I Get It, I Get It, I Don’t Get It

My parents and I had vastly different views about art, politics, religion and life.  The older I got, the more they feared for my eternal soul.  When we got together — uncomfortable, painful times — we didn’t have much we could safely talk about.  The weather was just about the only thing we could talk about without ending up in a screaming match.  My West Texas parents were obsessed by the humidity; they didn’t see how anybody could live anywhere but West Texas, since every other place was so humid.

Once, we watched one of my favorite movies, Nashville, on video.  I thought they’d like it.  After all, it had music and comedy and offbeat characters, and it moved quickly.  Boy, was I wrong.  They couldn’t get over the ending, when the Vietnam vet killed the country-and-western singer.  It hadn’t made sense to them and that was all they could talk about.

“Why did he kill her?” my father asked.  “She didn’t do anything to him.”

“Well, I think he had problems with women,” I said.  “Didn’t you think the rest of the movie was great?”

“I don’t like endings like that,” my mother said.  “It didn’t make any sense.”

“Why would he want to kill her?” my father asked again.

I thought about saying the guy clearly had problems with his mother, but that didn’t seem like a promising path to pursue.  So, I mentioned how humid it had been recently.

“I don’t know you stand living here,” my mother said.

That took place years ago, before my mother’s death in 1997 and my father’s gradual lapse into Alzheimer’s.  Just because you no longer talk to your parents, though, doesn’t mean they’re no longer with you.  Often, I can almost hear them talking, knowing what they would say — how they would have loved Sarah Palin, would have been big Tea Partiers, would have demanded we “teach the controversy” about evolution and creationism.

You break out of one world view, though, and then you have to form your own.  At first, it’s easy.  You reject just about everything your parents ever stood for.  Later, hopefully, you get smarter about your own views and choices; kneejerk reactions are a great source of idiocy.  What do you really think and believe in and why?  Are you sure?

All of which was occurring to me on a pretty regular basis when my husband and I visited MoMA last week.  Much of it I loved — the Cartier-Bresson exhibit, the exhibition from South African artist William Kentridge, whom I’d never heard of before, the unexpected glimpse of one of the most incredible paintings on earth, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.”

My husband had already launched into his usual MoMA complaints: Why does a museum that touts itself as modern keep its collection of old-fashioned Impressionists and other paintings that date back to the 19th and 20th centuries? To make his point, he began to freely use air quotes around modern, with enough finger gestures going on that you would have thought Helen Keller was in the vicinity.

“What do you want them to do?  Dump their Picassos because they’re old?” I asked.

“Send them to the Met,” he said.  “Get some new stuff.”

I’d heard it all a zillion times before and pretended to be blind and deaf myself.  What he didn’t complain about, though, was Middle-European performance artist Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.

The exhibition included Abramovic herself in her most recent performance art exhibition, where she and a volunteer sat facing each other at a wooden table in the middle of a large room.  The series of volunteers, mostly young people, lined up for an opportunity to freeze and stare at Abramovic for as long as they could.  That’s what they were doing: they were immobile and staring for minutes, hours at a time, while a crowd watched appreciatively from the sidelines.  We were part of the crowd for several minutes, watching and waiting — for what?

We stood up and walked to re-created scenes of Abramovic’s earlier work.  A man and a woman, both naked, standing a few inches apart at the entrance to a room; you could squeeze past them if you wanted to get in (and believe me, it was a tight squeeze).  In another room, looped videos of a disrobed woman (Abramovic herself, I believe) fondled her own breasts.  A closeup of a face was featured above a changing series of words: “Playboy.  PistoleHo.  Filth,” one series read.

In another video, a group of women in full skirts ran around and rolled on the ground and lifted their skirts for lots of closeup shots so you could see they weren’t wearing underwear.  (Real closeups, believe me; I’m not sure my own gynecologist knows me that well.)

“Is there any way you can be a performance artist and not be a narcissist?” I asked my husband.

We wandered back downstairs, where Abramovic, in her red robe, continued to stare at the latest volunteer.  It got much more exciting when the volunteer, a young man, finally stood up, walked away and was replaced by someone else.  Murmurs spread through the crowd.

“You’ve got to hand it to Abramovic,” my husband said as we left.  “Everybody was talking about her work.  The audience was completely engaged in the work — in fact, they were part of it.  That’s what art should be.”

Well, at least he’d stopped talking about trashing the Picassos.  I walked along and thought about how Abramovic’s endurance contest reminded me of nothing so much of the documentary, Hands on a Hard Body, which was about people who stood for days with their hands on a pickup truck.  The winner – after long days and nights of standing — got the truck.

Oh, Lord, art — whether modern or performance or whatever you call it.  I get the whole epater la bourgeoisie business.  Shock people like my parents.  Shock me, maybe, even if I try to resist being shocked, since that would show how provincial I am.  But what about the whole bullshit factor?  Will somebody look back someday and say, really, this was kind of ridiculous?  Shocking — but to what end?

Hell, what do I know?  I still have no idea why the singer got killed in Nashville.  Art gives you questions, but no answers.  Those you have to come up with yourself.  Here are a couple:

1) You are still your parents’ child, one way or another.  Resistance may be futile.

2) It was quite humid that day in New York.  I don’t think my parents would have liked it.

(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about a support group gone amok

15 comments… add one
  • musingegret Link

    Thank you-thankyou-thankyousoveryverymuch for doing the walking and viewing and reporting back to us. I would have been cringing and fainthearted at the gyno closeups and nudes-about-to-enter-a-room but that says more about me, doesn’t it? I’m going off now to google “Starry Night” and stare for a while.

    P.S. Am I just old-fashioned or has human dignity ceased to mean anything?

  • I saw that a couple of weeks ago and I loved it.
    My parents were with me. They couldn’t stand it.
    I can’t explain what made me think it was great. I admit I don’t know that much about art. I suppose your husband is exactly right. It engaged. It made me think quite a lot about the human body, and about how it is vulnerable and beautiful and strange. It made me think about nudity, which is very unusual. It also made me SEE. I realized I’d never had the opportunity to actually look at another person’s body in real life, to visually view another person–which was of course kind of voyeurism, but not entirely. I thought about human endurance–what can people stand? What are they capable of?
    Very rarely in my life do I get really strong reactions to art but to this I did. And it WAS beautiful. Artist’s dress was beautiful, the people were. Visually, I thought it was arresting. You wanted to look, partly just for that.
    Funny thing was that we had to leave because my father started to freak out because he was tired (no, he’s not sick). He did this to me once at a funeral! So it was very ‘parentey’ and symbolically parentey and I am amused that you also invoke your parents in this post.

  • Wow…I loved your take on the MOMA. We’ll be taking the girls there at the end of May and I hope this exhibit and exhibitionist are still there. Your reflections reminded me of the only exhibit I saw back in the 1980’s at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, entitled “Women as Receptacles”. It was a photography exhibit of women shot in black & white with close-up’s of a gyno’s eye view of their vaginal canals stuffed with various common objects (ala vase?). I’ve never understood it or gotten over it. I think about it at the oddest times. I was shocked, weirded out and disgusted but I looked and wondered.  I think of art as my religion. Go figure. I can’t even comment on the parent stuff you brought up~ it’s just too much of a hot and humid topic for me.

  • Cindy A Link

    I think people would be better looking if we had fur like animals. Not hair, but the softest fur.  It’s all that skin that makes us oddities in the natural world, don’t you think? 

  • I don’t know about this exhibit, Ruth. I’ve read/heard about it and have toyed with seeing it, but I’ve been so puzzled as to the meaning of it all. Now, Starry Night, that’s another matter…

  • I heard Barbara Walters talking about this exhibit a couple of weeks ago. Your report is much more honest!

  • I’ve always loved the MoMA (Starry Night included!). The installation art tends to be my favorite. Staring contest? I’m not quite sure how that translates into an artistic impression.

  • I recently spent a week in Fredericksburg TX meeting artists. Most of them, predictably, were cowboy artists or landscape painters, but one was a famous and very old sculptor, recently arrived in Texas. His conversation about the meaning of his art had all those “bullshit-alarms” going off in my head. Yet, if I had not heard him talk, I might have enjoyed looking at his unusual art.
    And then there was MY father, who didn’t like jazz (an un American sin if there ever was one). He always said, “How do they know when they are through?” Which kind of equates to performance art.

  • Winston Link

    My goodness!  My, my goodness!  Staring contests!  Ruth warring with husbands who chafe at Picasso.  Ruth warring with parents over everything under the starry night.  Ruth, feeling so… so… avant-garde amidst all that gynecological art-in-motion.  And all that pervasive emotional humidity!  Wow, this piece could be retitled, “Why I live at the MoMa.”

  • I’m laughing about how your husband complained about the older painting and said MoMA should send them to the Met. Oy! I’m also just so envious–we have NO real art museums where I live and I didn’t have time in New York to visit any when I was there. You are so lucky. Art museums (and grumpy husbands) are just so much fun.

  • You nailed it, Ruth.  Good art makes us think and question.  Some modern art is amazing in its brilliance and innovation.  Some is just ridiculous.  Your experience reminded me of an “avant-garde” piece of performance art I saw one time:   a man in a bathrobe staring at his big toe.  The image of his toe was projected onto a huge screen while he stared at it.  I kid you not.  We had to leave the museum before we got kicked out.  I couldn’t stop laughing.

  • 1. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but the Impressionists are modern when you compare them to the 16th century Dutch folks. And, they were the first to experiment and break with tradition, which, at the time, was to use art to tell a story (usually a religious one). So modern art was born. They definitely belong at MOMA. Yes?
    2. I’m totally with you on shock art. You take that exhibit and you move it over to the Museum of Sex and suddenly it’s not art. It’s porn.

  • Love it! Reading this made me think about all the times I’ve stared at a work of art and didn’t get it. It also reminded me of all the times I’ve read a work of literature and didn’t get it. And a work of poetry.

  • I also don’t know why the singer in Nashville got shot.  I once watched the whole movie concentrating very hard on just that question so I could work it out, but I didn’t.

    As for the other great question of the day, I guess MOMA doesn’t send its good ol’ stuff to the Met because this isn’t socialiasm… 

    In the UK, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern are (I think) all owned by the state (that’s me!) with a lot of charitable benefaction thrown in (Mr Tate).  So theoretically, I suppose, they could transfer their stuff.  I am betting it doesn’t work that way on your side of the pond.  But your post has made me curious.  I will try to find out.

    Anyway, I partly agree with your husband: Van Gogh et al. might look a little out of place amongst unmade beds, exploded sheds and giant spiders — or whatever MOMA is currently up to. 

    But I guess MOMA needs the money from the many punters who wouldn’t come in without Starry Night. 

    Meanwhile,  there will always be those coming in for the air conditioning, never mind the air quotes.  Humidity, after all, is not good for paintings.

  • Ruth, You’re hilarious — and like all good artists (painters, performance artists, or writers) made me mull this post over on a host of different levels.
    Mostly, though, I realize I am way overdue for a trip to NYC.

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