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Field Tripping: A critical look at the BMA's American wing

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.

Tony Bennett—the sociologist, not the singer—has argued that the modern museum is all about class and training the working class to behave more like the upper class. The museum space itself, with its demand to be quiet, to walk through the gallery in an orderly manner, to practice proper comportment, is, like the demand to sit still in rows in a classroom and respond instinctively to bells and whistles, largely about training us in civility for the workplace. It’s all discipline-and-punish up in here, which is gross, and even though I know museums have moved away from that staid past, it does mean art museums are not first on my list for a visit. And when the city puts funding measures on the ballot for the BMA and the Walters, but not the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum or the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center, well, I get a bit petulant about where we put our collective resources, and why the Cone sisters and their tastes are still defining what’s worth it to see.

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.

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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.

It was a good trip, and a good reminder of how the BMA, like other established cultural institutions, enriches the community at so many levels, from educational programs and free access to resources to reminding us of what it means to be human. I mean, it’s not as if these kinds of cultural artifacts only feed rich people, even if that’s who can afford to buy them. I remember sitting in the audience on a massively discounted ticket, listening to Marin Alsop draw the sounds of Beethoven’s Ninth out of the orchestra, and just weeping. I asked a friend who knows about this kind of stuff later why I was crying—I had no idea, I was only there because some rich folks subsidized my ticket. “Because it’s about mortality,” she said. Oh, right—life, death, the soul. This music doesn’t just persist because rich people want to show the rest of us how oh-so-cultured they are, and neither does art. 
All that said, best not leave one’s critical capacities at home just because it’s a birthday party and everything’s free. One of the first paintings I noticed in the American Wing was of a young white Charles Calvert all dressed up in silks, and young black boy next to him in slightly less dolled-up garb. The description that accompanied the piece told us that this was a rare depiction of a “slave” in art from the 18th century. The text continued, describing this enslaved boy as a “companion,” and later in the text as a “servant.” Slave, companion, servant . . . we can’t seem to figure out how to talk publicly about slavery. The Calvert family is a founding family of Baltimore, we are told in this exhibit, but the enslaved people that enabled that family and their accumulation of wealth remains in the background, just as this enslaved boy remains in the background of this 1761 portrait by John Hesselius. The museum is a critical place, and best visited critically and often. 

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