We're a bit late on Timothy Aubry's article "How to Behave in an Art Museum," which appeared online in Paper Monument, but it happened to catch our eye this morning after a discussion about ill-behaved children in museums. Aubry uses Pipilotti Rist's exhibition at MoMA as a vehicle to discuss the complex class negotiations involved in visiting a temple of high culture. Should we be intimidated or not? And where, exactly, is the line between enthusiastic participation and treating the museum too much like the mall? Is slouching acceptable? How loud should you talk? How fast should you walk?
There’s a difference, however, between the previous generation of strivers and ours. For both, trying too hard to show off your expertise is a dead giveaway that you haven’t got as much status as you’d like. But in previous decades there was still a belief that those who took advantage of inexpensive museum fares, public libraries, and so forth were elevating themselves. For my generation, say those born around or after 1968, the sign that you’re at the top of the hierarchy is a readiness to acknowledge that the high ground you’ve come to occupy isn’t actually higher than any other ground.Student night at GMOA (Reopening Remixed) was a great example of this network of issues and, for the most part, they seemed to work out correctly. Yes, there was a lot more texting in the galleries than usual, but what was marvelous to see was how the 2,053 kids who turned up didn't just treat the event as a chance to grab some free food and talk to their friends. They talked about the art with one another and interacted enthusiastically with the label copy. When asked not to photograph certain works, they were disappointed because they loved the art and wanted to document it. There is, clearly, a sweet spot where appreciation of high culture and an open, welcoming attitude can mesh, but it's not easy to hit, and it probably varies depending on the visitor.
This is very American. Our purported populism has always made us wary of those claiming, by virtue of their position or education, to know better than everyone else. One thing that’s changed, though, is that this populism, often disguised as the heady skepticism of continental theory, has managed to sneak into the very bastion of elitism, into the places where the aspiring intellectual first learns how to be a pompous snob: academic humanities departments. The institutionalization of deconstruction, identity politics, and Marxist criticism, in other words, has replaced the pious attitudes of previous eras with a different set of now-habitual postures: distrust of the canon and the institutions that preserve it. Whatever their merits, these frameworks have created enough ambivalence to make art appreciation a vexing enterprise for a generation of well-educated museumgoers. Because if you don’t believe in high culture, then what are you doing at a museum?
The closer we get to the top, it seems, the more likely we are to believe, or pretend to believe, that the ladder we’ve been climbing leads nowhere—is meaningful only to those who stare at its innumerable rungs from below. Self-improvement, we discover, is a sham. We were better off when we were just kids, when we knew what we liked effortlessly, when our passions were not learned. And so we end up in MoMA’s romper room, doing somersaults on the carpet, hoping to return to a state of innocence.