Pictures At an Exhibition is an older tune of sorts. A classical score of insouciant majesty that meanders through a fictitious hall and acts as docent for the listener describing through tone and melody some of the Western Cannon’s great masterpieces. I remember listening to this work on our huge console record player, the one that took up half the room and that we would spray down with Pledge every Friday when we did the Friday Nigh Cleaning (FNC) in order to afford the privilege of watching Saturday Morning Cartoons (SMC). Who would have thought you could listen to as painting but I guess the same as seeing a poem.
Having the Fine Arts instilled in me from an early age, it is no wonder that my habit in travel was to visit many grand museums in each city as I could travel to, perhaps two or three in one day as time and my budget could afford so that I would be able to wander the great halls and marvel at large and dark canvases. I have wandered about halls coffered, vaulted, and rotundaed. Up steps marble, terrazzo, and cement. Sat on benches uncomfortable, slightly uncomfortable, and really unforgettably painful. My feet have ached, my back pounding, my armpits leaking little droplets of musk, my mouth dry and sprouting plaque and gingivitis from fatigue. I have stood in front of huge epic dramas involving Christ, Cossacks, Lions and Bears, fish and fruit on a table, nude women, angels, wars between heathens, wars between Christians, the Virgin Mary, mountains and sunsets, and naked babies a plenty with and without wings individually or all at once until I started hearing voices and seeing angels in the motes and midges and corners of by eyes. I have seen the cacophonous assemblages, shrinking encaustics, and the wrapped in plastic conceptual expressive and recursive decoupages.
You can’t get anything from visiting a museum, my parent told me, frequently. She had a mantra that if you did not study everything in the museum, each work of art, the history of the masters and apprentices, to know the historical epics each work depicted, one could get but little from the visit. It was useless to travel the world and visit the fabled piles of culture wherever humanity and the muses had squatted them out.
I was also told by this same person that I would be unable to travel to any foreign land not knowing the language. That to visit but one nation, I must also learn their tongue.
After circling the earth more than twice, I have learned two important lessons:
A) If you have hard currency, everyone speaks English
- You will never know everything so visit as many museums as you want since the Fine Arts will fall into two categories anyway of:
2.1 Shit you like*
2.2 Shit you don’t like*
*Famous shit just looks fake shit.
Hall after hall, like the Ancient Mariner I have wandered, as Job I have endured artist statements and interpretive labels, and as Thomas I have believed half of what I read on art was a crock of shit invented by some undersexed art maven poseur fob and boo writing whatever dribble they think can make the least sense in order to have the most impact on the bewildered visitor. And, in these deep and dark museums, I have traveled about and seen shit I like, like bronze statues of unabashed naked, and shit I don’t like such as some exhibit of art made from meat and blood and a pile of used tampons rotting somewhere in North or West Adams, MA or perhaps Beacon, NY.
I have also found that art museums are a lot like hotels….
Yes. I thought that.
At first I was shocked too. Like the realization that time feels sticky like taffy sometimes. Or you hate the taste of water since it reminds you of a colour that frightened you as a child. Or you are afraid of the dark because you know you can’t see the wind. A thought that motels and museums are the same is somewhat odd if not a sign of a psychotic break of some gentle kind. It is not that we can pile them up against each other and compare as we did compare things as children – that this one thing is different than the other. That the hard texture of the block is not the same as oatmeal or that oatmeal is swishy through the fingers as is mud and grits. This is no such relational construct. I was standing in the thick of FINE ART in Houston (of all places and which has a polite yet Oil Money collection), when I realized that my hotel and the hallowed halls of FINE ART were much the same. And to this I sat on one of those dis-comfortable museum benches and pondered quite sober and then returned to my airport hotel and somewhat inebriated on my uncomfortable and rickety bar chair and thought and pondered yet more, and still I could not dispel this strange and dangerous theory of mine…. or perhaps it is more a notion, not yet a full idea, less than a concept and perhaps nothing more than a fancy. The feeling that there is some connection between these two worlds that needs further exploration, that there is perhaps a role each play or a spirit of sorts that we cannot see but were we of old we would name a Saint for each and that Saint would be the same figure.
As said, this cannot be distilled to a compare and contrast type of analogy as found in various clickbait sites or The One Weird Trick, or Omaha Drivers Mad They Did Not Know This Simple Rule, or the Top 25 Ways Hotels and Museums are the same complete with GIFs that drag down your wireless connection on your iThingamagiggie. I think this is a deeper sort of impression one that is emotion, not rational, not of the first order of thinking but something you have to feel out, to listen to what you are seeing.
Then again, it may be that as I age my brain is turning to putty and a wet brain coming on sooner than the doctors predicted. The impressions of travel that had been carefully written in notebooks now are only impressions since my ex-partner tossed out a file cabinet with all my early writing and art. When one travels one visits several museums and marvels at the items collected, stays at many hotels, some pensiones, a few Youth Hostels one is too old for, rents a cabin here and there depending on the exchange rate, flops on the street or in a park if need be. The museums may be in former palaces, castles, keeps, oubliettes, fortresses, Cultural Palaces, universities, former monasteries as may the hotels, motels, hostels, and sundry other places of refuge. Perhaps my standing in the halls of an unknown museum and my standing in the vast halls of some anonymous hotel had reached into me and pulled at some primal sort of memory not having to do with my personal lived experience but encoded in my genetic experience, the muscle memory passed down from generation to generation.
Or perhaps it was shifting about too many time zones in too little time and the night before trying a drink called the “angry badger” which made me more sad than angry.
The hotel I was at had plenty of “art.” All sorts. Hotels all over have art. Some shit hanging on the walls. In the expensive places this may be prints from the 1880s or actual works of contemporary art, in the less expensive places this is the sort of art that spiritually broken political prisoners of foreign dictatorships [People’s Republic of China par exampler] make all day and is sold by sad little gray men in dank places, but usually in banquet halls in Long Island or strip malls in New Jersey. Hotel art is something to wonder at. In the halls. It is in the common areas. Even the Knights or Scottish Inn has some semblance of art, even a dirty poster hanging in the entryway and those places serve the indigent and lost souls of Amerika.
I had scored a corner suite high up in the air at some hotel in Philly. The art was not just in the lobby, there were several works in the room. Original somethings that a painter had added paint too and then signed some name or mark. “Contemporary Art,” so if I spilled [whatever gets spilled a great deal in hotel rooms] it would be no loss. I pondered the fate of these works. Do they rotate about, as strippers do, the entertainment that once it grows too familiar to the paying audience or ingrates, gets sent to another region. Or was this a collection of things that is then resold to the lower orders, things that one out of fashion are sent to brighten the peeling and dismal halls of the Knightscottishinns of our Great and storied land. Or are these things consigned to the Dust Bin of History, which in this case is a very real dust bin, a tip somewhere at the edge of town?
I wandered the halls of yet another anonymous museum. Donors quick and dead I would never know, some retrospective of an artist I never heard about, a show from Chicago I had to pay $22 USD to see before it was sent to Denver. The trinkets at the give shop. The towels with well-known paintings. The floral prints that reminded me of carpets in hotels in the Old East Europe before it became all Democracy.
I tumbled the ice in my empty drink, at the museum or hotel bar. The patrons were from foreign nations in just for the night and catching come glamour if not just for the evening or killing time before a connecting flight. On the walls was the shit I liked and the shit I didn’t like. I had been to many of these halls, in several cities and I perhaps my parent was right. I cannot know anything having not studied everything so I cannot fully appreciate what I am seeing. Or perhaps my own sense is true and I need to stand by, to reengage with wonder so that when I see something I bring no previous baggage but can appreciate the experience, can marvel if indeed it touches me, or laugh off the attempt if the work falls short. I can look up everything today using my iThingy anyway, but perhaps that is robbing me of both the knowledge, since infotainment is digestible and what can I learn from reading the reviews of former visitors, and that experience of walking into a great hall, and having my breath taken away. To be in the same place, apart and yet close to others even if the shared experience is but fleeting and casual, an insouciant encounter with a much deeper Truth.
I marveled at a work of art for a moment on the wall and I was close enough to count the brush strokes, and I then slid my key card into the door for the reassuring click. Click. The green light flashed. I wondered what marvel would be hung above my bed. Who I would talk to tomorrow over breakfast. I struggled to remember all those other places I have been, and softly shut the door for the night.