This originally was an essay for a class I took this year. Hope you enjoy it.
I have stood in the Cleveland Museum of Art, literally for hours, at least eight at a time, for four to five days a week, over the course of two years. This was the life of a gallery guard, the statues that stand looming in the corners and doorways of the various galleries, ensuring no one dare get too close to the art, while also trying to not lose one’s mind from sheer boredom. Over the two years I wore the blue blazer, tie and grey slacks, I saw a lot of pieces of art, many I know better than the co-workers I spent nearly everyday with. I also was able to study the various behaviors and practices of museum visitors, as they roamed about the museum, experiencing a bit of cultural enlightenment. I was very intrigued, when I read Winterson’s piece “Art Objects” because I found her observations of walking around an art museum very familiar, and her realization of the importance of these objects to be quite powerful. I feel that though Winterson came to appreciate the art for being the living, moving, and awe-inspiring thing that it is, her initial reaction to a museum is, well, quite normal, however, I suggest this feeling of true appreciation and wonder is a form of rebellion against what is overwhelmingly status quo.
In my years as a guard, I saw thousands of people pass through every gallery with in the museum. These visitors came from all walks of life, all parts of the world and almost every one of them, followed the same pattern. They wandered, seemingly aimlessly, just glancing at more obscure or non-mainstream pieces, maybe a quick read of a placard for a piece they found interesting, and of course they would stop to see the big names, spending a whole forty-five to sixty seconds, taking in “Waterlilies” by Monet. Every shuffling set of feet echoed through the building like ghosts looking for a way out to the afterlife, and we, the guards stood their taking it in, often examining the artwork as they left, to ensure no mishaps but also wonder what it was that they saw in such a short time? This phenomenon was so normal, it became a game to see if we could guess which guest would stop at what painting, often placing best on how long they might spend at a piece. It was not only a great way to pass the time but also a fantastic way to observe the way people just are, mostly, the same in their routines, even when coming from such diverse backgrounds.
Recently I went back to the museum to visit but also to conduct a bit of my own research, and I found it to be what I had observed as guard, but also found it to be a great social experiment in being myself, an outsider. I walked into the atrium, heading straight to gallery 222, where “Waterlilies” is displayed, because this was the best place to conduct my bit of research. As I found a quiet corner to stand, much as a did as a guard I watched the room move, old and young, around to each piece, glancing slightly as the rushed past. Then each one turned, with a gasp, at Monet’s massive painting, but a quick, leaning read of the placard, maybe a selfie, and they were gone before the guard had a chance to interrupt with “Not so close, please!” Then without even a thought they spun around the back of the gallery, zipping by Van Gogh with less than a pause of respect. I remember as a guard how this would upset me, as I would think to myself, “That is a Van Gogh, that is actually three Van Gogh pieces!”, but I learned this is the natural way people generally act in art museums, as disheartening as it may be.
So, I went on, into galleries 223. Home of the many Picasso’s, then 225, Dali is there, and on into Abstract Impressionism, where the de Kooning sits almost ignored by most, the Rothko hangs sadly unnoticed and the Pollock may get “OH! That’s Jackson Pollock!” but nothing more. I wandered for about an hour or so, taking notes and timing people as they stopped to take in the art, not one person at any painting, lasted more than sixty seconds and most averaged five to ten. This of course was not shocking, nor would it be to Winterson, as she explained her own tendency to rush through, even feeling bored while doing so, but I noticed a few other things that proved that though for most this is a monotonous journey through art history, myself. Though I was observing, I was also enjoying my day at this institution. While I was standing silently watching the visitors come and go, I was also caught up in the art all around me, spending several minutes just looking deep into pieces others seemed to just ignore. I also noticed that as I stood, looking around, scribbling on my pad, people became restless, curious and some even annoyed. I did my best to appear as if I was writing about the artwork and not the patrons, but I feel the level of discomfort, had little to do with my writing things down, it was the length of time I was spending in each gallery, completely stationary. I wasn’t sitting on a bench, or moving about the room as others were, I stood in a corner or as I noticed I was causing discomfort, I would stand in the middle of the room. This was by far the most interesting, because people would stay on one side of the other, moving even faster, it seemed.
My point is that, while Winterson was eventually moved to a new understanding of the importance and beauty of art, I observed something more, a few things. First, most people follow the herd, but also remain relatively uncultured or challenged, because it is most comfortable to do so. The status quo is simple, and while you are taught to appreciate the arts, it is also not necessary to completely immerse oneself in them. Therefore, it is commonplace to fly through the museum, taking snap shots, literally and figuratively, absorbing small bits of culture as you make your way back to the cafeteria. To disrupt this way of doing so is to be a cultural salmon of sorts, swimming upstream and risking ridicule by those too impatient to notice the contrast of color or brush work of a master.
Secondly, some people just are different, they will lose themselves in a museum, to the point that they lose all track of time and space. In my time as a guard, this was another type of museum goer. This was a rare but quite refreshing cultural oddity that is a system disrupting rebel of museum culture. These are the kind of visitor that we would have to ask to leave at closing because they were lost in a painting, many may never have noticed. This was my bosses least favorite, because they pushed the boundaries of acceptable behavior in such a classy institution that thrives off order and steady flow of patron, in and out, daily. This renegade type would come alone, maybe with a friend, often moving quietly and determined, through the maze of rooms that make up the various wings, until they found their muse for the day. Once they had established themselves with in the space, which could be standing in front, sitting on a bench or even laying on the floor, the intimate connection between the visitor and the work was beautifully uncomfortable, as it could last minutes, even several hours. I have encountered in my days as a guard, people weeping in front of a Picasso’s “La Vie” orlaughing as they looked deeply into Lee Krasner’s “Celebration”, even catching people conversing with works throughout the building, as if they were visiting old friends. These are the outsiders, and they aren’t a specific kind of person at all, in fact they are as diverse as the museum goers themselves, but something is not normal, going against the grain of the usual museum attendee.
I myself, am one of these people, the kind of weirdo that spendslong amounts of time just staring into a piece, examining it, looking for clues of the artists deeper vison and imperfections. Being a guard gave me an education into art history that I am grateful for, but also, I became quite close to these pieces, as I spent more time with them then most ever will. It was such an intimate relationship that when a painting I’d become close too was taken off display, I’d often find myself saddened or in one case, depressed, as it was like a friend moving on. The rebellious nature of this way of conducting oneself, may not seem that extreme, but when you think of the hundreds of thousands of people that visit every year, most will never be able to understand such feelings about the art they witness for an afternoon. People, like myself, are weird, we are not the norm, nor do we want to be, but even more so, we can’t be because in our being, whether in a museum or in life, the road less travelled is our chosen path. It is why we often trouble those who stay in their lanes, when we stand in the middle of rooms, making things awkward. It is not our intention to disrupt other paths but to simply live our lives in a unique way, that is not accepted everywhere as proper. To me, when I left my job, I was in mourning, not for the work or even the people I worked with, but for my friends that are living amongst the many rooms of the Cleveland Museum of Art.