“I always get these,” my sister says.
She passes me the phone-like interpretive device she collected from the smiling, white-toothed attendant.
“I learn so much more when I have them.”
We’re in the spacious atrium of the Milwaukee Art Museum, ‘the MAM’ as locals call it. It’s a favorite of hers and I’m excited to explore. Soaring white beams separate huge floor to ceiling windows. They frame Lake Michigan and the steel-colored sky. People whisk past us speaking in hushed tones. I feel like I’ve entered a cathedral.
Our day together begins with Rashid Johnson’s “Hail We Now Sing Joy” traveling exhibit.
“Woah,” is all I can manage as we enter.
I’m facing the largest piece in the exhibition, called Antoine’s Organ. It looks like a giant cubic shelving unit housing a variety of plants, books, and odd collections. The mid-June discount garden section of a Home Depot comes to mind.
“I don’t get it,” I immediately think to myself. I don’t say it out loud, but inwardly I roll my eyes and dismissively mutter, “Pfft…modern art.” I ponder how long I need to feign interest before we get to the ‘real’ art.
Johnson tells stories about his childhood in Chicago. He shares profound moments from his life, and how they influence his work. He discusses what he included in the sculpture and why. The more his smooth voice shares, the deeper I’m amazed. This isn’t only a sculpture, it’s a part of him.
Minutes later, a black-clad, grey-haired woman slides plants aside and climbs into the sculpture’s center. She begins playing jazz standards on a hidden piano perched within its second level. Music fills the gallery hall. In my ear, Johnson describes wanting to bring energy and life to the piece. He hires local musicians to play within it. Sounds weird, but it works. Live music emanating like a heartbeat from the center of a giant sculpture is…quite honestly…a little bit magical.
Suddenly, I get it. I understand this bizarre, two-story, piano-hiding, plant-holding, shelving unit thing. It hits me. I may be a middle-aged, suburban white woman, yet Rashid Johnson’s experience seeps into me. I can see—just a bit—through his eyes.
I feel equal parts impressed and ashamed. I retrace my thoughts.
“This is weird. Who gets this stuff?!”
“That’s too ‘out there’ for me.”
I’d dismissed this before I’d heard a single story behind it.
Our world is filled with quick retorts. Trending tweets. Snappy comebacks. We’ve elevated sarcasm–by definition: mockery with the intention to cut or hurt–to an emulative quality.
And I can’t help but notice where we’ve landed.
At first glance, I snickered at this exhibit. I didn’t understand it, so I went for the inner eye roll and sarcastic quip. Yet when I listened to the artist’s stories, I connected to the larger message. I understood it completely even though my life experiences are different. Even though at first glance, I saw no bridge in sight.
Art moves us. It connects us to bigger stories. It teaches lessons about far more than art.
Be like my sister. Get the interpretive device. You’ll learn so much more if have one.