No Time For Cameras, We’ll Use Our Eyes Instead

(Craig Campbell)– A week ago, my parents packed up the car and drove 12-hours east for a weekend visit out here in ol’ Western Mass. Since unscheduled vacation time is a big no-no with my family, we had plenty of fun activities on our agenda. The first was the Norman Rockwell Museum, in the late artist’s hometown of Stockbridge.

I like Rockwell. I don’t take his work too seriously since he was more concerned with his career as an illustrator than as an artist. It’s simple, understandable, and quintessentially American. It’s super heteronormative and no one cared. It’s pop art before pop art was a thing. But I’ve also seen a lot of it before in its run as a touring exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

While I enjoyed the selection of paintings, I didn’t like the explanations that accompanied them. Or I didn’t like the idea of them, or something. In about three sentences, they attempted to explain Rockwell’s state of mind at the time of composition, the historical context, and the techniques he used to really convey his message. But it seemed to me that the entire point of his work was that it was simple, using few colors (when printed on Saturday Evening Post, at least) and readily understandable through the straightforward narration in the illustration. I didn’t need to read that “Rockwell poses three blue brush strokes at opposite ends of the painting so the eye never stops moving in a circle.” I’ve seen enough art to know what to look for, and my head wasn’t spinning.

After that, we tromped on over to Ventforth Hall, the “Museum of the Gilded Age.” Upon arriving, we were given one of three tour options. Either we could pay $15 for the first floor, or $15 for just the second floor. Or $25 for both. (Appropriate prices for a tour about the era of robber-barons.) We chose the first floor. Our guide was slightly misinformed about her history facts, and she was overzealous while reporting the legends about ghost in the mansion. She spent most of the tour explained the process by which preservationists are trying to restore the building – the house, indeed, was not finished.

We left each museum, but not before we passed through the gift shop . There, we had the opportunity to buy a replica of a section of plaster ceiling! Or, we could pay for a set of ceramic plates with Rockwell prints on them (not to eat on, for decoration of course). We can get a puzzle! A mug! A candle! A saltshaker!

I like art. I like the art history class I’m taking now. But I don’t like being told how to see art. That’s never the point. I understand that some context or relevant vocabulary can be helpful, but I don’t want to be informed on how to feel about a painting, or a building, or a poem or song or statue. There’s no discovery in that. And isn’t that why we, as a species, are inclined toward art? Isn’t it all about our natural response to discovering a new form of expression?

It’s not just art, either; I guess I feel this way about anything aesthetically pleasing. You can go see the Grand Canyon, but hold onto the safety rail, take lots of pictures, look through the 25-cent binoculars, and buy some postcards afterward.

I’ve seen the Grand Canyon and it was spectacular and etc etc etc. But the most rewarding encounters I’ve had in nature have been those made by my own discovery. Or at least the ones that feel closer to my own discovery. Anything that makes me feel like my experience isn’t like everyone else’s. I’d rather appreciate a gorge by zipping through it in a white-water raft than by viewing it from a safe and removed lookout. It’s more fun to learn a city by wandering its streets than spectating passively atop one of those double-decker buses. When I go for a run, I’m inclined to explore the not-so-well-beaten paths off the rail trail. Maybe it’s an attraction to danger, or the thrill of getting lost and then found. We all have an instinct to explore, but it’s just that each individual has a different level of novelty necessary to fulfill that urge.

In any case, I prefer activities that don’t allow one to carry a camera. An exhibit, outdoor attraction, museum, or party is less fun when time is spent posing for an awkward photo – it’s a distraction from what we actually came to see, or do. The lens of a camera distorts that which is otherwise beautiful, and with the flash, something about the scene is lost.

To conclude our weekend of family bonding, we visited the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, which is near Williams. It stood in very obvious contrast to the places we’d seen the previous day. Some works had explanations as to what materials were used, but nothing so much as hinted at how to interpret the pieces. The building was formerly a factory, and despite a massive renovation, the museum preserved that sense of gritty authenticity. All the exhibits were completely open. No roped off areas. You didn’t just observe the art; you were a part of it. I’m not trying to say that modern art is somehow better than older art, only that the structure of display at this museum is more appealing.

I’m concerned with the distinction between active and passive discovery. I feel that I owe it to myself to always choose activity. That’s how we grow, learn, and become more worldly people, right? But I guess everyone is different.