Sunday, May 5, 2013

Adventures at the National Gallery

What is this photo?  It is performance art, an exploration of the unexpected encounter between the average museum-goer, generally WASP-ish, educated, upper income, and a group of unusual visitors to the National Gallery-- immigrant teenagers, many poor, some with limited literacy, most of whom have never been to a museum before.  The piece highlights the bourgeois discomfort of being confronted with behaviors and norms in conflict with the protocol of a museum visit, and questions established ideas as to who a museum is for and how one ought to interact with art.

So that last paragraph was just me flexing my academic writing BS skills.  (I think this proves that I've generally still got it, even if that reads a bit more awkwardly than I would like--it is, after all, a genre of writing that is by nature clunky and unreadable).  On Friday, three other ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teachers at my school and I took 100 ESOL students to the National Gallery of Art on a field trip.  It was lovely to see the excitement on their faces as the buses rolled into the district and they saw the Washington Monument and the White House for the first time.  As we walked past security into the National Gallery, the energy level was palpable--students were smiling, pointing to sculptures and paintings, chattering to one another in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, Hindi, Farsi.

The conflict between museum protocol and student enthusiasm started almost immediately, with one museum official yelling loudly at the entire group for making too much noise as we stood just past the entrance in an enormous group.  It didn't get better as we got upstairs and started to view paintings: I watched, amused, as students posed to take pictures in front of Renaissance Art, flashing gang signs and making goofy faces while the other museum goers stolidly walked from painting to painting.  One student was chattering enthusiastically in Korean about a painting depicting Christ, using his pencil to point out a detail to a friend only an inch or so from the canvas--and drawing the ire of the guards, who tended to swarm to whatever room most of our students were walking through.  I felt slightly embarrassed and resolved to teach a lesson on museum etiquette before the next trip.  And then I thought--why do they have to conform? Okay, yes, a lesson about NOT appearing to be on the verge on destroying priceless works of art might be a good idea, but why not strike a pose with buddies?  Why is the slow walk, hands behind the back, hushed whispers to a friend, the only way to experience this?  Here are these students, not your average museum attenders at all, clearly enjoying art.  Shouldn't art lovers be gratified to see art's audience expanding?  Or is what we love not really art at all, but the illusion of exclusivity?  I cannot continue to say, "I am the kind of person who goes to museums, who takes time to memorize the dates and  aesthetic distinctions of baroque, rococo  and neoclassical styles, which makes me refined, special, and better" when the masses are all taking part in the same activities.  

So no, this photo was not taken of performance art, but it does genuinely capture my students' interaction with art as they experienced the museum in a way meaningful to them, making it their own.  They're trying to look cool and tough, gangsterish not because of real gangster connections but because of the invincibility and power it implies, powerful things for boys caught up in lives where they've been dragged to a new country without much say.  Just don't tell them that they look more like a boy band.

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