As I mentioned last week, I went to see the North Carolina Museum of Art’s sold-out Monet retrospective (which closed yesterday) in between performances of Carolina Ballet’s Monet Impressions. It was almost as crowded as the Manet show that Our Girl and I saw three years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago:
I almost never go to blockbuster shows during regular museum hours. As a working critic, I normally attend “press views,” the pre-opening previews which, even when they draw good-sized audiences, are never too crowded. In the past couple of years, I’ve only had to fight crowds at one mega-blockbuster show, the Museum of Modern Art’s “Matisse Picasso” (I reviewed it for The Wall Street Journal, then returned a second time in the company of a friend who had a spare ticket). As a result, I’d forgotten how oppressive it is to try to look at great art in the company of undifferentiated hordes of other viewers, a not-insubstantial percentage of whom are boorishly noisy….
I don’t feel like rehearsing all the old arguments for and against such shows–they’ve been done to death, and nothing I say, here or elsewhere, will change the economic realities that drive museums to put together 100-piece extravaganzas of Impressionism’s Greatest Hits. Nor do I propose to gripe about wall texts or audio tours. In a perfect world, museumgoers would simply look at paintings, then go home, read about them, and come back to see them again. Alas, the world of art is far from perfect: not only do most museumgoers like to read about the paintings they see while they’re seeing them, but more than a few like to hear about them as well. What’s more, I don’t doubt that at least some of them profit from the experience, and far be it from me to decree that they should be deprived of it.
Having said all this, I do want to make a couple of modest proposals:
(1) Once a year, every working art critic should be required to attend a blockbuster show on a weekend or holiday. He should buy a ticket with his own money, line up with the citizenry, fight his way through the crowds, listen to an audio tour–and pay close attention to what his fellow museumgoers are saying and doing. In short, he should be forced to remind himself on a regular basis of how ordinary people experience art, and marvel at the fact that they keep coming back in spite of everything.
That one’s easy. This one’s harder:
(2) Every “civilian” who goes to a given museum at least six times a year should be allowed to attend a press or private view of a major exhibition. The experience of seeing a blockbuster show under such conditions is eye-opening in every sense of the word. If more ordinary museumgoers were to have such experiences, it might change their feelings about the ways in which museums present such exhibitions
I thought of those proposals as I fought my way through “Monet in Normandy” last Thursday. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed the experience. Great art isn’t meant to be seen in a crowd, even a well-mannered crowd of friendly, earnest North Carolinians. On the other hand, seeing it under less than ideal circumstances is better than not seeing it at all, and the fact that I had to line up to see certain of the paintings actually forced me to spend more time looking at them than I might have spent had I been attending a press view.
I got stuck, for instance, in front of Wisteria (Glycines), a 1920 canvas owned by the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and realized after a few minutes of unintended scrutiny that Joan Mitchell must have seen the same painting at some point in her life and been influenced by it. Would I have made that connection had I been strolling briskly through a half-empty gallery? Probably not.
I also had time to reflect on the insufficiently appreciated fact that Monet’s late paintings, which once were thought difficult to the point of obscurity, have in recent years become so popular that people who know little or nothing about art will line up to see them. How is it possible that Monet and Debussy, who in their own time were truly radical artists, are now beloved by the public at large?
I’m sorry to say that overfamiliarity long ago caused me to start taking both men for granted. Going to Raleigh to see “Monet in Normandy” and Monet Impressions has had the unexpected and welcome effect of renewing my long-dormant appreciation of their extreme originality. They were giants–and they still are. I can think of worse ways to be reminded of that fact than paying a visit to a crowded museum.