Saturday, May 31, 2008

No Art Guard Comments

I had some free time last week, so I decided to go downtown and check out an art exhibit I was interested in seeing. There were actually two exhibits at the museum, but the one I was interested in was the Allan Kaprow "Art as Life" exhibit.

The other exhibit was by a guy named Lawrence Weiner. I don't know if I've ever heard of him before, but he's been an artist for more than 40 years and apparently one of the key figures of the conceptual art movement of the '60s.

The Weiner exhibit consisted mostly of words and phrases painted in big block letters on the museum walls, and I don't want to criticize the guy, but for some reason, his work just didn't resonate with me.

It's not that I've got anything against words painted in block letters. A lot of John Baldessari's work consists of text painted on canvas, and Ed Ruscha used words in a lot of his art as well. For that matter, Barbara Kruger has made a career of applying block-letter text to walls. But Kruger's text has a social message, Baldessari's text was usually a statement about some aspect of art, and Ruscha's text was often wry or whimsical. Weiner's text, on the other hand seems (to me, at least) to have no real message, which I guess is one of the precepts of conceptual art. Maybe I would have liked the exhibit more if I'd seen it in the '60s.

Anyway, the Kaprow exhibit was more interesting to me. I'd always heard that Kaprow was the originator of the term "happening" (used as a noun and applied to a specific sort of art event), but I never knew much about the nature of the actual happenings themselves. So to me, the exhibit was mostly interesting from a historical standpoint. The exhibit consisted of some films and slides of happenings, as well as some written descriptions of various happenings he planned or created. One of things that was interesting to me was that for some happenings, no spectators were allowed. The only people who could witness them were the participants. And he didn't often film them or even photograph them, so for many happenings, the only documentation is a hand-written or typewritten set of instructions and rules.

Before Kaprow began creating happenings, he made abstract collages. The exhibit included maybe half a dozen or so collages hanging on one of the walls, and as I was looking at one of them, a security guard moved out of my way so she wouldn't block my view. She was just standing against the wall between two of the collages, so a little later, as I was moving on to look at the next collage, I decided to ask her what she thought of the exhibit. She smiled and told me, "Security isn't allowed to comment on the art. We're not allowed to comment."

I can't say I was disappointed to hear that. It's not like I expected her to enlighten me with some profound insight -- I was mostly just curious about her opinion. So I just smiled back and said, "Okay."

But then I started thinking about what she said. If security wasn't allowed to comment on the art, it means that the people who run the museum had specifically established that rule. And they probably established it for a reason, since most people don't create rules unless there's a reason to. And that led me to wonder just exactly what sort of problem they were having with the security guards. I've been to a lot of museums in my life and I've never once seen a museum visitor ask a security guard to comment on the art, nor have I ever seen a security guard offer an opinion to a visitor without being asked. So I suspect that there's no real reason for the rule.

But even if without my knowing it, security guards were constantly offering their opinions to museum guests, I still don't see the problem, since no harm is done, so it still seems like sort of a pointless rule to me.

But here's something else to consider. I bet most security guards don't even have much of an opinion about the art exhibits they're hired to monitor. And I don't mean that as a slight against museum security guards -- the truth is, I don't think a lot of people you see at museums have much of an opinion about what they're looking at, especially when it's modern art, and particularly when it blurs the distinction between art and life, like Kaprow's does. Most of the people I saw last weekend had blank expressions on their faces as they wandered through the exhibit looking at the art. Nobody seemed to either like it or hate it, as far as I could tell. And I wasn't any different -- I'm glad I saw the exhibits, but that doesn't mean I have a strong opinion about them. It's not as though the exhibits made me think about art in a whole new way or anything dramatic like that. So if you asked me my opinion of the Kaprow exhibit, for example, I couldn't really tell you -- and not because there's a rule prohibiting it, but simply because I don't really have much of an opinion.