A woman walks towards me, glancing at my shirt. Damn it, what did I spill on it? Momentary panic.
“Hi, do you work here?”
That question takes a couple seconds to register, like it always does. My eyes go out of focus as I remember the last couple weeks of training, trial, and error. Then I look down and notice that I’m wearing my badge and am holding a clipboard, and that I probably look official as all get out.
“Um.. yes. Yes, yes I do. How can I help you?”
After my hesitation, she eyes me for a second suspiciously, but asks directions to a van Gogh painting anyway. Thank God it’s just van Gogh, I think. I’m able to direct her satisfactorily, and feel pretty smug. Then I get cocky and ask an old woman if she needs help. She asks me to help her find gallery 213, and though I have no idea where it is, I trace a slightly roundabout route along the map that she’s holding as a pretext for finding it myself. Better slow down, big guy, I think to myself.
I’m beginning to like the authority of this badge. I love just marching in and out of the museum entrance, with only a casual, unnecessary nod to the ticket collector. He’ll see my badge and probably couldn’t care less, but I always feel it’s important to acknowledge this highly official interaction.
The other day, I was up near Terzo Piano, looking at our contemporary sculpture collection (a bit small). A woman came up behind me and began getting very close to the sculptures, trying to film them. A guard came up and put a hand on my shoulder.
“Is she with you?” he asked.
“No, I’m afraid not,” I said.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry, I’m going to have to ask you to stop filming and take a step back from the sculptures,” he said.
Ha, VIP status, I thought.
Aside from giving confused visitors overly elaborate directions, I’ve also been using my badge to get a sense of people’s thoughts about art, as I try to prepare tours. It’s interesting to hear their varied responses. Some are so excited to be asked their opinions that they quite frankly don’t stop talking, and I zone out after a while. Most of them offer thoughtful, insightful answers, albeit slowly. Some of them are not very happy having their viewing time interrupted. But generally, I think people like the opportunity to talk, it’s helpful for their viewing experience. I always try to give them at least 30 seconds to look, and if they don’t feel like answering my questions, I don’t force the issue. What is funny, though, is the way that people will attempt to escape questioning. Sometimes, I see a horrified look in their eyes, as if it were exam day but they had been up all night re-watching the fifth season of Scrubs and were completely unprepared. I know you’ve done that.
Though he is beautiful, Zach Braff is not art. Well not exactly.
My favorite escape plan went like this:
“Hi, I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m actually preparing a tour about this object, and I’d really love to hear what you think about it. Any thoughts you have at all, there’s no wrong answer, you don’t have to answer at all either.”
We were looking at one of my new favorite pieces – Lichtenstein’s Three Landscapes, which I had been preparing for avidly for days. The three panels gently rock back and forth within their frames. From what I’ve read, Lichtenstein was trying to heighten our awareness of the inherent artificiality of representation, like he always does, but I wanted to see how most people react to it.
“Oh,” said the woman. “Oh.” We sat there in silence for about 20 seconds.
“Well, just one question, what do you think about the blue dots in the upper left hand corner? Do they look weird or disruptive to you? Or do you think they fit in well?”
She stared at me. Silence again. After a few moments she said, “Oh I think my phone is ringing,” though I was pretty sure it wasn’t.
“Oh sure, don’t worry about it,” I said.
She put the phone to her ear and said, “Hi mom!” while giving me a sideways glance. I returned to looking at the object, deciding to leave the woman in peace. She turned towards me and said, “Hey, sorry, it’s my mom,” with a meaningful look. I could have guessed that, and I smiled, and let her walk away. I guess I have a bit to learn about when and how to ask people about art.
I do, though, always make a point to ask the security guards that I meet their opinions. I think it’s easy to forget that they know the collection, visually, as well as anyone, and probably more comprehensively than most. So it’s not surprising that some of the most interesting and funniest interpretations I hear are from them, and so are some of the most insightful. They have heard countless lectures, tours, and people in general stand in front of pieces of art and talk about them.
I asked four different security guards what they thought about Three Landscapes. At first, they almost all said that they don’t know, but were clearly making that up, because they all then gave me great responses.
“You’re on a boat. You are on a boat. What, where do you think you are? In a museum? Nah, on a boat.”
I laughed but he gave me a very serious look. Then I was a little concerned that I’d offended him, but he started laughing too.
“Nah, man, you’re in a museum.”
Good to know.
A woman told me that it looked like a real-life comic book, but it was made out of videos and postcards. That was fantastic, because it was actually true to Lichtenstein’s intentions, even though she sounded embarrassed after she said it. Another guy told me that it reminded him of California, a doctor’s office, and an electric shaver. He told me about why it reminded him of his favorite place in California, and how his family lives there. That was actually really important to remember, that modern artists very often create works that directly appeal to certain experiences in people’s lives that are outside the artists’ knowledge and control.
“Well I think it’s the difference between life and death,” said one guard who I keep running into and really like talking to. She explained how each panel felt like a transition, how the first one looked like a knife chopping the water, like dying, and the second one just looked fake, but the third one looked like flying off into heaven. What a poetic answer, and why not? Then she told me to follow my dreams. Homerun.
I have been so happy with the responses that I’ve been getting that I feel like my mind has been significantly expanded, and that I’m realizing that there is so much more depth to these works other than that suggested by the already complex art historical literature. I’m also very proud of Roy Lichtenstein for inciting these responses in people. I have been obsessing over him so much in the last couple weeks, just trying to understand everything he does – listening to him, talking about him – that I feel like we are friends. Actually I’m not sure that feeling is reciprocal because he’s dead.
Maybe this one counts as art.