Three Tips for Surviving the Art Museum

  • Wall Street Journal

Three Tips for Surviving the Art Museum


Columnist's name

Have you ever noticed that no one in an art museum ever seems to be having fun? This is particularly true of the men. They always look like people dragooned into attending the funeral of someone they didn't even like.

They stand there, glum and gloomy, surrounded by Raphaels, Bronzinos and Goyas, staring morosely at the carpet or up at the ceiling, trying to pay attention to the preening weenie on the art phone. They can't wait for the tour guide to say that it's time to get back on the bus.

Art phones have turned museum-going into a dreary chore. It's like being back in high school, where you're expected to memorize everything. Everyone is afraid that there's going to be a test and they'll need to know that Pablo Picasso's father bore a strong resemblance to Edgar Degas, that Nicolas Poussin despised Caravaggio, that the third centurion to the left in the Rembrandt crucifixion scene was a dead ringer for Ignaas van der Hoeven, a baker who once stiffed the artist out of 50 guilder.

But who cares?

Museum-goers, I feel your pain. I have seen you suffer in silence in the presence of paintings you loathe, sculptures you deplore, tour guides you want to strangle. Yet museum-goers can be emancipated from all this unpleasantness by following three easy rules:

1. Refuse to rent the art phone or read any sort of manual. You're not going to remember any of this stuff anyway. It doesn't matter that Michelangelo got his nose broken by Torrigiano, or that Paul Gauguin was a pig. Just look at the paintings and relax. Or go to the restaurant and have a beer. But do not let the pontificating twit yammering away on the art phone turn your museum visit into drudgery. You don't need to know how a Lamborghini got built to enjoy the ride. Why should a Leonardo be any different?

2. Never take a tour with a docent. Docents are all blathering idiots who think they missed their calling as stand-ups. They're the most excruciating human beings on the face of the earth. They're living proof that people should not be allowed to retire, because in retirement, the pathologically garrulous cease to be merely annoying and become truly dangerous. If I had my druthers, NATO would send in warplanes to take out every one of these knuckleheads.

3. Don't be afraid to laugh at the art. And not just modern art. François Boucher's 3-year-old hunters and sculptors and mathematicians (you can see them at New York's beloved Frick Collection) are meant to be laughed at. Babies aren't supposed to load muskets. Infants aren't supposed to devise complex mathematical proofs. Boucher knew this. He knew that his work was over-the-top, comical, just plain nuts.

But I visit the Boucher room at the Frick every week and never see anyone laughing. That's because the art-phone autocrats have brainwashed people into believing that art museums are meant to be deadly serious. They are not. If an art museum is clicking on all cylinders, you shouldn't be able to get out of there without doubling over in laughter at least three times.

For additional chuckles in the wide world of art, take a gander at J.M.W. Turner's amateurish drawings of human figures (they look like stick men), Edward Burne-Jones's foppish knights, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's waterlogged maidens and any painting with a Sphinx, a Viking or Medusa in it. Late 19th-century French painters like William-Adolphe Bouguereau were also very good at painting daft shepherdesses and emaciated waifs, often fetching water or rounding up wayward farm animals. You can't keep a straight face looking at this stuff.

In other words: Don't worry; be happy. If you can't laugh at Anthony van Dyck's boozed-up cavaliers, Thomas Gainsborough's cadaverous, blue-faced debutantes or Damien Hirst's 13-foot shark in a few thousand gallons of formaldehyde, you're really missing out on some great fun.

So my advice on your next trip to the museum is to kick back, have a couple of stiff ones, lock the docent in the broom closet and treat yourself to a few guffaws. Art is meant to lift your spirits. Don't let the people who run museums ruin it.