Sunday, January 4, 2009

Asking for Change: Imitating Life

Asking For Change: an occasional series on what should change in the U.S. under a new president, why it should change, and how we all can make it happen.

Obamathon Man and his associate spent yesterday afternoon being cultural at the Denver Art Museum. The building itself is a work of art, that is to say, unusual and not really intended to look pretty. The museum is comprised of two buildings which are four and six stories tall, and the most notable feature of the whole place was that there was a children's play center on nearly every floor. Perhaps they wanted to let mommy and daddy admire the paintings without the little ones slobbering on the ancient Qing Dynasty figurines. Just as well.

After 10 floors of art, we were arted out. We were thinking too hard. Art imitates life, because it presents all kinds of problems and no solution. There you are in the museum, staring at an old tractor plow with a giant skull on it, wondering whether it represents the inevitable subjugation of the agrarian proletariat, the dangers of farm life, or just the artist's fondness for plows and skulls. You turn to your fellow museum patrons, hoping that they might mutter something amongst themselves that makes the whole thing make sense, but they look at at it with the same vacant stare as you. Upon leaving the museum, we were ready for something easily explainable, like lunch.

But we were happy to have visited, especially since it was free. Even though some in our family don't like the design of the building, and even the two of us wouldn't go out of our way to defend it, I'm much happier that it's there instead of some anonymous office building. Office buildings exist to house offices, to provide a workplace for workers, who work to make money for themselves and enrich their corporate bosses, who also work for themselves but also to enrich the economy, so we're told. It's easy to understand. Maybe the reason I'm happy the art museum is there is that it's an acknowledgment that the height of human endeavor is more than making things easy to understand. Maybe the tractor plow and skull convey something that would not come across through a news article or scholarly essay.

I'm not saying we should teach art because it might make you smarter. Nor am I suggesting an increase in NEA funding - though I don't think their funding should be decreased either. What I would like to see is a society who looks at the art and doesn't try to reduce it into literary terms. Ars gratia artis, art for art's sake. That's the best interpretation of the skull plow I have to offer.

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