This past Monday, I went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., which was amazing. For early American art, that is. Modern art was a bit lacking– to be expected from a national museum (therefore, a bit on the conservative acquisition side). I think good collections of early American art make you revel at the wild beauty of the United States, a concept increasingly distant in this suburbanized nation. It also helps that AcDec’s topic for 2008 was Civil War, so a lot of this visit was consumed by nerd-eureka-moments.
However, the exhibition included a lot of Flemish and Dutch art, which in Italian, I curse as scuro. Very dark. They had a few Van Eycks, but nothing too special. I wish they had stocked more American art, because their exhibited collection of it is simply spectacular.
Though the wing of the National Gallery containing the older art is quite large, maybe one-fourth of the Metropolitan (still very large), I breezed through it in around an hour. I rushed across the street (it was 4:00PM, the National Gallery closes at 5:00PM) to see its modern gallery, to content myself with some Rothko, Magritte, Pollock, and yes, there was a yarn installation from Mr. Fred Sandback.
The two criteria for me to be interested in art are:
- It has to catch my eye.
- There has to be some sort of subtext that I haven’t considered before (at least, in depth).
That is how older art–anything before 1800s–generally fails to pique my interest. Before, training in art was very formal, taught and stylized in academies, so there was little variation in general form. A painting was a painting, you didn’t do a Fred Sandback after a pencil sketch and use yarn for its realization. Not to say that this small variety of form is bad– it allowed a lot of artists a narrow space to perfect themselves– but at one time or another, everyone will think, “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Certainly, even for art-snobby people that is true, however much they loathe to admit it.
The second thing– subtext. Before, the impetus behind art was mainly patronage. The artist had to paint according to the patrons’ wishes, and especially in portraits, you have these recurring themes of grandeur, elegance, power, etc. Besides aesthetic beauty, art was really another mode of power, and I am not too interested in that sort of analysis, because it requires a deeper knowledge of history. I do like to analyze the compositions behind such paintings if they are interesting (such as Dr. Watson and the Shark), but for the most part, the themes (do I dare say it?!) are boring to me, especially portraiture. I don’t like art simply because it’s pretty, though it is all right to do so. No judgment there– art does different things for all of us.
Modern art is so abstract and meant to be abstract (for example, photorealism) that it really does invite the viewer in automatically to think about its subtext. Multiple interpretations, many explanations, or even no explanation at all.. there’s so much more to ponder, that doesn’t really require a strong historical knowledge– you just need to live to be able to understand, if at all. You don’t need to read the little placard beside the work of art.
If I find a painting that intrigues me, I could easily spend half an hour looking at it.
How do you visit art museums? Do you breeze through rooms or do you study paintings? Do you have a favorite genre? What are your feelings toward 14c Florentine? If you love it, you are my hero.. I spent a month living that atmosphere, and I still don’t like it! Though now I have started to think about art in Italian. Instead of “attraction”, I’ll immediately think “mi attira!!”– it’s really an odd tic.
If you don’t like art museums, keep visiting. You’ll find something that makes you excited, eventually. I promise.