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Tyler Green‘s excellent Modern Art Notes points to an interesting post at daddytypes.com, in which Greg Allen describes a recent visit to the National Gallery of Art with his three-year-old daughter. There, they collide with a docent attempting to explain Clyfford Still‘s painting 1951-N to a group of middle-schoolers:
“Who wonders why this is here? Who wonders why it’s even art?” She waits and waits for sheepish hands to keep rising.
“Well, there are curators—do you know what that is? art experts who study and know what art is important enough to be in a museum—curators and art historians and other experts who say this is art, and even if it doesn’t look like it’s about anything and it doesn’t make any sense, you just have to bear with it sometimes.
Allen blows a gasket about all this, finding this attitude destructive to inquisitive minds. But though the docent’s shut-up-and-take-it condescension is clear, this attitude routinely gets dispensed to adults too, even by Smart People. Over the weekend, NPR’s All Things Considered featured a brief story on James Joyce‘s Finnegan’s Wake in which poet Paul Muldoon argued, in essence, that you may as well give up trying to understand the damn thing and just try to appreciate it as a sort of music. Why it’s OK to just bear with it with Finnegan’s Wake but not with Still isn’t quite clear to me, but then I haven’t pondered either very closely.
Maybe this is just the tyranny of the middlebrow, but Muldoon and that docent were at least engaging with the art in question. Howard Stern, however, recently reacted to avant-jazz as if he’d just touched a hot stove. And then called in his buddies to make wisecracks about how fuckin’ stupid the fuckin’ stove is.