Saturday, April 7, 2012

Good Friday Reflections: A Visit to an Art Museum

I've been a bit distracted the past several days, since I had a lecture to give Thursday, and a meeting with the publisher of my forthcoming book yesterday.  The meeting went very well (the lecture seemed to do so, too), and it's definitely a relief to know that the publisher likes the work I've done, since I was anxious that he'd be horrified by a manuscript that I feared might appear blowzy and diffuse, after I printed the whole galumphing thing out.

The trip to the publisher gave us a chance to visit the new Crystal Bridges art museum that opened in northwest Arkansas last fall, and that walk through the museum served as our Good Friday reflection period yesterday.  We were particularly struck by the collection of photogravures by Edward S. Curtis capturing the final traces of the lives of native peoples of North America just before their cultures were obliterated by the cultural mainstream.  The combination of nobility and extreme sadness in many of the faces, in the line of Navahos on horseback vanishing in a straight line into the distance, backs turned to the viewer: moving and painful to see.

Another thought that struck me as we walked from room to room: the only Thomas Eakins painting we saw in the collection was a female nude.  And nothing in the biographical description in the plaque beside the painting gave viewers any hint that Eakins is particularly celebrated for (and was fascinated by) male nudes.  Or that he was gay.

And so I began to think as we walked past painting after painting by artists I know to have been gay, but in whose biographies at the museum there wasn't any mention at all of that fact, of what it might be like to organize a showing within the showing at this beautiful new museum, which would demonstrate to the throngs of visitors coming to the place from across the U.S. how much of our significant cultural heritage in the U.S. (the museum does focus on American art, after all) depends on the gifts that gay and lesbian contributors bring to the table.

What would it be like, for instance, if the museum mounted an exhibit placing Eakins beside Romare Bearden, George Tooker, Grant Wood (all of whom are represented in this collection), and others, and challenged viewers to look at their work and think about how their gayness significantly framed what they saw in the world, and how they saw it?  And what would it be like to take the iconic Norman Rockwell painting of Rosie the Riveter and to talk about it as a celebration of necessary, ongoing, fruitful gender-bending in American culture, of the necessary transgression of gender lines by a society seeking to be more humane and inclusive?

If nothing else, an exhibit like that would be educational, and the museum clearly intends to educate, with its rooms full of books, of biographies of artists and studies of art history, scattered here and there throughout the galleries.  And it surely could be a valuable experience for visitors who imagine that no art in the world has ever been produced by someone gay, or that they've never met anyone gay in their small heartland communities, to realize that they step into a world full of gay when they step into any art museum.

The graphic is George Tooker's 1963 "Supper."

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