three impressions | a beginner’s guide to the art institute


For my 27th birthday I received a member’s pass to the Art Institute.

To my shame, I’d only visited the Art Institute once in my entire life.  Bear in mind – that’s eight years of living in downtown Chicago, let alone only two hours east in Indiana, where I lived the rest of my life.  That one time was (arg this is embarrassing) for a class project, and I only saw the pieces I needed to check off.

In my defense… I actually don’t have any defense.  I have no clue what I was thinking.

But now I have not only the means but the opportunity to head on down to Michigan Ave and explore every nook and cranny of that magnificent place.  I’ve done so thrice so far, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  I decided that it was only right to record my first impressions for posterity, with the hope that they may actually be interesting to someone besides me.

1. “There’s a whole lot of tourists here.”

On further reflection, I remembered that the Art Institute is a tourist attraction and it’s Chicago, for goodness sake, so of course there are going to be a ton of non-commuters swarming the place, gawking, and in general getting in the way.  Why can’t everyone be like us urbane city-dwellers who have the cultural and spatial sensitivity not to stand in the way of the main flow of traffic?  God help us all.

You know, I never used to feel this way about tourists.  I think becoming a commuter hasn’t been all good.  It’s the kind of thing where, whenever there is a traffic jam or a rude motorist, I immediately blame it on the fact that they’re not from around here.  As if merely stepping into a new place automatically grants you insider knowledge about its culture.

Long and short of it – I ended up finding the tourists refreshing.  They were there (for the most part) to see something awesome in Chicago.  Many of them had a true appreciation of beauty and an honesty about the stuff outside of their experience (“I still don’t get it”).  They were way better than the posers, yuckies, and pharisees that also populated the Art Institute.  They compelled me to consider what kind of visitor I want to be.  I kind of came down on their side – hoping that as I weave my way through the variegated halls that I too would wonder, exclaim over the beauty I find especially meaningful, and go away feeling like, gee, I got my money’s worth.

2. “Is it okay to laugh at modern art?”

So I visited this one section in the modern art wing that was… just kind of unexplainable in writing – you would have had to be there, I suppose.  And I, as serious about art as I consider myself to be (take that however you want to), found myself stifling laughter.  I think my behavior mostly consisted of glancing around at other people to see if they were as serious about this stuff as the artist apparently was, and hiding my grin with my hand.

Yes, I still have no idea what this particular artist was trying to say (it was equal parts phallic and utterly esoteric).  But I still couldn’t help mentally poking fun at them for all their seriousness, probably because I’m still in middle school, but mostly because I believe art communicates.  If what it communicates is ridiculous, laughter seems appropriate.  Laughter should be more acceptable at the Institute – or at least amusement.  There should be room for the public’s gut reaction.  But then, there should definitely be respect for the artist too.  Unless all they can think about is penises.  Than maybe they need to take a break from communicating that obsession to the general public.

3. “Art is so alive.”

My second trip was with a friend of mine who has had a fuller experience than mine given the fact that her parents took her to the institute throughout her childhood.  She grew up going to the AI.  So I asked her: “What are your favorite parts?”  She guided me through the sculpture garden, the portrait hallway, the Ando gallery and the Thorne miniatures, guided by her impressions as a child and her favorites as an adult.  Perhaps it was the personality behind her choices or hearing her explain why they stuck with her all these years, but it reminded me why I got this year pass.

It’s easy to gloss over this most important idea, perhaps given the sheer multitude of art in the building, or the stunning variety of aesthetic standards – but these objects aren’t simply objects.  That’s not just framed canvas, or stone, or copper, or wood.  And even if it is just a block of wood, or a single-colored shape, for goodness sake, look again and realize how amazing something that simple actually is.  These items are taken by mankind and pressed, molded, shaken, stroked into living, breathing examples of the length and breadth of humanity.  These are capable of communicating depths of meaning that words cannot.  These are alive.


5 thoughts on “three impressions | a beginner’s guide to the art institute

  1. My husband and I giggled all the way through this post. I am ashamed to say I never went to the Art Institute in my three years living in Chicago. However, I agree wholeheartedly with your creed-art communicates. It breathes.
    You’ve inspired me to check out our local (Grand Rapids, MI) art institute and be more disciplined to welcome more art into my life. To make time for art. Thank you.


    • Thanks Anna! It’s so worth it, and it’s everywhere. I’m plotting to bring Nadia (3) down there sometime to wander around; she’s focused enough that I think she would really enjoy it for a half hour or so. We’ll have to see…


  2. I have often giggled at modern art. I think one of my most childish moments to date occurred at the actual Museum of Modern Art, where in my derision and immaturity, I stuck a toe across the ‘Do not cross’ line after being told to stand back. I did it because I didn’t understand what I was seeing and my lack of understanding threatened me. I’ve grown since then. These days, I always find it helpful to differentiate between beauty and art. We can create beauty, but the standard of beauty, I think, is determined outside of ourselves. I believe that for a thing to be beautiful, it must reflect the Divine in some way. Not so with art. Art is an external representation of an internal reality, and it therefore it should reflect the breadth of emotion that is life. Increasingly divorced from the God that gives meaning to life, modern life, in all of its hurry, confusion, and cheerless greed, often gives rise to modern art that reflects that same hopeless recklessness and confusion.


    • Intriguing thoughts on the difference between art and beauty. I usually think of artists as reflecting the Creator fundamentally because they are creating; in this, they can’t help but reflect the God of the universe who they may actually and actively deny. This also makes every piece/remnant of art equally deserving of thought and respect, even if some reflect, as you put it so well, “cheerless greed… hopeless recklessness and confusion.” To me, no piece of created art is without beauty, because true ugliness would be devoid of the Divine. So basically, sucks to be an unbeliever, because you can’t ever get away from reflecting God in your art. 🙂

      I don’t know, though; the concept of ugliness and evil communicated through art – is there a tipping point of where we should eschew viewing or conversing with that piece and it’s artist? Where would that be, if so? Is communicating chaos ever useful? I’ve encountered pieces that made me physically ill – not sad, or thoughtful, or even angry – but actually deeply disturbed in my soul. I just have no idea how to pinpoint WHY they do that. I guess another blog for another time…

      Also, I want to go to the modern wing of the AI with you now. Field trip!


      • Your question about whether there is a time and place to communicate ugliness and evil brings to mind another image of art that has been helpful to me: art as a mirror. Since art is an external representation of an internal reality, it absolutely can hold up a mirror that reflects the depravity of the human condition. Ideally, that reflection will bring greater understanding of the realities presented in Scripture (as Christian artists, that should always be our goal). Art that portrays sin has its place, just so long as it does not remain merely a portrayal of sin, but becomes admission of the sin that necessitates the Gospel.

        And let’s for sure do a field trip!


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