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.