I’ve lived within spitting distance of the Baltimore Museum of Art since moving to the city, but somehow, in spite of the part where it’s free, has bathrooms, and is a very short bike ride away, I’ve never spent much time there. I don’t know what it is about the museum that has kept me away. I love museums, I love art, so what’s the problem?
Part of my suspicion of art museums has to do with long-simmering class rage and the sense that art is for rich people. They buy it, they sell it, they decide what counts as art and what doesn't and when us Little People are allowed to look at it. Today's super-rich give lots of their money to art museums and symphony orchestras, and though I'd argue having this stuff is important for our collective soul, it's also a good way to not have to pay taxes on wealth and instead park that wealth somewhere to be privately enjoyed among other rich people.
All that cynicism is dangerous, though, when it keeps me from taking in what this place has to offer, so I was happy when the ladyfriend took me on a surprise date to the BMA's birthday party last weekend. The place was packed with all kinds of people, so many that the cake was gone by the time we got there. We started in the rooms up the stairs and to the left and their medieval Christian paintings. I love this stuff because either babies looked a whole lot more like grown-ups back then, or how we represent ourselves sure has changed.
We wandered through the crowds, all of us seeing different things as we looked at the same walls, and finally made it to the new American wing. The ladyfriend picked up the family guide to read as we walked through the exhibit. The guide encourages people to sit on the floor, to look at the art from different angles, to ask questions about the differences and similarities between these representations from the past and our present concerns. This is all very different from Bennett's description of the museum as a disciplinary space, and the museum was demanding that we as visitors make our own meaning from what we were seeing. And we did that as we moved from one room to the next, moving generally through time periods and kinds of art that demonstrated shifting narratives about the nation, about Maryland, and about shifting conventions in art and what artists thought was worth representing in the first place. I stopped and stared at a piece by Georgia O'Keeffe in the last room of the exhibit. It was a painting of a waterfall in Yosemite. I could have stared at it for hours, the wetness, the gap carved into the rock wall by the persistent flow—you could practically smell the earthy realness of the thing. Oh yeah, art is awesome.