Art Is Not That Special

by Christina Rees February 8, 2020

Walter Hopps, founding director of the Menil Collection, sitting, smoking, and drinking with some art. Photo: c. 1969, by John Gossage, via The Paris Review.

“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. 


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Nic Nicosia February 9, 2020 - 09:46

Truly enjoyed this article!

bill roseberry February 9, 2020 - 09:57

… as a museum guard knows more than anyone.

Maria Sheets February 9, 2020 - 10:20

Don’t worry, my parents wouldn’t let me write or create art…and I’m prolific in both today. Hopefully the child will choose to be defiant. And as kid I watched several people school my parents in public, it resoundedly left an impression on me that I was in the right at those moments. Let her rip.

Dune-Micheli Patten February 9, 2020 - 11:00

Art- especially Art History- should be appreciated, respected, and taken as a privilege (to get to view, and to understand). The deer generation needs to continue in rightful instruction to the younger generation if the appreciation, respect, and privilegebof Art is to be priority (while in museums or any other place). Ottherwise, we have a huge disregard for Art; and yet, we are seeing it, in this era, more aggitated than ever (people not knowing or thinking Art is important and needfu at all). This ignorance does come from a mindset of privilege.

Rainey Knudson February 9, 2020 - 12:52

I feel reverential about very great works of art and literature. Everybody deserves to feel that way.

Don Quaintance February 9, 2020 - 15:04

Your “at the Menil — gasp —” comment plays into the tired meme that the Menil is somehow elitist, for example, because it refuses to dumb-down on the founder’s tradition of no didactic panels or audioguides for nose-leading its visitors, among other such charges. It has always been free and open to everyone. In closing you write, “a trip to the Menil (or to any art space),” in attempt to cover over what I’m complaining about, but the story seems to infer a larger problem you find with the Menil experience in particular.
And besides his role as founding director, what does a pix of Walter Hopps have to do with this topic?

Teresa Megahan February 9, 2020 - 15:20

I have nightmares sometimes about taking fifth graders to the art museum. I’m not sure I’ll ever attempt a big field trip for this precise reason. I don’t want to rob the kids of enjoyment in the name of enforcement.

Small, age-appropriate doses are probably prescribed. Same is true for mom above. She probably needed a smaller dose of her kids at that moment, and was caught trying to do too much for too many.

Good read. Good food for thought. Thanks for writing it all down.

David F Baker February 9, 2020 - 15:48

Hell, there’s never enough comfortable seating in an art museum anyway. Don’t really know why, other than that “keep em moving” crowd thing.
Your Photo perfectly demonstrates the proper way to take in any given work of art worth studying. A nice comfortable chair, …with a back. and a small table for your favorite beverage. Also good for people watching while you’re at it.

Lauren Gottlieb-Miller February 10, 2020 - 10:16

It sounds like that woman was having a difficult moment – all parents do. It’s easy to throw stones at a person in their absolute worst moment. It honestly sounds like she could have used a day off. I know that I am not a perfect parent and I don’t know any.

I agree, everyone deserves art and access to art, and that art is important and certainly not “special” in the way that some people deserve it and others do not. It’s why it’s so wonderful that the Menil is free (I work here, full disclosure) and I think is a great first museum for kids, given that if the day isn’t working out, or they’re too tired, or they want to touch stuff (all normal kid things), you can just go to the park outside. My own son has grown up here, zooming around. I personally do not bring him to museums when I know I want time to look at things carefully (or have an adult conversation, forbid). I know people who will not bring their kids to museums because it’s too stressful for them, and that’s fine too. Museums will be there for them when and if they want.

Nell Potasznik Langford February 10, 2020 - 10:33

Love this article, as I secretly chuckle, remembering an outing with my 5 yr old son to the DMA as he ran towards a priceless painting , sticky hands flailing outwards. Running, a la Jason Bourne, over the stroller, shoving another kid aside, to secure said peanut butter fingers. All of this so as not to be permanently ousted from our local institution.

Who knew a day at the museum would require Bond-like abilities- but totally worth it. No one died or got kicked out. We still go and we always find something new and thought provoking. I don’t take them when they are tired or hungry and 2 hrs is about all they can handle. Moderation – in all things, is key.

peyton February 10, 2020 - 10:35

My dad had to drag me through the Louvre by my ear when I was a kid. Now I work for a contemporary arts space!

Chris Lockwood February 10, 2020 - 11:37

My parents dragged me and my brothers to church every week. I grew to hate going to church because I felt like I was told what to believe, how to pray, and worst of all, to sit still and behave. They never once took us to an art museum. When I was in college I discovered art museums and art spaces, and I love going to them the way I’m sure my parents wanted me to love going to church.

Cindee Klement February 10, 2020 - 13:19

There is no room in any space for a parent that parents by belittling their child. There is an art to parenting, and sadly it was not on exhibit. I hate to imagine how the mother treats her children in the privacy of their home.

Colette February 10, 2020 - 15:38

I loved this article too. I remember when my daughter was 3 and we were at the Whitney looking at huge abstract paintings (I’m blanking on the artist). My daughter loved the color yellow and took off in a run towards one of the yellow-dominant paintings. The guards all freaked, understandably expecting a disaster. When my daughter was 3 feet away, she sat down and pointed at the painting and proceeded to talk about the colors and the composition. We drew quite an audience, as people wanted to hear what she had to say about the paintings, and then she would stand up and run to another one with audience in tow.

When I take my students to the museum each semester, it is always a special experience. For many of them, it is their first trip to a museum. Inevitably they say it was their favorite part of the class. I always hope that it will continue to be something that’s repeated and enjoyed in their lives.

Vaughn Wascovich February 27, 2020 - 10:39

I recently misheard one of my grad students as she responded to me when I mentioned that we could talk about art while we were on a short road trip, “Oh, hopefully, we can find something more interesting to discuss!” Indeed.


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