A few years ago, Amy and I went to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). I forget exactly which exhibit we went to see. Maybe it was Paul Klee illos; maybe it was the Fluxus display. Maybe it was just a collection of “modern masters.”
Whatever. One of the pieces on display was Robert Rauchenberg’s Monogram.
Monogram is a “mixed media” piece; that's a stuffed goat halfway through an old rubber tire. In the exhibit I saw, I think the tire had a rope on it going to the ceiling, like an old tire swing. I rounded the corner into the room where it was displayed—it was right in the middle of the room—and I just cracked up. I mean, the thing is just hilarious, the silliest sexual visual pun I’ve ever seen in a museum, I’m pretty sure.
So after looking at it for a while, walking around it, checking out the collage-y thing the goat is standing on, appreciating just how apt the expression on the goat’s painted face, I began to notice the reactions of other people who came into the room.
Or, more accurately, the lack of reaction. I don’t think I saw a single other museum goer even crack a smile. Certainly no one laughed out loud. And I thought, what a pity that is. I’m sure Rauschenberg had humor in mind when he created the piece, and it’s fairly easy to find critics (oh, those much maligned critics) who reacted with amusement. But the folks trudging through SFMOMA weren’t going to give in to such an easy thing as laughter.
I understand that we’re taught to “behave” in museums, and museums, like libraries are supposed to be places where you whisper. But it’s not like the museum guards are going to kick you out for a snicker, or even a good guffaw.
Well, I think I’ve already written most of what I have in mind here in the the final paragraph from my essay, “On Non-representational Art”:
This isn't a test. There is no right answer in the back of the book. It doesn't have to be "about" anything, or about any one thing. If it looks like something, if it reminds you of something else, well and good. If not, maybe it just looks good. If you don't like the looks of any given work of art, move on to the next piece. There's plenty of all sorts of art around, enough for everyone, really.
You can laugh at it, too. Sometimes that’s what the artist had in mind. And if it wasn't, so what? What is he or she going to do, kick you out of the museum?