“But what does it mean?”
A sense of bewilderment can be an unfortunate side component of a visit to an art museum. What does that blue square with an orange border mean? Perhaps even more daunting is the complicated answer attached to that question: Is there one absolute meaning or several flexible ones? Does the art have to mean anything at all?
Since a short blog post is not really the time or place to discuss theories of meaning in art, I would like to use this space to compare two different senses of creating meaning that I have encountered this summer during my time in New York City.
America is Hard to See, the inaugural show of the Whitney Museum of American in its new space, chronicles American art from the early 1900s to the present. The exhibition includes multiple pieces that prompt the classic “But what does it mean?” from its viewers. Sometimes this question was prompted by the type of minimalist work featuring a solitary geometric shape on the canvas but, on other occasions, the question of meaning was directed at a more bizarre work of art. My personal favorite piece in this category was Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 7, a video series in which the artist participates in various shenanigans – from prancing around to wrestling – while costumed as a satyr. This kind of wacky yet mystifying work challenges its viewer and the search for some definitive meaning.
Photo credit: artmag.com; Photograph from Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 7
The art that I saw at the Whitney contrasted significantly with what I saw on my visit to the Rubin Museum of Art. The Rubin focuses on art from the Himalayas, India and the surrounding regions. The museum’s first floor of exhibition space is instructional. The gallery breaks down typical composition of art from the Museum’s region of focus and decodes the individual elements present in the pieces. From the posture of a figure to the placement of his hands, each of these individual details inflicts a level of meaning on the greater work. In this case, the distinct parts are included in a codified system of meaning. For an outsider to this system, the informational set-up on the first floor offered a window into the dynamic. This fixed meaning did not detract from the wonder or majesty accompanying the art on the Rubin’s walls. As I overheard one of my fellow visitors exclaim as she walked into gallery of Buddhist art, “Wow…this is incredible.”
The Whitney and Rubin are obviously different in terms of exhibition content, and the overall experience as a visitor in one is qualitatively different than in the other. While the former prompted many questions prefaced with “what” the latter skipped the questions and went straight to the “wow.”