since I don’t find time to read reviews and never know what’s going on, unless someone visits me from out of town, and then I assume that they want me to pretend like I do.

On the carpet lots of people were stretched out, some with their heads propped on each other’s torsos, and several were napping with their mouths agape, like you see in a college library around finals time. One couple was making out, and I’m not sure if they were more or less self-conscious than everyone else in the room, since the music that accompanied the installation did have a lulling quality, so you never know. People were more naked than when they had come in, having spread various articles of clothing around them and, staring down at all the bodies, I thought I might be watching the beginnings of a lazy, pointless orgy. There was a lot of American Apparel—and the array of bright primary colors also reminded me of a kindergarten class during nap time. But then, looking above waist-level, I could see plenty of people engaged with their electronic gadgets, having adult conversations, catching up, and so forth.

I’m sure you’ve seen it. Everyone there clearly thought, whether abashedly or unapologetically, that there was something special about the room. Conspiratorial glances declared to newcomers: Look what we’ve found, come take your clothes off, lie down, isn’t this great? What was so great, I guess, was the chance to be completely yourself, your pajama-clad, eating-cereal-in-the-afternoon self, while in a museum. And that was exactly what spoiled the whole thing for me: people seemed a little too casual, which made me suspicious. Everyone looked really good. The level of attractiveness, I noticed, was considerably above average. Even the nappers were napping in a poised and pristine way. No mouths were really agape, after all—I made that part up.

So obviously people were seeking the opportunity to be themselves in a museum, or the kinds of selves they don’t normally get to be when they’re in museums—but look good at the same time. Though I found myself annoyed, I can understand the desire. I never know how I ought to behave at MoMA or the Met. I manage myself fine, of course, but dangers loom. Situations arise.

Your friend comes to visit. You go to whatever exhibit you found on the New York Times website that morning while he was sleeping. At the museum, he talks about the pictures in a voice loud enough to make you uncomfortable. He asks, “What do you think makes this painting so powerful?” Or, “What do you think this artist is trying to say?” The questions are not stupid. It’s just that you can’t think of how to answer them without sounding stupid yourself. Should you say, “I think the vibrant use of orange really enhances the composition”? Or, “She’s critiquing commodity culture, while also reveling in it”? No! Intellectual conversations, as a woman I briefly dated once admonished me, are like public displays of affection—fun to be in, but mortifying to observe, and in a museum you know you’re being observed. But refusing to answer your friend’s questions is no solution either. You’re paralyzed. And you’re not even sure what you’re afraid of. You’re not sure whether your replies will make you look like a philistine or a snob. Which would be worse? Which are you more qualified to be?

You want to seem down-to-earth of course, but if only your desires were that simple. Modesty, after all, is just a means of demonstrating that you’re well positioned within the various cultural hierarchies that preside, just out of sight, like tactful event planners, over all variety of rituals in New York City—hierarchies you can best show you’ve conquered by pretending they don’t exist, by being completely yourself, but gracefully so, sans agape mouth. Museums, with their egalitarian educational goals and their obscurely significant high-culture objects, stage a confrontation between America’s democratic pretenses and the invidious struggle for prestige that these pretenses conceal and enable. At a place like MoMA it becomes painfully apparent that class and status ambiguities in America make for a comfortable blanket, but there’s plenty of room for tossing and turning, for kicking and pinching underneath it.

So what do you say to your friend? You’d think that your education would help you. Shouldn’t the time you spent in college or grad school have taught you how to behave in places like this, how to feel? The problem is generational, I suspect. Very few people leave college these days with the kind of well-developed reverence for high culture that would make it easy to know how to behave in a museum. Most students go to college to learn technological, financial, or managerial skills, and can acquire culture capital outside the traditional ensemble of highbrow pursuits. And those few who do end up majoring in English or art history will likely learn that reverence toward high culture is no longer so fashionable.

We probably all know an older colleague or friend of our parents who doesn’t suffer from this problem. He talks piously about Beethoven, Rembrandt, Freud. When a ballet performance ends he emits vaguely sexual noises to underscore what a profound experience he’s had and what a dullard you must be if you couldn’t summon the same enthusiasm or happened to be thinking about whether you could put off doing your laundry for another day right as the performance was reaching its crescendo. This is how a previous generation showed itself to be cultured. You look at these people with amusement, especially when they evince unctuous zeal in the face of contemporary art that doesn’t deserve or seek to inspire this kind of attitude. They look at you with perplexity when you report conversations using the phrases, “I was like,” and “he was like,” or declare approvingly that a video installation reminded you of The Matrix.

It’s not that this older art enthusiast is in a culturally secure position—though he may have seemed to be when you were an adolescent, and his erudite conversation at your family dinner table aroused in you those early stirrings of intellectual insecurity and ambition from which you still haven’t recovered today. His painstaking efforts to demonstrate his knowledge are the essence of middlebrow. But so are all the anxieties I’m describing here. If I’m being honest, the feelings I experience when I enter a museum are as middlebrow as the Van Gogh “Starry Night” drink coasters that someone bought for my mom, probably at the MoMA gift shop. I’m looking to improve myself. I feel inadequate. I’m hoping to impress people.

There’s a difference, however, between the previous generation of strivers and ours. For both, trying too hard to show off your expertise is a dead giveaway that you haven’t got as much status as you’d like. But in previous decades there was still a belief that those who took advantage of inexpensive museum fares, public libraries, and so forth were elevating themselves. For my generation, say those born around or after 1968, the sign that you’re at the top of the hierarchy is a readiness to acknowledge that the high ground you’ve come to occupy isn’t actually higher than any other ground.

This is very American. Our purported populism has always made us wary of those claiming, by virtue of their position or education, to know better than everyone else. One thing that’s changed, though, is that this populism, often disguised as the heady skepticism of continental theory, has managed to sneak into the very bastion of elitism, into the places where the aspiring intellectual first learns how to be a pompous snob: academic humanities departments. The institutionalization of deconstruction, identity politics, and Marxist criticism, in other words, has replaced the pious attitudes of previous eras with a different set of now-habitual postures: distrust of the canon and the institutions that preserve it. Whatever their merits, these frameworks have created enough ambivalence to make art appreciation a vexing enterprise for a generation of well-educated museumgoers. Because if you don’t believe in high culture, then what are you doing at a museum?

The closer we get to the top, it seems, the more likely we are to believe, or pretend to believe, that the ladder we’ve been climbing leads nowhere—is meaningful only to those who stare at its innumerable rungs from below. Self-improvement, we discover, is a sham. We were better off when we were just kids, when we knew what we liked effortlessly, when our passions were not learned. And so we end up in MoMA’s romper room, doing somersaults on the carpet, hoping to return to a state of innocence.

While I was at MoMA, I heard someone remark, “We should play hide-and seek,” which is actually how the three kids I mentor occupied themselves when I brought them to the Met a year ago. They were 14 years old, poor, at risk, and utterly unconcerned with the status and/or gradual disappearance of high culture in contemporary America. The program encourages mentors to take their kids to public environments that require the kinds of manners they need to succeed in places very unlike the neighborhoods where they spend 95 percent of their time. Basically, a covert class-mobility agenda. I knew my kids might cause problems, but when it comes to doing that hard-ass inspirational routine that people like Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, and Edward James Olmos do in movies, I’m hopeless, so I told them to meet me in the lobby in two hours and not get into trouble. I wandered off to have my usual neurotic museum experience. Occasionally I’d see the kids dart by at a speed not really appropriate for a place that housed fragile, invaluable objects, and I’d think to myself: well, nobody knows that I brought them here.

When we finally met up, they told me they’d spent the two hours playing hide-and-seek. They’d almost gotten kicked out twice. I asked them if they’d looked at any art, and they muttered something noncommittal about sculptures that were mad old. If this trip was designed to encourage well-mannered behavior, it was obviously a failure. Ironically, though, the kids exemplified exactly the attitude that some intellectuals in our generation wouldn’t mind achieving: they were cavalier and bold; they were not intimidated by anything they saw; they didn’t wistfully propose playing hide-and-seek—they actually did it.

The desire to edify these kids by bringing them to the Met is obviously predicated upon dangerous assumptions about the superiority of one subculture over another, and yet I couldn’t help but wish that they had acquired a few of the hang-ups that made me, when I was around their age, stand solemnly in front of paintings, hoping to have a profound aesthetic response. At least then they would have looked at some art. But then why assume that they hadn’t? It’s possible that for a moment, while hiding from whoever was “it,” they had stared at a sculpture and noticed a surprising pattern, a mood that echoed their own, and appreciated it, not because they’d wanted to seem smart, just because they’d happened to be standing in front of it. I don’t know. If they had, they certainly wouldn’t have told me about it.

Likewise, it would be nice to think that the function of Pipilotti Rist’s Pour Your Body Out (7354 Cubic Meters), the MoMA installation with the carpet and video screens, is to decouple reverence from pretension. But it may do exactly the inverse: it may reinforce the role that youthful irreverence continues to play, at least for some of us, as a defensive default pretense. In any case, everyone there struck me as too unbearably placid, comfortable, and friendly. I wanted to say, “This is not right! Don’t you realize that museums are supposed to make you feel miserable and insecure?” Instead I put on the blank face that I usually wear in museums and, wanting to get as much out of MoMA’s free evening as possible, went to go look at the other exhibits. Maybe learn something.

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