On Museums, and Why You Should Visit the MFA.

As mentioned in my post the other day, I was supremely lucky to have 2 of my best friends from college visit me in Boston this weekend. Although we spent a fair bit of time just catching up, we also did a pretty good job of seeing the sites around town. After leading A and M on a whirlwind tour of the city on days 1 and 2, we unanimously decided that their third and final day in town was the perfect opportunity to calm things down a bit. What better way to do that than to enjoy a day at the museum? Luckily for us, this past Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day here in the good ol’ U.S. of A, and we got to partake in a fabulous Boston tradition: the annual MLK Day Open House at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

What is this Open House you ask? Well, admission to the MFA is usually pretty steep — $25 for general admission, $23 for students and seniors (although many local university students have free admission: check out the list here). Therefore, it’s a pretty lucky day when you can saunter in free of charge. Thankfully, for the past 10-odd years, Citizens Bank and the MFA have been all about making that happen (and not in a half-assed way either). In addition to the usual exhibits (which are impressive enough in their own right), the Open House also boasts a variety of special events including performances, spotlight talks, and guided tours.

As you might expect, this open day draws huge crowds. While the line looked daunting, it only took us about 30 minutes to be allowed entry into the museum, time which provided us with ample opportunity to flesh out our plan of attack. Before taking advantage of the special events, A, M, and I decided to wander around the museum on our own. Even with the intimidatingly large crowds engendered by free admission, the MFA was an expansive, almost cavernous space. With high ceilings, open stairwells, and three floors full of artwork, the museum is truly art unto itself. After powering through much of the first floor in the hopes of reaching a restroom (we eventually succeeded), the three of us decided to start things off with the temporary, contemporary exhibition focused on the work of American artist Frances Stark.

All art has been contemporary.
A prescient reminder that all art was contemporary in its day.

This exhibit, entitled UH-OH, (a moniker that is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose), certainly accomplished its goal of making one think. Unfortunately, I’m still not wholly convinced that it did so in a predominantly positive way. The exhibition — a retrospective on Stark’s life and work from 1991-2015 — begins with her earliest carbon copy works. Look, it’s worth saying at this juncture that I’m a major museum buff who was raised on a steady diet of contemporary pieces in America’s greatest temples of modern art. Even so, I had an incredibly hard time experiencing many of Stark’s works  as ‘art’, or at least as art in the way I think of it. One of the more problematic pieces, for example, involved a used, annotated copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The work was not edited or adulterated in any way. In fact, the piece consisted of Stark tracing over the typewritten pages, plus their previously written annotations, on a new piece of paper. That was it. By tracing the work of a celebrated author and an anonymous reader, both — not adding to it, or analyzing it, but tracing it — the MFA assures me that Stark was making a profound statement on the nature of communication in society. I’m still not convinced.

That sense of skepticism carried on throughout the entire UH-OH exhibit. From chatroom sexts projected on the wall to the stirring sounds of Leporello’s catalogue aria (because pseudo-porn and Don Giovanni are obvious bedfellows), to a so-called ‘silent movie’ created via the artistic stylings of 2 of Stark’s former lovers (a filmmaker and a pianist, respectively), there was a lot in this exhibit that I just didn’t get. Oh, sure, on an intellectual level, I understood it. Stark is following in a long tradition of avant-garde American artists who merge the analog and the digital, the mundane and the erotic. I wouldn’t say the art itself was over my head. Emotionally, though, moving past the visceral angst, disgust, and disbelief to truly experience each work was difficult. The whole thing felt markedly overwrought and self-indulgent. I found myself struggling to believe that most observers could take these works seriously. I did not leave feeling empowered or energized, but anxious. Many critics seem to believe that Stark offers us a profound look at the nature of womanhood, sexuality, and communication in a modern age. I leave her further exhibits to them — one was more than enough for me.

Why should you not be able to assemble yourself and write?
By far the best of Frances Stark’s works in UH-OH, in my opinion. You can also find it on mugs in the gift shop.

Though none of us were enraptured by Stark’s exhibit, my friends and I decided to try and take in more of the MFA’s standard fare during one of the Open House’s guided tours. Although the program only stated one option — a stroll through the museum’s best examples of African-American art — once we found the meeting place, we were informed that we could choose the aforementioned tour, or one on contemporary art. In the spirit of the day (and in the face of our post UH-OH contemporary art fatigue), we decided to stick with the African-American option. While our docent, a harried Brooklyn transplant, was a bit rushed, the works she showed us were gorgeous. From 19th-century portraits to 21st-century multimedia works, the MFA clearly presents a stunning and diverse offering when it comes to the multifaceted history of African-American art. Showstoppers included a David Drake pot, John Wilson’s working sketches of Martin Luther King, Jr. himself, and a heartbreaking silhouette wall-mural showing how the Black community carries the weight of its history as it moves into the future. I couldn’t have felt luckier to get to explore the works of talented African-Americans on a day when their heritage is often overlooked in the face of calls for national unity. Kudos to the MFA for celebrating diversity without sugarcoating it. These are the kinds of stark, introspective exhibits more American museums need.

Art that you can sit on. It also makes you think: “An elite is inevitable. Any surplus is immoral. Humanism is obsolete.”

Of course, there’s much more to the MFA than just 2 exhibits. Their permanent collection includes pieces from around the world and represents all types of media: from jewelry and textiles to painting and sculpture. After our guided tour, we took one last swing through the main gallery, basking in the awe-inspiring embrace of the Hudson River School landscapes and floor-length European tapestries. Indeed, though I balked at idea of paying the usual price for a visit to the MFA, this trip showed me that my $25 would be money well spent. There is no way to truly experience the glory of the MFA in one day. To wander their halls is to take in the startling and breathtaking breadth of humanity, and how art best displays our progress in the world.

On a side note, this museum is also great for kids. With a sprawling cafe, plus a dedicated children’s art space chockfull of enough crayons and paper for even the most enthusiastic young artist, the MFA goes out of its way to make its offerings family friendly. In fact, many of the exhibits are at least mildly interactive. It seemed like there was a chair (or three) in every room that the wee ones could both admire and use for their mundane purpose. Though your little ones might think the Children’s Museum is a bit more fun, a day at the MFA with your under-12s would absolutely be a day well spent.

Art and chair.
Who says you can’t touch the art?

Kids or no kids, free or not free,  you should absolutely spend the day at the MFA. It reminds us of our place in the world in all the best ways. A museum like this one is a place that juxtaposes profundity and whimsy. It reminds us all just what it means to be human. How it feels to experience the sheer vastness of a transcendent work. But, more than that, how glorious it feels to stand in the shadows of giants and marvel at just how small we are

79/100 for confusing layout, high price point, and some unnecessary pretension. Of course, those low points are mitigated by the sheer breadth of the collection, great kids’ offerings, and spectacular individual works. Expect greatness, but not perfection — and bring your student ID!

–S

Day 17: January 17, 2017

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