Share, Listen, Think

Be the Art

In Art, Life in Society on November 4, 2012 at 10:18 am

Photo by Lewis McNeel
“Graft,” by Roxy Paine
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
Washington, D.C.

By Bekah McNeel

“Be the art!” I shout, and two grown-up, educated, professional women (plus I, myself) immediately strike the above pose.

This is a tradition among us. We who travel together, and find ourselves needing to commemorate the moment we saw an amazing piece of art. We decided we didn’t want our pictures with the most inspiring, redolent works of creativity to look uninspired and indolent. We started at the Eiffel Tower when, as my best friend Lee and I looked around we saw tourist after tourist in the same pose with the same back drop. So I flipped her onto my back and we matched the energy and audacity of the tower built to represent the age of Science and Industry and the spirit of France at its centennial birthday party: the 1889 World’s Fair.

That stroke of brilliance soon led to deliberate interaction with art and architecture that, in our opinion was true to the spirit of art. Boldness. Iconoclasm. Embodiment.

This is a contrast to the way I usually look at art, which is quietly.

I’ve heard it said that art museums are the sacred spaces of our day. It’s true in many ways. More than libraries or churches, in our age, the stark white walls and hushed halls of galleries serve as shrines to impenetrable icons deliberately distributed across the wallspace. Philosophy is smeared onto canvas and carved out of stone. Serious people go to museums, the devout. Creative people go to museums, the mystics. Pretentious people go to museums, the Pharisees.

Wherever I first heard museums compared to sacred spaces, it was definitely in the context of a lament. Something to the effect that our godless culture has exchanged God for paint and prayers for wire sculpture. However, I see this reverence as a sign that our culture has not yet completely lost its concept of God. The fact that we can study and be taken in by the ineffable is proof that we hunger for something beyond the finite number of our molecules. So I’m a fan of quiet art museums.

It was in a quiet art museum that I discovered, I mean really discovered, grace. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art was my haven in college. I went to escape the scrutiny, intensity, and conformity of my tiny Christian college. I loved the anonymity of being in the city, and the feeling of being in the massive courtyards, one among many. I went to a Diane Arbus exhibit. It was deliciously brazen, like the way scotch tastes. Around me many people were trying to say intelligent things about the series of photos of wrinkly, paunchy nudists and transvestites. They were trying to be either blasé or profound. When faced with the sagging breasts and dimpled belly of a particular subject, I was glad I was alone, and not having to make some comment to validate my discernment (either to the art crowd or the Christian college crowd).  And I found that I could look at it and see the beauty. I didn’t have to make a list of the flaws before I reveled in the goodness. In fact, if I wanted to just walk away without a list of sins committed by the great photographer, that was okay too. I loved Jesus just as much when I left. Maybe more.

I don’t think you have to be able to find grace at a Diane Arbus exhibit. I don’t think you have to like modern art at all. Years later I would visit the Byzantine Fresco Chapel at the Menil Collection in Houston, where the space is designed to evoke the sacred origins of the art. It was dark, cold, and quiet, an atmosphere all the more potent by the fact that we had stumbled in out of the 3pm August sunshine. We, my architect husband Lewis and I, sat in awe for a long time. A very long time. We were alone and we were worshipful.

Down the street at the Rothko Chapel, we witnessed another version of the modern sacred space, again this time deliberate. The Rothko Chapel welcomes guests to choose from a table of sacred texts, and to use the space for prayer and meditation.

Inside the Basilica, Old Town Quito, Ecuador

Photo by Roger Brown
Inside the Basilica
Old Town Quito, Ecuador

So the question arises: why violate this sacred space? Why transgress the unspoken pact that I the patron have made with the artists and curators to take the art as Mary took the Annunciation and ponder it quietly in my heart?

Because of slides. In 2006 Carston Höller installed spiraling tube slides in the London’s Tate Modern. They carried sliders from each of the four storied floors to the ground floor. Patrons of the museum donned helmets and rode in potato sacks and often squealed as they sped down the slide.

“For Carsten Höller, the experience of sliding is best summed up in a phrase by the French writer Roger Caillois as a ‘voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind’. The slides are impressive sculptures in their own right, and you don’t have to hurtle down them to appreciate this artwork. What interests Höller, however, is both the visual spectacle of watching people sliding and the ‘inner spectacle’ experienced by the sliders themselves, the state of simultaneous delight and anxiety that you enter as you descend.”

I happened to live in a flat behind the Tate Modern for the entire length of the exhibition, and passed the entrance on my way to classes. I made use of the slides often enough, as there is no admission fee to the Tate. Standing under the silver spirals was stunning. The sort of thing that makes you feel the need to say something profound. But instead of musing about the form, a cascading shriek reminds you of the function.

It was unconscious, because the “Be the art!” movement was not premeditated or in any way serious, but the irreverence of people hurtling down playground equipment inside a bastion of London culture shifted my thinking. Throughout history, art has transgressed social norms and values. Art has poked fun at things we consider important. Surely there is a place for some tomfoolery in the consumption of art.

lotus denver botanical gardens

Photo by Roger Brown
Lotus Flower
Denver Botanic Gardens

If we are free to interact with art not as something austere and high-minded, but instead respond with honesty and enjoyment, even in the form of silliness and play, maybe more people would enjoy it. Perhaps if we were less worried about the appropriate response, and just responded, we would get more out of interactions with art.

On a recent trip to New York, Lewis and I visited two major artistic venues: the Whitney and the Lincoln Center.

At the Whitney, we were taken by a piece of video art that seemed generally pleasing until we realized it was produced in 1926. Oskar Fischinger’s Space Light Art: A film environment was so far ahead of its time it seemed impossible. But it was also playful. Fischinger was enamored with the potential of the new medium to intoxicate the viewer. In the dark of the room we geeked out and surrendered ourselves to the mesmerizing pulse of color and shape on the wall in front of us.

Later, we went to see the New York Ballet. Surrounded by little gray haired ladies who were no doubt responsible for the existence of the New York Ballet, we watched a modern selection of dances, including a particularly affective pas de deux. When we walked out, Lewis turned to me and said, “That was soft porn.” I was tempted to argue with him about the nature of sensuality in art until I realized that he was getting it more than I was. Yes, that was what they were getting at, sex. It was sensual almost to the point of eroticism. Rather than being so consumed with being at the ballet Lewis was interacting with it. And he needed a breath of fresh air.

He had the same reaction to Marilyn Monroe by the way, the first time he saw her in a motion picture. When she sauntered up the stairs in “The Seven Year Itch,” Lewis cried out, “That’s obscene!”  Lewis gets art, perhaps inherently. He feels what it’s going for. That was part of why I fell in love with him. Before him, there was Chagall.

jelly fish

Photo by Roger Brown
Jelly Fish
Monterey Aquarium

I fell in love with Marc Chagall at age seven. My grandmother took me to San Antonio’s museum of modern art, The McNay. There was Dream Village, all colors and broad strokes. With a dancing cow. I loved it then and I love it now. As I mentioned, in college I sought refuge in art museums. After a particularly restorative visit to the Getty, I was looking through the bookstore while waiting for the tram. I found a book that used Marc Chagall’s lithographs Daphnis and Chloe to illustrate the 1956 Paul Turner translation of the myth by the same name. I had no excuse to spend museum prices on a book, but I bought it on the spot. After college I took a trip across Europe to, as my mother put it, see what condition my condition was in.  I found myself at the Albertina in Vienna where Chagall’s illuminated Scriptures were on display. The intersection of the playful style that had delighted me as a child and the sacred text that shaped my life was a near ecstatic experience at a time when I was most in need of one. And even after that, my indie music hound sister gave me a song by the Weepies. Their soulful sound spoke to my heart during a phase of longing, and as I searched for more of their music, I came across their song “Painting by Chagall.”  Over time a dreamy, playful, Chagall motif developed in my times of contemplation and awakening.

Chagall is, to me, an example of the many roles that art can play in our lives. His bold use of color, simplified forms, and dreamscapes are at times exuberant and playful, at times iconic, and at times heartbreaking. He also channeled genuine religious experience, which like stained glass windows and illuminated texts of old, remind us that art has always interacted with the Sacred. Like religion, I think that art must be robust in its place in our lives. In art we can engage not only our more high-minded sensibilities of expression and communication, but also our sexuality, our sense of humor, and, yes, our reverence for the ineffable.

The Basilica and part of Quito

Photo by Roger Brown
The Basilica & part of Quito

  1. Reblogged this on Creative Nation G.C.C.

  2. What a wonderful piece! As a artist and a high school art teacher, I enjoyed it on many levels. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for this article. It’s refreshing to be reassured that interacting with art doesn’t have to replace our worship of God, rather it can deepen it. I learn so much about the mysteries of God’s character and creation when being confronted with art that exceeds my expectations and challenges my visual understanding of the world. I think it’s important to know why the artist created a work, or what they are trying to say, but a lot of times there are elements of a work that exceed the artist’s own limitations. The art becomes a reflection of something more profound, unexplainable or other-worldly.

    I also appreciate the emphasis on interactive art. It’s key to breaking down boundaries between the art world and the audience!

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