Notes from a recent visit to the art museum:
The museum is crowded. Too late, I forget that first Thursdays are free admission days. In any case, the crowds include two or three troupes of children, ranging in ages from elementary to middle school, I would guess. One especially rambunctious group comes prepared with worksheets given to them in advance by a well-organized teacher or some supervising adult. (Not in attendance.) They race about the museum galleries as fast as they can, as if on a madcap scavenger hunt to see who can be the first to find _______.
“Mick Jagger,” they sigh collectively, awestruck, before a grouping of Warhol screenprints.
No response to Chairman Mao.
Two middle school girls peer anxiously at a wall plaque, pencils hovering over their worksheets. “Andy Warhol?” one asks tentatively, looking for the right answer to fill in the blank.
“No,” a passing classmate responds scornfully, “That’s just the guy who made it.”
• • •
In the “Next” contemporary gallery, as I am engaging with the work, thoughtfully making my way around the room, trying to understand it on its own terms before turning to the curator’s interpretation, a group of elementary children comes storming through, anxiously filling in the blanks on their worksheets.
“Heidi Hinrichs, Heidi Hinrichs,” an entire roomful of children sighs, as if swooning after another celebrity, another household name.
Or just filling in another blank on their worksheets, a name they had not previously been able to find.
“Pencils stuck through a table,” a bossy one announces to the group, “That’s it. That’s the answer to question three.”
Most of the children obediently scribble down the answer on their worksheets, and some even leave the gallery, tearing off in search of the next item on their scavenger hunt.
“And an egg,” another one adds, “An egg stuck through a table.”
The gallery is filled with similar – and dissimilar – objects with like juxtapositions between fragility and stability, banal objects, most of them quite ugly, but for some reason unclear to me the children congregate around the table. It is about their height, not beautiful, but functional as a table, such as one might find in a school classroom. Perhaps that is the attraction. Familiarity.
“What’s that?” one puzzles over an upside-down box, a common cardboard box that looks to have endured some heavy duty, maybe was even left out in the rain, but there is no supervising adult to take up the question, and none of the other children bother even to ask, what’s that. “Is that part of the museum?” he adds, his tone halfway between puzzlement, which could be curiosity, which could quickly become consideration and engagement with the work, and jeering. A moment later, his questions ignored by his peers, that wavering between wonderment and dismissal falls to the side of jeering with, “Well, anybody could have placed that there.”
They tear through the museum galleries pell-mell, their voices and clattering footsteps ricocheting off the hard surfaces of the walls, floor, and ceiling, some of the bossier children even shushing the others – clearly, at some point, they have been instructed as to appropriate behavior in a museum – but even their shushing of one another is loud, and as effective as yelling SHUSH! at a herd of stampeding elephants.
This is an art education in the early twenty-first century. What impresses me is that the children have no adult supervision to guide them through the museum, to teach them about art, or to engage their natural curiosity. Yet what they have already clearly learned in their young lives is respect for celebrity, efficiency, and getting to the “right” answer to a given question as quickly as possible. And that is for lucky urban children, fortunate to live in proximity to an art museum.
I continue my exploration of Hinrichs’s work: Simple, childlike drawings on common school notebook paper, sometimes lined, sometimes not. Schoolyard memories. Eyes that sometimes cry, sometimes do not. Some common shapes, and these shapes are again common to the physical objects placed throughout the gallery. A drawing of a dog who seems to sometimes walk on four legs, sometimes two, who seems to have two tails, or maybe it is one tail and a leash that extends to a human companion not visible, or maybe it is one tail wagging.
A soccer ball torn in half, and the halves turned inside out, with their foam stuffing exposed.
Common dowels stuck into 1/4-inch holes drilled into the museum walls, then draped over with colored paper or fabric.
Repetition. Fragility. Strength.
Some one-by-twos lean into a corner, unsanded, unfinished in any way except that their surfaces have been pocked with faux pearls, common objects like you might find at a fabric store or what used to be called a dime store, before WalMart and Target and the other big box corporations came along and usurped that market niche.
A sheet of wall board, its surface scarred with rips and tears and markings, its edge deliberately cut in some sort of irregular scallop, a scallop that is echoed by the objects placed on the floor in front of it: Cast plaster in shapes that seem both familiar and strange: Teeth fragments, a handsaw that might have been used to cut the scallop, bone fragments for an animal of unknown origin, the four paws of a dog, brutally disconnected from its body.
And so on.
What is inside turned out.
Early childhood trauma, some schoolyard pranks, maybe. Loss. Memory. Mourning.
What is fragile might be strong. What is common might be beautiful. What is secret might be spoken out loud. If one takes the time to look. If one puts in the effort of engagement. If one listens, and pays attention.
The children are not entirely bereft of adults, just none that seems to be filling a teaching capacity. One or two parents, maybe, along for the class museum day. As I stand in the midst of the gallery, puzzling through Hinrichs’s work as well as observing the children, it occurs to me that the children are as much as part of the work as the scalloped edge of wall board, the punctured and hanging from a hook in the ceiling some sort of rubbery dull grey fabric. As much a part of the work as am I, standing in the midst of the children. A young mother observes me observing the children’s responses to the work; our eyes meet, we trade brief smiles, the circle is complete again. Or a jagged scallop edge is traced again, its circle incomplete without conversation.
• • •
In the Michelangelo exhibition, a boy whispers, “Look.”
I look down, to where he stands at my side, but he is not speaking to me. Reaching not quite to my waist, adults are not yet on his social radar screen. His little pointing finger points at a reproduction image on the wall, coming as close to the image as he can without actually touching it, perhaps his small fingertip’s distance away from the image, and where he points is at a man’s flaccid penis. Smaller, in the reproduction, than the boy’s fingertip.
“Look,” he repeats, louder, and looks around, for someone with whom he might share his discovery. He does not see me, even though I am standing right next to him, looking at an immaculately matted and framed scrap of a drawing by Michelangelo Buonarroti. He looks back to the image again, still pointing, now giggling, then runs off across the gallery, returning soon with a little peer in tow.
“Look,” he says again, again pointing, again with his fingertip not more than a fingertip’s width away from the representation of a penis.
This time another adult, a young woman, has come up to look over my shoulder at this grouping of – it cannot be called art, as for every miniscule scrap of drawing by the master in this exhibition there is a dizzying array of explicatory text, wall graphics, and reproductions of Michelangelo’s painting or sculpture – information on the wall before us, and she responds to the boy’s pointing and giggling and attention-calling with a hastily choked-back giggle of her own, with a sideways glance at me.
To our cultural values of celebrity, efficiency, and speed, one might also add shame.
• • •
Back in the “Next” gallery, this time when a group of middle-school children come trooping through. These are accompanied by a teacher.
“Cool,” they respond to Hinrichs’s work, “Look at that.”
And of the pencil stuck through the table, one especially gregarious boy remarks, “That’s how I feel some days, at school. I just want to stab my pencil through the table.”
“Only you wouldn’t do that, would you?” the young teacher cautions. Chiding is her sole contribution to the class discussion on art.
That’s how I feel some days, too, like I just want to stab my pencil through a table, and not have it break, as it passes through to the other side.