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Anatomy of a Bogey Man: Intro to Worship in the Museum, essay #1

Today we begin a series of essays by artist Piper Vollmer. We asked Piper to write about art museums from the perspective of a Christ-Follower. In particular, how might we worship God in an art museum? Piper is a gifted artist with a lot of insight. Find more from her here. We’ll be posting a new essay every week for the next four weeks. Enjoy.

Fancy yourself as an art critic? Want to talk the talk, but can’t be bothered to walk the walk? The only solution is this brilliant ‘bluffers guide’ to appreciating art. You will be able to walk in to any art gallery, friend in tow, and without hesitation fire-off poetic pearls of wisdom detailing the great impressionists, modern art, and even paintings that look like they’ve been drawn by three year olds! You will quickly get to grips with style, abstract, naturalistic, form, color and emotion; and learn the correct words to use to describe them. Just twenty minutes listening to this beautifully crafted tutorial, will have you sounding like a complete ‘art tart’ in no time. So what are you waiting for? There’s a Da Vinci to critique.
-From the Audible Audio Edition of Cocktail Art, by Beth Stubbings

It may seem a little slack on the face of it to launch a critical examination of encounters in the museum with the plug for Ms. Stubbings’ little audio file Cocktail Art. This, in many ways, is low hanging fruit. But between these frivolous lines there is useful information and a chance to mind true things by their mockeries. Over the next few weeks, this series of essays will attempt to explore and encourage worship in the museum and in an effort to do that, both obstacles and aids will be canvassed (so to speak). The first of these, and the quarry of this entry, is somewhat slippery. It’s a fugitive product of long-term cultural construction, built over generations and alternately dismantled and remade according to the order of the day. These same qualities give it the potential to be an inconspicuous companion, a set of expectations or customs that we may not even recognize, even as we try to meet or thwart them.

Here, the promises in Cocktail Art can give us a foothold. Abject as they may seem, they are unique only in their bald resignation. It is not the fact that Stubbingspitches a con job that is significant but that there is a market at all for this advice and an unnamed burden on museum goers that she proposes, with a conspiratorial wink, to lift. This self-consciously flip cheat may not be a noble solution, or a particularly workable one, but it does throw light on two important aspects of a cultural mindset: understanding art requires a lot from us and the idea of legitimately learning to give it has begun to pall.

In his ethnographic Tour de Force Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, Pierre Bourdieu uses a number of aesthetic encounters to map the prolific ways and means of snobbery in late twentieth century France. After collecting and analyzing over 1200 surveys, he hypothesizes a complex map of social and class factions. Among them appropriation of visual art, specifically painting, emerges as a highly specialized –and therefore powerful- arbiter of taste. He rightly points out that, beginning with the Impressionists, modern painting subordinates the idea of a picture to modes of representation. In other words, the art historical cannon of painting since the end of the nineteenth century is characterized by works that are less about the subject than about the daubs of paint that make it up. Before the Impressionists, you could paint a picture of a boat. After them you make a Painting and it just happens to be of a boat. Or maybe it’s just titled The Boat with no discernable boat in sight.

This shift, Bourdieu argues, offers new scope for the articulation and structuring of taste by what he terms the “dominant culture.” Paintings now “demand a pure aesthetic disposition which earlier art demanded only conditionally.” Which is to say, once upon a time we could all more or less agree that a picture did or did not look like a doggone boat, and therein lay its artistic merit.  Now, the artist has asserted an “effort which is an end in itself,” and the would-be critics are compelled to judge artistic merit according to the conventions of that effort, or you could say, its particular “ism.” The conversation is practically forced to become an insider’s game, expressed in a progressively obscure lexicon and governed by infuriatingly subjective standards. This state of affairs, Bourdieu goes on to demonstrate, is inherently potent stuff for judgments of taste and their attending social hierarchy. Presumably, it only increases in potency the further one moves from representation. By the time “paintings thatlook like they’ve been drawn by three year olds” arrive on the scene, it seems likely that only a handful of highly developed aesthetes might be fit to view, let alone comment on them. Meanwhile the rest of us stand on the outside looking in. Evidently modern art, whatever else it may be, is a vigilant border guard against upstart bourgeoisie.

This then, is the battlefield where we find Ms. Stubbings with a white flag in one hand and a cosmopolitan in the other inviting us to sit back, relax and capitulate. You look tired, she says, let’s face it, art appreciation is a bit of a bore as causes go and we just can’t win. Here, have a listen and we’ll fake it together. Cheers.

It is not my intention to deliver a treatise on human nature from the combined views of Stubbings and Bourdieu; the latter has already definitively done so. It will, I think, prove plenty dark and deep to try and form an approach to worship in an art exhibition against this background; “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” After all, Cocktail Art is not solely or even mostly aimed at the weary art lover who just can’t master the jargon; it is a shameless appeal to pride. The “friend in tow,” poor thing, necessarily suffers the new found vocabulary. A counterfeit expertise is no good on its own, it requires a dupe. Bourdieu, on the other hand, extends this exhibitionistic aspect to bone fide critical understanding and where the two meet we find a dreary consensus: It is not art appreciation that museum goers are after, but refinement, status, admiration, exclusivity… and if they cannot achieve it in actuality, they’d at least like to look the part. For Stubbings’ file to be worth the download and Bourdieu’s hypothesis to have teeth, the chief contribution of art need only be a reliable arena in which to show off intellectual prowess and natural (or bogus) good taste. And which of us can argue that this is never the case?

We recognize the type, if not from experience than at least second hand. It’s a pop culture trope packaged in a telling mix of parody and antipathy, a worn but never worn-out gag. Usually it’s a man, though Woody Allen, in ever great need of a foil for his twitchy neurosis, predictably, and to great effect, makes it a beautiful woman. There are often some fancy touches to the wardrobe: probably a hat, some velvet somewhere, maybe a cigarette holder, or, heaven help us, a cravat. If the dress does not betray him as gasbag or fanatic or dilettante, gesture and intonation will out. As the gallery attendant “Serge” in Beverly Hills Cop, Bronson Pinchot steals the scene with an emphatic but indeterminate accent and chic off-handedness (unfortunately it abandons him the third installment). He is one in a crowded subcategory where homosexuality serves as shorthand for aesthetic sensitivity; a characterization that is not yet as retrograde as it ought to be. Comedians Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie give their satirical lay critics a pitch-perfect nasal drone and increasingly prostrate pose, evidently so exhausted by the mediocrity of it all, they can’t be bothered to remain upright. Steve Martin plays the art savvy know-it-all in a scene from L.A. Story with a self deprecating twist to assure us he understands that nobody really likes that guy. Oscar Wilde, P. G. Wodehouse, Mark Twain, Saturday Night Live and Monty Python have all taken their pound of art aficionado flesh. A personal favorite remains from my childhood obsession with the British Sci-fi series Dr. Who (here is where my husband cringes and tells me I’ve said too much). The episode “City of Death,” contains an unforgettable moment when the TARDIS police box is mistaken by two art lovers for a work of appropriation.  The hero tops some hilariously pompous art speak by clambering noisily into the ship. As it vanishes from the museum, the couple looks on with model British composure and declares the whole thing “Exquisite. Absolutely exquisite.” It was later in life that I learned this was a cameo by Eleanor Bron and John Cleese.

We prove and soothe our dread through satire, but it is the serious incarnations of this specimen that best expose our honest to God anxieties. Even in the comical there are useful distinctions of gravity. In Play it Again Sam, Woody Allen’s museum encounter is pure farce but in Manhattan, there is more to make us writhe; there is genuine humiliation in his doomed attempts. As an index of power and acquisitiveness, an art collection in a villain’s home has become enough of a cliché that it often migrates to the humorous (e.g. Mr. Burns in the Simpsons). Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, G. K. Chesterton, and the James Bond films have all colored antagonists with this attribute. In an interesting variation, the 2001remake of Ocean’s Eleven gives its villain a collection by proxy. Andy Garcia’s character has all of the money but none of the taste behind the collection, making it all the more irredeemably despotic. In the movie Double Jeopardy, a young party guest attempts to impress his date by pointing out that the prints on the wall are from Picasso’s Blue Period. The owner of the work, who we have not yet learned to dislike, casually strolls by to call him out. “It’s a Kandinsky,” he says; a bright touch of cruelty on an otherwise stock villain.  A more romantic, but no less formidable facet of the type is the myth of innately sophisticated vision. At its most compelling, it is significantly more than a mere “eye for art.” In Brideshead Revisited, Anthony Blanche eagerly comes to Charles Ryder’s exhibition to view his paintings of a trek through South America. He begins by witheringly characterizing the many lush landscapes as “simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers,” and deftly proceeds to more brutal personal pronouncements on Charles, all culled from the paintings. Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre also possesses this vision and it is when he looks through her drawings that the reader understands he has begun to comprehend her soul.

Locating a stereotype is a scatterbrained business and a reduction of reductions, but if we can gather the threads we can begin to dispel myths. Many of the above examples are admirably constructed and delivered and I don’t want to imply that these portrayals are somehow evil in themselves, or even that the sum of their parts ought always to be banished. I do think that their collective legacy has a power that can go wrong in insidious ways. If we did not already know it, Bourdieu and Stubbings make it clear that knowledge of art is sometimes used as a means of exclusivity and judgment. Literature and cinema have reiterated and reinforced the larger than life qualities of the figure that carries such knowledge. How closely this bogey man stalks our steps through the museum no doubt widely varies. Maybe you are just in the museum to pass a Sunday afternoon pushing the stroller through air-conditioned rooms while the baby naps. In that case, your relative lack of expectation may help defuse the powers that be. Most of us, though, have come across a piece of sculpture or stood in front of painting, toes to the white tape, wondering if we’re being punked. Thus far no harm is done. But the moment requires a response and here, I promise, the bogey man can become the devil that whispers in your ear. Who are the faceless “they” who understand this work and have the authority to declare it worthy of attention? What if there are people nearby who just “get it,” while you, oh philistine cannot? Maybe this is the artistic equivalent of The Emperor’s New Clothes, with critic and curator acting as the tailors, holding up the illusion and asking you to comment, laughing under their breath and/or all the way to the bank. Beat them or join them, those are your only choices.

Don’t misunderstand me. Not all art in a museum is automatically good, in every sense of that word, but pride is no bogey man and it is oh so very opportunistic. Even to the casual museum wanderer, pride threatens to silence us when we ought to inquire and urges vain speech when we ought to be silent. The French art critic Edmond de Goncourt stated that “a painting in a museum hears more ridiculous opinions than anything else in the world.” We may choose to believe that our opinions can’t possibly be ridiculous and go on speaking unchecked or we may choose to be silent in fear that we are unable to contribute anything but the ridiculous; both are the poisonous fruit of pride. There is no more shame in not understanding a piece of art than there is in not speaking Russian if you were born in Wichita. Conversely, if a person has done the work to understand a piece of art (in many ways analogous to learning a second language) they may rightly regard it as an accomplishment, but not grounds for superiority; “What do you have that you have not been given?”

As a younger Christian, I read the book of Acts with a tourist’s eye. Confronted by a landscape of the aggressively supernatural, I rather lazily concluded that it was yesterday’s Christianity and, well, just not my brand. That is potentially a whole other blog but the point I want to make is that by concentrating on the miracles, which were frankly scarce in my experience, I took lightly or ignored altogether the essential promises in that book. I have since been taught much of what I neglected and in discussions of cultural power centers like the museum I think the book of Acts is invaluable. Among the beautiful lessons that the narrative illustrates so unequivocally are two that will inform all of the upcoming essays: First, Christians, wherever they go, can invoke a dazzling collision between darkness and light and second, the line between those forces, however difficult to trace, is subject to the Spirit.

The goal of the series will be to explore that line as it transverses the museum and I suggest as a working definition of “worship,” a bold and obedient stand at that line. We have as model and source the perfect seer, friend, critic, brother, provocateur, redeemer and conqueror; a man who understood his culture and carried out his vocation through and against it. Through and against it. Again and again we are promised (and nowhere more vividly than in the book of Acts) that at the boundaries of the sacred and profane, nuanced and embattled as they are, followers of Jesus are empowered by the Spirit. It is not so much that the holy lies on one side and the worldly on the other, but that the interface itself has become charged with a victory already won. It is in the “renewing of our minds,” that we begin to be transformed and to effect transformation (Rom. 12: 1&2) and this series will try and contribute to that by broadening knowledge and appreciation of exhibition spaces. The far greater part of that renewal is to work out such knowledge in love, trusting that we are equipped not only to name and shame the bogey man, but to reclaim its dark quarters for the light, in our minds and in the museum.

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