Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Herds of Sheep

Docile Spanish students at the Prado being lectured by their teachers and simultaneously enlightened by the canned headphone lecture. Pictures like this (and like the one below, taken at the Louvre, which I already used once before a long time ago here) make me feel actively ill. And paradoxically make me grateful for my own childhood of abject rural poverty where nobody ever dreamed of taking the trouble to force art down my throat (via my ears and eyes) in this collectivized, impersonal way. The closest museum of any worth was 300 miles from where I lived. It took an enormous amount of scheming and conniving before I could make my way into it for the first time in my early teens, overcoming my family's incomprehension and vague hostility. After much argument, they left me for a whole day alone at the Art Institute of Chicago while they went to the zoo. And in my memory the galleries were nearly empty. I was sketching in the Asian wing (a pattern of figures incised 3,000 years earlier on unglazed tomb tiles) when an elderly Asian man in a tweed jacket and tie wandered past and paused, discreetly looking over my shoulder. "Study hard," he said, and then walked on. Later, when I had the chance at University, I never could bear even the idea of taking an art history class and being told what to think about work I had struggled to claim for myself, independently. Now, I seem to read more art history than anything else, but I am still alone with a single author, in the same way that I need to be alone with a work of art before it will yield anything up to me. All of education is now done in groups, as I observe, at least in America, but I do not believe any collective comprehension of art is possible. Solitude with the work is a precondition for the magic to happen, when long-dead artists audibly speak. They do not do it through headphones.