“If this is how you’re going to act, I’ll never bring you to a museum again. You don’t deserve it!”
I overheard a mom say these exact words to her young daughter at the Menil Collection recently. The daughter, no more than seven or eight, had been so insolent as to sit down for a moment in a chair reserved for a member of the museum’s security staff.
I had never considered the idea of child “art abuse” before this. But that’s what I witnessed. I’d be shocked if this child grows up to love, or even like, art. As though getting tuckered out and taking the “wrong” seat at the Menil — gasp — was some sort of kiddie crime.
Just FYI: the mom was WASP-y, and the daughter was a quiet kid wearing very cool hot-pink glasses with lenses so thick her eyes looked as big as dinner plates.
Her mother’s whispered, acid hiss “you don’t deserve it!” hit me like a truck. I took it personally. The kid doesn’t “deserve” art? Doesn’t “deserve” a museum?
I was there with my own mom that day; she was visiting me from out of town. My mom takes her time in museums in such a slo-mo manner that it throws me back into the mood of a whiny teen: Hurry up! There’s so much more to see! But I suffer in silence, and also, her pace slows my roll, which is nice, and so for about 20 minutes I hung back and people watched. The museum was crowded; it was a weekend.
The mom in question was there with her two kids — the daughter and an even younger son — and also her own mom, the grandma. That’s how I read it, anyway. The boy, about five, was zipping around a lot, but doing his best to Not Touch things. The daughter was meandering more quietly. I assume she was tired? As I moved from one room to another and back again, I was shadowed by this family, or I was shadowing them. We were in a section of the museum’s permanent collection, where everything on view is very old and important. The mom and grandma were talking about random things — not art — and sounded articulate and thoughtful. Nothing to see here.
I’d been through this exhibition several times in previous months. And I thought those tiny kids were doing an admirable job of not lying down and throwing a fit, given how dreadfully slowly mom and grandma were moving through it. (I’m projecting: I was proud of myself for not lying down and throwing a fit. Only weeks before, I was at that same show with an artist — a really good artist — who sped through the rooms so quickly he nearly left skid marks.)
A museum guard — a woman in her natty uniform — was hovering about ten feet from her chair, keeping a close and serene eye on the crowd. When the child plopped down in the empty chair, the guard turned to her and smiled. Really: it was no big deal.
I smiled, too. I thought: I wish I could get away with that.
That’s when the mom beelined over to her kid, yanked her from the chair and hissed those awful words at her. The girl said absolutely nothing. She just sighed and followed her mom to the next room.
A bit later, at a nearby restaurant, my mom and I inhaled two dozen raw oysters while I told her about the what I’d witnessed. My mom is a psychologist and has, over decades, counseled countless kids and their parents.
My mom understood my alarm about this poor kid. When I asked her what she would have done if she had seen me sit down in a guard’s chair at a museum at age seven, she said “Nothing. I would have let you sit.” My mom has been taking me to museums for as long as I can remember, and now I take her to museums. Even when I was a little kid and we were really broke, before her private practice took off, she took me to museums. It was important to her that art would be a familiar and comfortable presence in my life.
I understand how lucky I am in that. My mom takes my nieces to museums every chance she gets. Those girls have been regulars at the Fort Worth Modern since they were toddlers. They’re pre-teens now. They’re like Cheers-level, “Norm!” regulars at the Modern.
Appreciating art, and museums, is in their blood. Like me, they have the luxury of assuming the best about what they’ll see when they get there, while reserving the right to be bored if the art is boring. I happen to believe that being able to approach art with this level of relaxed agency is right and good. It affords art and artists the very human response they seek and deserve. It gives people a chance to understand art as a part of everyday living.
Art is great, but so is nature, and food, and movies, and books. And if you’re lucky, art feels no more or less “special” than the coffee you drink in the morning (essential, yes; a rare privilege: no). Museums can certainly broadcast the message that art is an elite pastime for elite people, but my gosh — have you seen how some artists handle their own work? And they certainly don’t make the art so that a mom can yell at her kid for sitting down to take it all in, or turn away from it for a minute. Even artists get burned out on art.
A mom telling her kid that she doesn’t deserve to be in a museum looking at art is, to me, akin to her telling her daughter that listening to a song or taking a walk is a privilege that can be — should be — taken away from her if she so much as takes a breather.
We should keep in mind that art, like nature and good narratives and amazing poetry and all things worthwhile, can pack some real power, too, and can even be overwhelming. The crowds that go to see art can be overwhelming. I can get downright dizzy with hyper-stimulation at big museums, and practically shove cell-phone-obsessed people off public benches to get some time out to process what I’m seeing.
And now, pink-glasses kid with the impatient mom does not have the luxury of thinking of art as something she gets to form her own relationship with on her own time. Instead of it weaving itself into her DNA, art is now a thing she will be punished for not “appreciating” enough. And if a parent who bothers to pack her kids in the car for a trip to the Menil (or to any art space) doesn’t get even that basic human right, well, God help us all.