Opinion: I Want More Beauty

Bob Martin (British, born 1959). Serena, 2004, printed 2016. Inkjet print, 8 1/2 x 12 7/8 in. (21.6 x 32.8cm). Courtesy Bob Martin

No, scratch that, I need more beauty. Don’t you? Politics is ugly, family relationships are strained, we’re putting extra weight on our finances this holiday season, and life is hectic and messy.

What I really need is more beauty, and, let’s be honest, more chances for humans to prove to me that they’re actually capable of making something good.

And so, this fall as I searched the roster of exhibitions for Grand Rapids Art Museum, my shoulders dropped in disappointment to discover “Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present” would be taking up the entire second floor for nearly a quarter of a year in our local art museum.

It’s true, I’m just not a sporting person. Really, though, I do get sucked into the occasional futbol game. You could write off my disappointment by saying I just don’t appreciate the artistry of sports or capturing sports in photographs.

You’d be wrong, of course.

Having worked in both journalism and art, and thus having experienced the differences between the two professions at a first-hand level, I have a particular angle in reading this exhibition.

In general, with few exceptions, sports photography is documentation, though it can also function as an art form as well. And to be clear, documentary photography is no less valuable than art photography. They each serve their purpose and have their roles. Sports photography captures moments, records events, provides historical documentation — generally for news reports.

John Dominis (American, 1921–2013). American track and field athletes Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R), first and third place winners in the 200 meter race, protest with the Black Power salute as they stand on the winner's podium at the Summer Olympic games, Mexico City, Mexico, October 19, 1968. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman stands by, 1968; printed 2016. Inkjet print, 14 x 91⁄4 in. (35.6 x 23.3 cm). Courtesy of John Dominis/Getty Images
John Dominis (American, 1921–2013). American track and field athletes Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R), first and third place winners in the 200 meter race, protest with the Black Power salute as they stand on the winner’s podium at the Summer Olympic games, Mexico City, Mexico, October 19, 1968. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman stands by, 1968; printed 2016. Inkjet print, 14 x 91⁄4 in. (35.6 x 23.3 cm). Courtesy of John Dominis/Getty Images

As I walked through the exhibition to view the over 200 photos, I noticed that a significant percentage came from Sports Illustrated, Getty Images, New York Times, Reuters…news publications. Save a few portraits by Annie Leibovitz and one particularly striking and allegorical image by Gerry Cranham, and perhaps precious few that didn’t capture my attention in the extensive collection, it was evident that the photographers were heading out on assignment for a news publication, with the intent of “capturing a moment,” documenting an event.

Granted, many captured that moment well. They’re good photos. They just serve a very different purpose than art photography. And heading into a project with the above mindset is an utterly different process than going out with the intent to create art.

I talked to a gallery guard and asked what the responses from viewers had been. She said people looked for their favorite sport, they were drawn to early photography processes, they enjoyed the captured moments, the history and so on.

“Interesting,” I said vaguely. Her eyebrows went up. I was busted. She knew I wasn’t impressed. She hesitantly asked what I meant. Curiosity and worry were written all over her face. “Well, none of what you just described is about art,” I said.

Lightbulb.

The truth about my own experience of the exhibit, I told her, is that I rarely pay attention to wall text when I look at art. I’ll often snap a picture of it after I’ve had a chance to think through my own visual experience.

But walking through “Who Shot Sports,” I noticed I was spending more time with the wall text and placards than I was the photos themselves.

The exhibit is interesting, no doubt. It’d be a good thing to take the family to over the holiday break. I’d recommend it in that capacity. It’s a good chance to see moments captured skillfully. But as to an art exhibit: I found myself interested in information instead of art. While standing in the middle of an art museum.

I turned to the guard. “I think this would better fit in a history museum, or a public museum,” I admitted. “I’m just having a hard time understanding why it’s here.”

Deanne Fitzmaurice (American, born 1957). Touchdown Kiss, 2013. Color photograph, 91⁄2 x 141⁄2 in. (24.1 x 36.8 cm). Collection of Deanne Fitzmaurice
Deanne Fitzmaurice (American, born 1957). Touchdown Kiss, 2013. Color photograph, 91⁄2 x 141⁄2 in. (24.1 x 36.8 cm). Collection of Deanne Fitzmaurice

There have been great art exhibits at the GRAM as well, of course. The Iris Van Herpen exhibit, though technically within the realm of “fashion,” was some of the most innovative and thoughtful and generally stunning sculptural work I’ve seen in quite some time. I went back over and over. I encouraged others to do the same.

Last fall’s exhibits of Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, shown alongside a repeat visit of Anila Quayam Agha’s winning ArtPrize work, similarly drew me back repeatedly. The work was stunning. Awe-inspiring. It connected me to realities outside my own and opened me to new perspectives—with beauty. While there for each visit, I also made sure to spend time with the “Oswaldo Vigas: Transformations” exhibit, for the sheer luscious beauty of his work.

But if I look over the exhibits in the past four years at the GRAM, I count up just eight out of the 41 exhibits that I recommended that people not miss. Me, the person constantly encouraging people to get more art in their lives. Yes, that’s a full 80 percent, four out of every five, that I didn’t find worth recommending.

Perhaps they would better fit in, say, a public museum, and were of a more historical than art-focused nature, such as the current sports photography exhibit. Some didn’t merit a recommendation to “not miss it” simply because they were a repeat of what the community had already seen—a collection of work from the recent ArtPrize competition, pieces from the permanent collection displayed in a “new” way, and so on.

As you can tell by now, I have high expectations. The bulk of the rest of the exhibits weren’t bad, per se. I just want, when art fills so very little of our spaces in modern American life as it is, for the art museum to focus on good quality art: art that makes you stand in awe, slow down, be impressed. I want quality art experiences, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask from an art museum—not for me and not, most certainly, for our community.

Because we need art. Art helps us process our culture and what’s happening around us. Art provides reprieve and hope. Art helps us breathe. And sometimes, these days, when we flip on that podcast or open up the front page of the newspapers as we start our day, it gets hard to breathe. Doesn’t it?

Art doesn’t have to avoid the news or reality or only provide pretty pictures. In fact, some of the most beautiful expressions are found in work that’s directly engaging social ills. I remember the “Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise” exhibit in 2016 at the GRAM.  It did an incredible job of showcasing stunning pieces of art, mostly pottery and tapestry, that on their own were awe-inspiring. But the exhibit deftly included more information about the history, helping us understand the importance of the work and the incredible social change for women that’s woven into the story of these pieces of art.

I think of exhibits in other spaces, such as “Here and Now” and “Us is Them,” shown at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) concurrently in 2017, two curated shows focusing on artwork by people of color, often helping us grapple with stories of race and racism in the Americas and the world. They were beautiful, stunning works of art. But many were too painful to be considered “pretty.”

So, of course, that’s not what I mean by beauty. Beauty is much more expansive, more powerful, than “pretty.” But I do need beauty, in that expansive, powerful definition. And I do expect it at an art museum.

Mark Leech (British, born 1956). World Cup, Netherlands vs. Brazil, July 2, 2010, printed 2016. Inkjet print, 9 5/16 x 14 in. (23.7 x 35.6cm). Courtesy of the artist and Offside Sports Photography.
Mark Leech (British, born 1956). World Cup, Netherlands vs. Brazil, July 2, 2010, printed 2016. Inkjet print, 9 5/16 x 14 in. (23.7 x 35.6cm). Courtesy of the artist and Offside Sports Photography.

I remember one of my first art museum experiences. To call it memorable is an understatement. It was knock-you-off-your-feet, stop-you-in-your-tracks memorable.

I was at the end of high school, maybe 16 or 17. I was on a class trip to our state capital city to visit the Des Moines Art Center, an institution that should not be missed for its stellar modern and contemporary art collection alone, though it also continues to bring in jaw-dropping temporary exhibitions. If you find yourself in the middle of Iowa, first, say hi to my family, and second, make a stop with plenty of time at the Des Moines Art Center. You’re welcome.

So about my own first experience there: I found myself in front of an Anselm Kiefer painting, larger than most living room walls, full of drab colors, straw stuck to it, suggestions of train tracks and paint-ensconced ballet slippers hanging from the painting.

I stopped dead center, engulfed in a materiality that seemed impossible, not neat and colorful at all like the paintings I was used to seeing in my small town. I couldn’t quite decipher its story, but I knew it had one, and I was content to stand there, searching its surface, trying to make sense of it.

I didn’t have much vocabulary for art at the time, no art history courses under my belt. But I knew this painting was worth spending time with—and it rewarded me, gave me wonder and awe and a desire to get my hands dirty and make something powerful myself. And still, decades later, that experience with art sticks with me, helps me define and put a visual model to the word “awe.”

There’s a trend in art museums in the past 10 years or so to view art museums as more than hallowed halls of beauty, more than places dedicated to paying attention to art and the benefits it brings to society.

The trend is to treat an art museum as a “gathering place.” There are, of course, benefits and honorable intentions in this trend: increased accessibility and welcoming public spaces are important values, and I applauded this trend in its beginnings. But perhaps the fulcrum has swung too far. I, with my love for local and community and the “town square,” applaud the idea of creating more public space, of expanding our “gathering places” and building community. But I’m also not willing for that trend to swing too far and take away the main purpose of an art museum. The art museum is one of the all too few places in society that focuses on, and honors, art and art’s makers. Expanding the missions of our art spaces to include, say, what one would find in a historical or public museum, waters down its potential.

There are so few places we can find today that are filled with beauty. So few places that honor art outside of commercial consumption. So few realms for reminders that humans are capable of making good things: stunning colors and textures, layered visual stories, new ways of seeing.

With all the ugliness out in the open and on constant replay with our nonstop social feeds, we need now more than ever those hallowed halls filled with only the most powerful art.

Let me say it again: I in no way mean we need to limit our art experiences to “pretty things.” Expecting art to be “pretty” equally waters down its power. I just want us to not water down the power of art. I want more beauty, more art, more chances to rediscover wonder and awe.

And I want that for my community, too. I have high expectations. I expect awe, wonder, mastery, power, beauty. I expect real art to not get pushed to the side and diminished. I expect art in an art museum.

Because that girl on a trip to experience an art museum next year deserves her moment of awe. If we live up to that call, we will change her perspective on life, on what we are capable of creating, of what she’s capable of creating and what she can be curious about for a good long…well, forever.

So give me more beauty. More stunning art. Whether at our art museum, at art galleries or in our own homes, we need more art, more beauty. Our community needs more reminders of what humans can create, and we need more chances to stand, transfixed, in awe.

*All photos courtesy of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Main photo: Bob Martin (British, born 1959). Serena, 2004, printed 2016. Inkjet print, 8 1/2 x 12 7/8 in. (21.6 x 32.8cm). Courtesy Bob Martin

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