Suellen and I love to go to art museums. I like to look at the art. I also like to observe people looking at the art. Here’s a basic truth: nobody smiles while looking at art in art museums. Ever. It’s just not done.
Why would that be? Is art really so serious that we can’t smile at it or about it? Is it acceptable for an artist to give us a nudge and a wink and let us in on a good joke? Some very serious literature can also make us laugh out loud. Couldn’t visual art do the same?
I’ve been worried about this for some time now. Here are my best guesses as to why we behave the way we do.
Art is hierarchical – artists profess to know something – or see something – that’s worth knowing. Further, artists profess to know something that the rest of us don’t. They present their ideas to us in museums. Since they know more than we do – in at least one domain – we look up to them. We show our respect with a serious demeanor.
Art museums are the new cathedrals – in centuries past, architects designed cathedrals to project power, wealth, and ineffable spiritual connections. Today, art museums serve the same function. Great architects used to design cathedrals; today they design art museums. You wouldn’t smile in a cathedral, would you?
Social imitation – we see that other people in art museums look very serious, so we assume that we should be serious, too. They see us being serious, so they assume they should be serious, too. With this in mind, I smiled continuously for 15 minutes in a very crowded Whitney museum. I got a few nervous glances but didn’t really have much impact. Perhaps we should organize smiling flash mobs to visit art museums. That might cheer things up a bit.
Museum mind – I enter a museum with a great deal of curiosity. I want to see things and learn things. Then, within a few minutes of entering, I see something that knocks my socks off. It captures my imagination and hangs on. My mind is preoccupied with the amazing thing I just saw. My eyes are seeing but my mind is not. With no new stimulus, my face goes blank. It’s not that I’m serious. I’m stunned.
We don’t get it – maybe we just don’t understand what we’re looking at. We keep looking for meaning when meaning is beside the point. We’re confused. And confused people don’t smile.
I enjoy going to art museums. I enjoy the art and the people watching. But I wish we wouldn’t be quite so serious about it all. It feels like going to church. I’d rather have it feel like fun. What about you?