Back to all news stories

When One Door Is Not Enough: A Museum’s Many Entry Points

By Jennifer Metsker

One of the finest university art museums in the country, the U-M Museum of Art holds collections of more than 18,000 artworks representing 150 years of art collecting at the university. Its dynamic schedule of special exhibitions and interpretative programs connects visitors with the rich artistic legacy of the past and today's avant-garde.

I envy my friends who don’t like art. Their responses are very genuine. When dragged through a museum by an art-loving friend or family member, they are free to see faces in a Pollock painting rather than “action” and can openly appreciate an Ellsworth Kelly simply because it is their favorite color. They seem to implicitly understand that the world outside of the art museum offers us plenty to see. It’s true that without a sense of wonder life can become dull, but we can locate wonder in so many places without ever entering a museum: nature, human relationships, death, news, weather, even city planning. Do we need art? Yes, of course, most people, even non-art lovers, will say: it’s healing and freeing and requires talent and look at that Rembrandt and look at this drawing that my child did. But do we need to view art or house it in big institutions? Yes, people will say, of course. But there are many people who will most likely be thinking that they could survive without it. In fact, they might even be thinking they would be better off without the obligation to see art because they often don’t really understand it and end up feeling a little tired of looking at things they don’t really like anyway.

I used to be a non-art lover. Not by choice, but by circumstance. When I was growing up my family didn’t visit museums or talk about art, which meant that because the school system was poor and there weren’t many cultural outlets nearby (though we did once go to see the Nutcracker when I was in elementary school), I never entered a museum until I was in college. I always knew museums existed, but I guess I never imagined that what was inside of them could matter to me. I didn’t feel deprived at all—my parents gave me everything that I could need plus more trips to the mall than a teenage girl could hope for—but because seeing art didn’t move the people around me it wasn’t something they felt compelled to give me. So though I was encouraged to draw (which mostly meant I endlessly imitated cartoons), I never fully understood there was a logical conclusion to creativity: that on the other end of a creative act there might be an audience other than your parents who wanted to see it, some of whom might even benefit from seeing it. Creativity was colorbooks and puppets—diversions—not a way of life, not a meaningful response.

For reasons I hesitate to connect to this lack of art, by the time I reached adolescence I had become despondent—nothing really mattered. I cut classes in high school and tried to live creatively on the fringes, befriending homeless teenagers and navigating around a dangerous drug culture. I took risks with my life as if it held the potential immortality of a canvas. My despondency eventually deepened into a spiritual malaise, and my suffering felt so impenetrable that when I finally took an art class on a whim at a community college, it was like a spiritual awakening. Through art I determined that my world had been godless because I didn’t know before how God communicated. Drawing trees with my non-dominant hand, mixing colors in an attempt to capture blue California shadows, absorbing the glow of a Rothko painting on a slide projector in a dark classroom: These were the nouns and verbs of God’s language, I was sure of it. Once I had this language, the despondency abated because I could finally live fully; life stirred me up, and I could stir productively back. I threw myself into painting and art criticism and set my goals high: I would know all there was to know about this mysterious language that had the ability to change my life. I would be an art lover.

Looking back on this, it’s hard to believe that I eventually lost sight of this idealistic view of art. By the time I entered the Masters program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I had to actively remember why art mattered. I pursued art so single-mindedly that I forgot to feel the pleasure in it. Instead I felt competition and the need to build endurance. With the Art Institute galleries serving essentially as hallways between classes, I hurried past master paintings and ancient artifacts at first as if they were multiplication tables I needed to memorize and eventually with as much appreciation as I had for billboards on a highway. I could critique perplexing pieces of conceptual art, could place most paintings I saw into their historical context, and even understood how a variety of religious and ethnic art forms evolved through various styles and why, but I no longer felt that nearly spiritual awe I had in the past. Enter a sense of meaninglessness that only increased over time, and I eventually became despondent again (and now also broke from tuition) so I dropped out of art school and made my way into an ordinary life without art.

I didn’t set foot in a museum for a while. I always said to others who went and returned breathless about some art piece or another, “Oh, I should really go,” or “I’ll go one of these days,” though I didn’t trust their breathlessness and believed with certainty that a museum visit would only let me down. I guess I became just like those who are perfectly content to live without entering museums, but I didn’t reject art because I didn’t understand it or value it, but because gaining an understanding of what a museum housed didn’t have the power to make art (and thus life) permanently interesting and didn’t protect me from a sense of purposelessness.

By this point you are probably recognizing that I really just needed some help that was beyond the walls of the museum, and lucky for me the world beyond the museum offers a lot of it: therapy, career counseling, friendship building, religion, nutrition, etc. Eventually I found I could live perfectly contentedly without stepping foot in even so much as a gallery. I had a job, I had hobbies, I had love and family, I had good health and good friends. And this could be the end of my narrative—life goes on without art, and it isn’t even a really terrible life. I don’t feel guilty saying that at all even now. It all depends on who you are and what moves you, perhaps it’s a NASCAR race more than a Nauman. But that doesn’t mean art doesn’t offer you the chance to understand yourself from a unique point of view or that viewing art doesn’t provide insight into your soul like nothing else can.

Many years after leaving art school I visited my family in California and because I had somehow managed to foster in them a tolerable appreciation for art over the years and because the SF MOMA had been recently renovated and its effect on the San Francisco skyline was highly publicized (plus, renovations always seeming to bring out the cultural best in us), it was determined that we would make a day of it. I remember feeling slightly bored by the idea. I likened the trip to a lunch date with one’s first boyfriend, someone you thought you would never get over but who in the end stirs up only embarrassment over how young and naïve you once were. I had just begun to study writing and was much more cautious in my pursuit of that craft, never letting myself believe it mattered. I could live with it or without it, and for years I avoided commitment to it, determined to find my life path in the marketable skills I used in my day jobs: my talent for creating pie charts, my mild appreciation of database management. But that visit reminded me of what a first love is all about. It’s about scaling walls to gain a new vision; it’s about traveling great distances without moving a step. I could say I reached this revelation because I had forgotten just enough art historical facts to find myself seeing again through less critical eyes, but the hazy facts seemed easy enough to retrieve with a little prompting. Nor was it a breakthrough that happened over the materiality of a Clifford Still painting or the simplified strokes of a figurative work by David Park. In fact, it didn’t happen in the museum at all. The turning point came later listening to my father in the car on the drive home as he explained why he liked a certain photograph (there was a 100 years of photography show going on at the time).

I don’t remember what my father said exactly, but I do recall that response was so unabashedly personal, so unashamedly based on taste. He certainly didn’t have the rarefied language of the art critic under his belt. Most of my father’s response centered around a curiosity about himself and why the photograph had the power to impact him. What did it say about him that he liked it? And just what exactly does a guy like him, a sports guy, a facts guy, a self-proclaimed simple-minded guy, want out of art anyway? Though his assessment was highly personal, he had the boldness to finish his statement by saying, “if you ask me” (and no one was asking) “that’s what art is.” It was such an irrelevant view of art that I wanted to scoff and dismiss him, but I didn’t; he is my father after all. And in my hesitancy I realized that my father had clearly managed to take more away from his experience than I had if he could arrive at such a decided view of art. So rather than thinking “You’re doing it wrong” I was obliged to think “I’m doing it wrong.” Or even more, that perhaps there is no wrong way to enter a museum.

Despite what I had learned at art school, I eventually decided there were no rules to viewing art and the fewer rules I had, the more I could see. It didn’t happen that day and it happened more subconsciously than consciously, but eventually I came to appreciate the fact that the place one enters an art viewing experience hardly matters. It is not a guided tour we want so much as a genuine appreciation, something we can take back with us. I could enter through a critical door, a historical door, or a very personal or irrelevant door. What I now realize is that those doors are always there, but many times we only try one door. For some people, “I don’t get it,” is a response to trying only one door. Try another. Same with “I don’t like it.” For me, too often I think, “Not successful” which means I need a new door too. I try to make things more personal. “What does this do to me?” I ask. If no one answers that door either, I can try the “Why does this do nothing for me?” door or the “What does this make me think of” door. I can now visit museums and ask myself why I like or dislike things. I feel like I need to take art appreciation backwards. It isn’t easy for me to base my appreciation on taste, but it does give me a new door. Would I like to hang this in my house? I ask myself. How would I feel about living with this? Art can be about matching couches and still matter. Art can be something I can do better or my child could do better or my aging grandparent. I try hard not to get it rather than to get it. Whatever it takes to get me through a new door.

Now I have begun to see that art is not separate from me; it is not an artifact. If I want to see anything truly memorable or truly surprising, art needs to be freed from its own surface in order to mix freely with my own. My personal experience matters just as much, or perhaps even more, than historical facts or what the artist intended because a personal approach gives me more to walk away with than the affirmation of art theory in practice. I reached this conclusion circuitously, but the philosopher John Dewey arrived at this idea early last century when he developed his theory of art aesthetics from a pragmatic point of view. He said, “the unique distinguishing feature of esthetic experience is exactly the fact that no such distinction of self and object exists in it, since it is esthetic in the degree in which organism and environment cooperate to institute an experience in which the two are so fully integrated that each disappears.” To cooperate in this active viewing experience that Dewey describes requires such a sense of being present, such a dissolution of ego, that once again viewing art reaches the realm of the spiritual, only now it is a spiritual act difficult to obtain, a ideal goal. Though I can’t say I’ve achieved Dewey’s ideal, I like the idea of the art experience hovering in the air somewhere between me and the wall or me and the pedestal or me and the installation, and I like the possibility that the most significant moments of my viewing experience may get closer to my side of the room all the time.

When I am at my luckiest, and I can locate art in that airy region, I can capture a sense of what my first art viewing experiences were like back when every artistic expression I saw seemed like a miracle or a magic trick, back when art was so new to me it could dissolve me on the spot. But this isn’t easy. When I visited the U-M Museum in its newly expanded state, though I tried my best, I was lucky only a few times. What set those viewing experiences apart from the rest was first and foremost the opportunity they afforded me to observe my own reactions as if I were a stranger to myself. The pieces that most deeply affected me weren’t those that moved me the most intellectually, but standing in front of them I found myself falling out of time and out of thought and into the grace of miscomprehension where my ego dissolved just enough to allow for an unexpected encounter.

Of these experiences, the Joan Mitchell painting “White Territory” offered me the most personal journey toward strangeness. “White Territory” is a large abstract painting covered in brushy areas of muted colors interacting on a field of white that has so much substance it can hardly be considered background, though it is. When I first turned the corner and came upon the painting, I started my viewing by cataloging: I felt pleased I could recognize Mitchell’s style, I thought about the time period in which she made the painting, the composition; I let the painting talk at me more than to me. But when I played closer attention to the space between the burgeoning, practically blooming areas of paint splashed and hefted and pushed into her canvas, I happened upon an experience derived more from personal narrative despite the abstract nature of the work. In my very first art class we were asked to do an imitation painting; we could choose any artist and any painting we wanted. Most chose figurative work, but I chose a Joan Mitchell painting. Not fully understanding abstract expressionalism, I remember taking it upon myself to meticulously transfer paint onto my canvas, painstakingly mixing the variety of off-whites and striking hues to the shades and tints Mitchell had probably mixed directly on the canvas. I started at one side and worked toward the other, carefully outlining Mitchell’s raw edges and forceful brushstrokes and filling them in like paint by numbers. Because I had never seen a painting quite like hers at that time, I didn’t know that what I should have mimicked was the energy, and that the exact image was simply beside the point.

When I allowed this memory to enter the space between the painting and me, I saw the energy I had missed in my copy and felt slightly ashamed of my naive, yet misdirected goodwill. As I stood there, I almost felt that the painting viewed me with a mixture of pity and compassion rather than me viewing it. Somewhere between myself then and myself now the painting existed like a stalled car. I wanted to get out of it, to walk away, but instead I stayed inside and tried to disappear, and because I stuck with it, the painting ended up telling me something else: There is hardly any room for shame inside of such an act of human spirit. On this large canvas mistakes become inseparable from the grand order of things. In fact, in Mitchell’s territory the only mistake would be to stop acting in order to judge one’s actions. I recognized how such an artistic vision could only be achieved by suspending total judgment for a long enough time to allow for evolution toward one’s particular point of view, which oddly seemed to comment directly on the act of seeing I was trying my best to accomplish, and maybe the life I was trying to lead as well. I wasn’t wrong to copy her so precisely; it was part of my own artistic adventure. All at once it was difficult to separate anything from anything else, not just foreground from background, but this moment from the past, this painting from my experience, mistake from intentionality, judgment from intuition. Needless to say, we had a moment.

Because I often think I should understand something so significant about art, I love the chance to stumble into an unchecked reaction because it offers me the chance to observe myself without judgment, something I find remarkably hard to do. I had another opportunity to experience this in front of Candida Höfer’s large chromogenic print of “Basílica do Palácio Nacional de Mafra.” This experience wasn’t as sentimental as what I shared with “White Territory” but this lack of sentimentality seemed precisely the point of entry I needed. Höfer’s print is a large-scale color photograph (approx. 100 inches by 80 inches) that captures the interior of the Basilica in all its architectural wonder with all its magnificent frescos. Though it is gorgeous, when I looked at it I didn’t really see the quality of the work but instead experienced the pleasure of not seeing. I have always disliked travel—the discomfort of planes and hotels, and the exhaustion of hauling oneself from one important site to another, the pressure to see it all. The cathedral image struck me as yet another culturally significant monument made so hazy by the exhausting facts of time and place that it becomes difficult to truly see it, which is why I wanted permission to look, not to see, to send a postcard, not to be moved. The photograph made me want to be a passive tourist. It seemed so simple, to stand inside a major human achievement and to record it without dreaming of understanding it. I wanted to get out my camera and take a photograph of the photograph, and the selfish and banal pleasure of such a viewing, along with my willingness to recognize my desire, made me disappear a little. For a split second I felt like I was inside of the photograph rather than beside it. But then the second faded, and when I turned away all I had to say was “I should really travel more,” and the banality of that reaction surprised me; I hardly recognized myself, and that is exactly what I wanted to achieve.

I guess what I have discovered is that the most enjoyable art viewing experience for me now resides not in knowing what to look for but in figuring out where to look. Just staring at the image on the wall or in the display case isn’t enough to start a conversation. I am reminded of my students who look at art that challenges their conception of what art is only to say “it’s boring” or “it’s not art.” Though I struggle against it, I must admit that these are valid reactions, and valuable ones if they proceed to question what makes them bored and what might make them less bored and why art can be one thing but not another. Does art need to be something definable in order to better define ourselves? Even by writing this I am trying to define what escapes definition, but defining what I see has become part of the ecstatic moment that thankfully keeps shifting out of my view. I compared the art experience to opening doors, but maybe that is too stable a metaphor, and I need even more entry points to find the best angle to coax myself away from a surface viewing. Perhaps inside of the museum every art piece, every artifact, has a number of charges: door, window, mirror, staircase, roof, perhaps even closet. I can enter something or gaze right through it, but I can also sit happily amongst my clutter and secrets and forgotten personal effects. I can get bored. I can be overwhelmed. I can try to hide. I can pretend I know what I am talking about and can be delightfully pleased to find that I am once again sitting alone in the dark.

There was one other piece that I can’t quite get out of my head from my museum visit that keeps reminding me of how wonderful it is not to know. Vito Acconci’s two light bulbs plugged into a socket and hanging from the wall, looking more like something one might have imagined seeing before the renovation was complete. The ability to define this piece keeps escaping me even now. I wanted to say it was about the modernist impulse to make it new, but that didn’t seem quite right. I wanted to anthropomorphize the bulbs, turn them into lovers, but that also seemed too easy. The piece left me with the sense of a self-sustaining creative problem, exactly the kind of thing that drives art making. And so I will close with a poem, not in hopes that it will capture the meaning of the piece, but as a way to dissolve myself further into the air around it.

By the Light of Untitled by Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Poem by Jennifer Metsker

You think you know something,

but unless you know what that thing illuminates,

you don’t know anything at all.

Take these two light bulbs hanging on the wall,

like boxing gloves only lit by filaments,

willing to do battle regardless of being

bare and ordinary. In the atrium air,

their light barely travels. They cannot

get away from themselves; they are suffocated

by their own paltry show. Two heads?

No, just two lights bulbs. Two lovers?

No, just two insignificant bulbs, their cords

dangling like dangling cords.

These bulbs are not sunrise, not

cadmium glow, not water on fire, not waitress

on fire, not anything serviceable at all,

not long lost friend or allegorical snakes,

just the mundane light of waiting

for someone to understand us.

These lights we cannot see each other by

are lights that blind our limited sight,

lights that illuminates only themselves,

like friends that exclude you

referencing private jokes in conversation

and laughing, aren’t they beatific

in their exclusion, glowing brighter,

like the lights that exclude you?

I can’t help thinking there are a few of us

who illuminate each other this way,

insignificantly but not so insignificant

to burn without notice. Our separate bodies

blur like lights in a dressing room mirror,

Unable to turn away from each other,

we try each other on and on and on,

until we forget who illuminates what.