by Isabella David McCaffrey
Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself without any effort on our part. —Claude Debussy
Third time’s a charm someone once said, and that someone was probably trying to get into the Barnes. It took me three concerted efforts to make it inside those hallowed, controversial walls, although, to be fair, the fault was not in the stars but me.
Like many museums, the Barnes in Philadelphia adheres to its own peculiar schedule, closed Tuesdays for some godforsaken reason. The second time I was careful to choose a Saturday, but not careful enough; the Barnes, I was informed after standing in line, wailing toddler and beleaguered husband in tow for a full 45 minutes, was sold out.
I barely repressed an urge to leap across the ticket-table and throttle the ticket-issuer or ask why he hadn’t informed our small crowd by the door what was what three tantrums ago. Still, I wonder: did they imagine we were standing there to admire the dull, minimalist lobby?
Because we weren’t.
Maybe the old Barnes’ former home, a whimsical mansion in Merion, PA, could have enticed us with its codgy glamor, but the new home for one of the most famous collections of impressionist and post-impressionist art in the world is, to put it bluntly, a concrete box. An expensive, state-of-the-art concrete box housing treasure galore, but nevertheless minus the attraction inside, it’s a box singularly lacking in allure.
The third time, I plotted our caper as carefully as Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole in How to Steal a Million. I chose a Wednesday, early in the day, so that if any viewing times were sold out, I could return with my toddler after her nap. As if our persistence were being rewarded by Barnes himself, we got in without a hitch. Clutching a lucky white ticket in my grubby, juice-stained fist, I was almost ebullient, repressing an urge this time to kiss my vendor.
What about this unprepossessing place attracts such huge crowds, I wondered, having to first explore more of the lobby and the coat-check room where I was instructed to leave my diaper bag? I was soon to discover that the austere exterior of the Barnes contrasts strangely with the wild tumult of the interior, where Barnes’ mansion is almost literally reproduced, objects as well as paintings arranged as he had them. But first, as if to savor my triumph, before we hit the popular impressionist and post-impressionist rooms, we made a detour to the new contemporary art exhibit.
In those conceptual rooms, with the exception of the guards, we were often the only people. In fact, it was so eerily quiet, I began to notice the piercing squeak of the stroller. I tilted the stroller onto its quiet back wheels, but, puzzlingly, the maneuver triggered loud sneezes in my child.
“Ah-ah-ah-choo,” she repeated for reasons of her own, as I wheeled her out of the frankly dull contemporary art exhibit, her legs now spread wide, playing with herself out of boredom.
“Sit up like big girl?”
I tried to divert her attention without triggering any neuroses, as we finally made our way into the august chambers of the traditional Barnes, packed with people, paintings, and various gewgaws that I studied with more anxiety than admiration. Troublingly, the objets d’art were all within dimpled fist distance. Visions of debtors’ prison danced before my eyes any time we were forced to stop near the priceless pains-in-the-ass.
Art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality…
As soon as my upturned eyes met acres of nude, female flesh oiled and rippling across the walls, I couldn’t help but think that Matisse, Seurat, Renoir, et al. would more than approve of my daughter’s antics, but I still urged her to sit normally. We were earning funny looks, even though her innocent exploratory behavior was hardly as lascivious as the images on offer.
To my further surprise, the packed rooms were as silent as the empty ones had been. It was like I was doing wheelies in a church. Again, I attempted to tilt the stroller back. Again, the puzzling sneezes commenced. Finally, I put one and one together and laughed aloud, earning even more reproving stares.
The paintings themselves seemed to smile on us. Wasn’t that Harper, over and over, a little golden-haired, ghostly pale child, innocent, joyous in more than one Renoir? And wasn’t that me with my pregnancy-rounded abdomen and columnar thighs, pregnancy having slowed and returned my body to its more natural 19th century pear shape, although Renoir depicted the cellulite rippling down the back of my thighs with a kind of rainbow optimism I didn’t personally see.
Overall, contrasting the pictures and the people, I couldn’t help but think Matisse or Barnes himself would a thousand times prefer Harper’s cheerful art criticism—she enjoyed pictures with objects she could pronounce, indifferent to all others—over the nuanced critiques I’d overhear coming from earnest, unsmiling groups.
There was to be no fun in Barnesville. Instead, fun was on the walls. On the joyous splashes of green—Matisse’s favorite color Barnes’ choices made me think—or mixed in with Renoir’s terracotta red and pale yellow (or citron amerti and jaune chamois as Van Gogh deliciously calls yellow in his letters). Not in the air.
There was no one to share my discovery with about what had triggered my child’s hay fever and my realization of how truly brilliant Neil Gaiman is. Talk about art: he’d found a way to tell a memorable story to a pre-verbal person in the space of a few pages. A story about a reclining, sneezing panda. Because we always leaned back when Chu, the baby panda, sneezed, Harper now sneezed whenever she leaned back.
Sighing, I righted the squeaky stroller, stopping to admire a very blue Van Gogh still life on the periphery of a group of tourists, listening in as a docent lectured them about a large, classical picture, featuring a ringlet-ed toddler and his pale, chubby mother. It could have been Harper and me up there, except the child was male.
I swear the docent actually then said, “Here, the painter depicts that moment the 2-year-old is about to leave his mother’s arms, which are all the world to him, but he’s not quite ready yet. If any of you can imagine that.”
I raised my hand as if to say guilty-as-charged, but I only earned quizzical glances, as if the art on the walls and the people looking had zero connection. Feeling chastened, after that I walked, or wheeled my sneezing toddler around, as swiftly as I could, marking where I wanted to spend time when I came back alone.
When, I began to wonder, did people stop enjoying art and just endure it?
In After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History, critic and professor Arthur C. Danto, despite the in-your-face title, isn’t saying there is no more art. What he describes in the book is the end of a deeply felt artistic narrative that lasted from about 1400 to the 1960s. (Preceding that narrative, Danto claims, art didn’t play a role in objects coming into being.) However, with the advent of modern self-consciousness—“I think therefore I am”—the old narrative of art began to die. After 1960ish, as far as contemporary art goes, Danto feels, and after my excursion I tend to agree, nothing has come to replace that overarching narrative in the meantime.
Still, “the meantime” has been a very long time indeed. Critics have been arguing that art is dead from at least the 1820s when Hegel made his famous pronouncement thirty years before the modernism that still attracts vast crowds to the Barnes was to really kick things up.
“Art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth and life, and has rather been transferred into our ideas instead of maintaining its earlier necessity in reality…”
In a nutshell, that does sum up my own dissatisfying trip, and Danto makes a compelling case if looked at in the light of the contemporary art wing versus the older wings of the Barnes. There’s an easy beauty that draws people to the impressionists, even as conceptualized art leaves the mass of people cold. Although the New Museum has figured this issue out with an exhibit so popular they had to raise admission to deter a few folks, there’s a question in my mind as to whether it’s art or sensation-seeking that recently drew droves to their sensory deprivation tanks and other funhouse games.
I put my heart and soul into my work and have lost my mind in the process.
Plus, Danto’s argument is also problematized by his dismissal of current art as unappealing to the “proletariat,” a word he uses without the slightest irony. If his extended family is anything like mine, which is to say cheerfully and entirely indifferent to art, I imagine Thanksgiving dinners can get very dicey. There is clearly a cultivated class of person that Danto wishes to see engaged with art either as creator or viewer and that he isn’t finding, but I’d argue there’s nothing new under the sun about this issue. Besides Hegel, there’s that rambling preface to Van Gogh’s letters to his brother which Anthony M. Ludovici, an early 20th century philosopher, essayist, and severely uptight professional complainer, wrote, bemoaning almost the exact same thing as Danto and Hegel in almost the same language.
Perhaps another way of looking at the issue is needed. Perhaps it isn’t really in people to appreciate art, because that isn’t what our essential relationship to art is. Go to any jazz club in New York and what do you see? Heads hardly nodding, feet barley tapping, people rarely smiling. Go to a poetry reading and it’s like you’re at a funeral. A reverent, unhappy silence reigns. No, strike that. I’ve been to livelier funerals than some of the poetry readings I’ve attended, particularly when it’s the work of a celebrated poet versus just something people are jumping up on stage to read just because.
The finished product is always a dead thing, a marker for life, not life itself. That, Danto has right. Or, alternately, as Van Gogh wrote in his letters, “I put my heart and soul into my work and have lost my mind in the process.” Perhaps ideas about art were always imposed from outside, and nowadays with the advent of blogging and networking: everyone’s a critic; no one’s an artist. Perhaps it’s the making of art that energizes, and we can only engage with art or its past through our own personal relationship with it. As Van Gogh also wrote to his brother, “There is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.” Loud, happy toddlers shouldn’t be enough to sever that relationship, and a reverential silence is not what art, jazz, or poetry requires.
Happily, before I left the Barnes I had two experiences that restored my faith. Outside the second floor’s elevators, I parked Harper’s stroller, handed her my iPhone and let her engage with her own art—aka a certain purple dinosaur—gazing for several solitary blessed moments at the giant arches that make up Matisse’s Dancers. They told me a story, although I haven’t put it to words, yet, or perhaps I just have. Reinvigorated by that moment of union “with souls of poets dead and gone” and the Elysium they have known, I must have been projecting a less harried air, because seconds later a middle-aged woman and her adult daughter approached me.
“That is so great that you’re bringing her to museums already,” they told me, in chorus, instead of scolding me. “I did that with my own daughter,” the mother added. “We’re from New Jersey. I used to take her to the Newark Museum from the time she could walk.”
The way she spoke about that unknown museum in Newark—a city I can never think of without Ginsberg’s lines about Tangerian bone-grindings in bleak, furnished rooms where poets vanish coming to mind—it could have been the Louvre. There was excitement and glee in her voice, and of course, naturally, a moment later someone shushed us. We parted ways, but they’d completed a story the Matisse arches had begun.
It was a meeting of the minds, a rare event. Whether grand like Barnes and Matisse’s collaboration, or, in this case, just the connection between two loving moms, I knew despite the sneezing, the squealing, and the dirty looks, it was a good thing we finally made it into the Barnes that day.