What do we want from art? A couple of weeks ago I was in Madrid with my wife, visiting the city for the first time. Like all committed culture vultures, we were determined to tackle as many museums and galleries as we possibly could, while still leaving some space to appreciate an array of other indigenous treasures – tapas and cava, siestas and sangria. As I said, we’re extremely committed.
With the short avenue of our time constantly stampeded by the Goya-and-Velasquez-wielding Prado Museum from one end, and the Guernica-rattling Reina Sofia from the other, we knew we’d have to construct a strategy. The challenge wasn’t in deciding which objects and works we should see (the museum guides are always happy to supply a helpful list reminding you of the celebrated treasures on offer), but rather in how we should go about experiencing them – how, in other words, with only a small dog-flap of opportunity, and with countless elbows jostling our perspective, we could form a meaningful connection with a given work, let alone a whole bunch of them.
Confronting a masterpiece is stressful. One is all too aware of the fact that he or she may never set foot in a particular cultural space again – what with all the places one still dreams of visiting, and with the limited holiday opportunities an average working-life affords. So, how can one make stealing a glimpse genuinely memorable and not merely a soulless exercise in guide-book box-ticking? Fra Angelico’s Annunciation. Check. Las Meninas. Check. Goya’s The Third of May. Check.
Perhaps the key is in the question: ‘stealing’. If you’re going to form a connection with a work of art, you’ll have to remove it from the wall and take it home. Not literally, of course. What I’m proposing is a kind of conceptual heist. Too often we look upon paintings as though they were chiefly flat signs of decipherable visual gestures intended to convey coded messages to the endless ebb and flow of public eyes that wash against them on a museum wall. We forget that they are physical objects – commodities – fashioned by a craftsman, intended, in the vast majority of cases, to be displayed on private walls for the repeated pleasure of private eyes. In many ways, museums distort a work’s purpose and our response to it. If you’re going to connect with it, you’ll need to take it from the wall.
The next time you enter a museum, treat the experience as an illicit shopping spree, as though you intend to take a single work home with you – to lift it past the floor tape and ankle-high string that enforce a safe distance, past the docent’s lugubrious stare, and to resituate it in your own digs, whether that’s a university dorm room or an assisted-care suite, a bedsit or a gated mansion. As you approach each work, measure it mentally against not only those finite physical coordinates, the widths and breadths of practical life, but also against your psychological needs and emotional tolerance.
Not every work will do. If it’s a portrait you’re casing, are these the eyes of someone you can bear to have follow you down the hall, night after night, as you stumble past for a pee at 3am? If you’re sizing up a still life, how well will the suspended season of this endless insipid bloom wear on your nerves when you find yourself stranded at home at Christmas after snow shuts Heathrow again? Ask yourself ‘how well will these works work in my life?’ How will the time-inscribed cracks of the landscape’s surface crackle when placed beneath the bedroom skylight? How does the suffering slant of every head in this Deposition slant into the patterns of loss you’ve found yourself tracing this year? How much do the young woman’s hands, holding that book, her face half-hidden in shadow, remind you of your mother’s?
Too often we’re asked to appreciate works for how they figure in the ceaseless unfolding narrative of art history, rather than how they figure in the narrative of our own lives. Too often we learn about works and not from them. If you’re going to connect with a work of art, you’re going to have to steal it.
Kelly Grovier is is a poet, historian and art critic. His poems include 'The Sleepwalker at Sea' (2011) and his histories 'The Gaol: The Story of Newgate – London's most notorious prison' (2008). His latest book of art criticism is '100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age' (Thames & Hudson, 2013).
As part of our Conversation Drinks series, on Tuesday 24 September, Kelly Grovier will be discussing The Temporalists. For tickets, please click here.
Images: The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya (1814) and Las Menias by Diego Velázquez (1656)