Day at the Museum

Sam insists that every artistic work has meaning. She assures me no one taught her this maxim, but I have to believe she heard it somewhere. It is such a tidy rule. I think she gives some artists more credit than they deserve, but perhaps my concept of art is simply ossifying alone with my creakier and creakier bones. In any case, she is determined to interpret every piece she sees, and I love the insight into her brain that I gain from her explanations.

We visited the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden when our family went to Washington. The Hirshhorn curates modern art. Although the permanent exhibit spaces were all closed for renovation, we did view an animation/video exhibit. While I rolled my eyes and struggled—successfully until the last installation—to suppress laughter, Sam was mesmerized.

The hat that Sam designed this week in her millinery class to complement . . . .

this dress.

this dress.

The first video, entitled “I Am the Mouth,” projected onto a huge screen a pair of lips superimposed on a calm body of water that sparkles in the sunshine. Every few seconds the lips part and a monotonous voice observes something (something banal, in my opinion) such as, “The mouth forms a substance when it speaks. The substance is moist.” I walked away after a mere minute, but Sam stayed for the five-minute duration. She explained to me that the speaker, the mouth, is expressing how she does not always know the cause of her feelings. “I feel the same way,” she concluded.

Next up was a twenty-minute video of a blue ball, a blue train, a giraffe and a variety of other objects. Once again I decided that the purpose was to experiment with digital imaging; the artist’s objective was to create a purely technical feat and nothing more. Sam said the video conveys the idea that reality is unpredictable.

The third video focused in and out on a man with long flowing hair. Most of the time he was sitting in a chair. The artist obviously used many sophisticated digital imaging techniques. I yawned. Sam said that the artist, born in 1982, might be saying that life was better when he was a child back in the 1980s and 1990s than it is now. Or maybe life is easier being a child than being an adult.

The final video we watched, entitled “The Pleasure of Sadness,” screened a succession of sad people, most of whom were crying. Sam told me, “A life where you’re only happy is no life at all.” What an insightful person, I thought proudly! Then she added, “I think the man who made the video felt ashamed of himself because he was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and somebody in the room with him had an undiscovered, severe peanut allergy and went into anaphylactic shock and died.” That’s my kid, I thought wryly.

Finally we came to a small exhibit of paintings. We saw four steel-gray lines on a wheat-colored background. Sam suggested that it represents coming across a body of water after being desperate with thirst and fatigue. Another piece, hundreds of blue dots on a white background, represents the artist looking into his own uncertain future. “Ahh, I see,” I lied.

We all impute our personal meaning to works of art, literature and music (or like me, in the case of this exhibit, leave mystified by their lack of purpose). The artist’s intent and the viewer/reader/listener’s response need not coincide for the meaning to be “real.” So I am not surprised that Sam’s inferences about other people’s intent align so perfectly with her own concerns.

What surprised me and gratified me, I suppose, was the ease with which she could articulate her thoughts when she was responding to visual stimuli. I live in the world of words. When I’m with friends I enjoy a good conversation. When I read or listen to a good book, I lose myself in the prose. I cannot understand why anyone would prefer a graphic novel to one in which the author’s words evoke images of my own creation. Whenever I attend an art exhibit or a concert, I immediately read the commentary or liner notes to help me find meaning. Not so for Sam. For her, words convey information—or they fail to be useful. Words are not nuanced, and they are often obstructive. Images, on the other hand, resonate and engulf her. She finds herself within them, both as an observer and a creator of art.

Sometimes I wonder, after all the years of speech therapy she has had forced upon her, if it’s accurate to say that her communication skills have been and always will be deficient. Sometimes I wish that I did not insist so adamantly that she engage with me in conversation. Sometimes, I think, I impose the burden of communication on her rather than imposing on myself the task of learning a new way to listen.