I read Monica Youn’s “Stealing the Scream,” a poem narrativizing the theft of Edvard Munch’s famous Expressionist painting, and, without hesitation, I rooted for the thief. How could I not? In the third stanza, Youn scoffs at the museum security, outwitted by the thief, only for the walls of the museum itself to join in: “the guards rushing in — too late! — greeted only / by the gap-toothed smirk of the museum walls.” By the next, Youn paints the picture of a misunderstood vigilante-prophet. A rogue Moses? “Someone has the answers, someone who, grasping the frame, / saw his sun-red face reflected in that familiar boiling sky,” Youn concludes.
Then, I second-guessed myself. Cheering on art theft would certainly make me an enemy of museums, which, on the contrary, I have always cherished and respected. I wondered: Was I also making myself an enemy of art?
At the same time, I don’t think Youn’s ultimate aim is for her readers to weigh the ethics of art theft. Rather, Youn seems to be posing a more reasonable, worthwhile challenge, and that is to interrogate assumptions about the proper place for a work of art. She dares us to ask ourselves: where does art live? Where can art live? Is it always ideal to keep art cooped up inside? What does art gain and lose when it flies the coop? And I think the underlying question here is:
Is it an artwork’s place in a museum that gives it meaning — that makes it real?
I spoke to three women with backgrounds in museum work and studies, and I asked them the same question, though perhaps not in so many words. They had some things to say about the traditional, fixed conceptions of what makes a work of art real. They had much more to say about possible alternatives.
Is art only real if it’s inside of a museum?
Jillian Reese, community program manager at the Detroit Institute of Arts, respectfully disagrees with that question. She’s uniquely poised to make such a call, as a figure in the museum world at once invested in the DIA itself and the external communities with which it engages.
One of the most successful programs Reese has helped bring to multiple communities in Southeast Michigan is Inside|Out, in which the DIA exports reproductions of original artworks housed inside the museum and installs these reproductions in various outdoor venues of Detroit’s surrounding communities.
“There are things that an art museum can’t do,” she began, then chuckled and corrected herself, “I shouldn’t say can’t. There are things that museums don’t do that community collections can do.”
Reese identified one chief advantage of this transportation of reproductions beyond the walls of the museum: “We’re meeting people where they’re at … they don’t have to come down to 5200 Woodward Avenue to see the art.”
In addition, rather than de-contextualizing art, Inside|Out re-contextualizes art in new, open air environs. “When you remove these images from their context in the gallery, and you put it in unfamiliar space, it adds this sort of whimsy. It’s fun and funny and irreverent for a Van Gogh to be in a park where it can get rained on,” and Reese laughed as she continued, “pooped on by a bird, all that sort of stuff.” On a more serious note, she addressed the osmotic meaning-making that this recontextualization enacts, arguing that it “allows people to have a chance to really notice it and to look at it a little deeper. It starts to inspire you in thinking about your environment in a different way.”
Along a similar vein, Inside|Out proceeds from a teaching methodology that the DIA espouses called “visual thinking strategies,” which prize the role art appreciators play in constructing the meaning of a work of art. “You bring something to an artwork,” Reese stressed. “How you read the artwork is influenced by that.” In turn, she said, “We really try to use Inside|Out pieces and images that will spark that sort of explanation.” In this way, Inside|Out provides an opportunity for individuals to make a personal connection with artwork that a gallery in a museum may not, our eyes tempted by the explanatory labels that seem to accompany every artwork. The authenticity of these Inside|Out reproductions notwithstanding, is that connection anything but real? Would anyone dare call those processes of meaning-making inauthentic?
The progressive gestures of Inside|Out have not proceeded without resistance. “I think that the people who had the the largest pushback against it was our curatorial staff,” Reese explained. “Librarians, registrars, programmers, educators in the art museums saw this as a democratization of art: access to the arts for more people,” in Reese’s experience, whereas “A lot of curators thought, well, why would they come to the museum if they could just Google the image to see it on your screen,” carrying a similar attitude toward physical reproductions.
Reese’s response? Increasing access to the arts, whether in the form of digitization or material reproduction and exportation via programs like Inside|Out, does not make the museum obsolete. “There’s enough space for both,” she argued, adding that “anyone who has gone to a museum knows there’s a big difference” between the originals housed in the DIA and their reproductions on the internet and in Inside|Out installations. “There’s no comparison. They serve two different purposes.”
Yet these two forms of participation are not mutually exclusive, either, and Reese has the research to back it up. “With Inside|Out, we have evidence that, in every community that we install in, during and after the installation, for about a year, we see a spike in attendance at the museum.” Laughing, she elaborated, “People look at (an Inside|Out installation) and say, ‘Maybe the DIA isn’t as stuffy as I thought it was.’” Rather than sapping the authenticity of art, Reese’s program attests to the amplification of an artwork’s meaning once it moves beyond its walls, to the multiplication of the authentic experiences with art. In many ways, art becomes more real if it is allowed to leave.
Is art only real if it fits the (ethnocentric) narrative?
Dr. Lisa Young, a lecturer in the archaeology and anthropology departments at the University of Michigan, challenges that assumption in a course she teaches called “Frauds and Fantastic Claims in Archeology.”
For part of the course, Young covers the history of the Michigan Relics: a group of tablets found in central Michigan and falsely attributed to pre-Columbian visitors to the Americas due to the imitation cuneiform inscribed in them. When teaching this story of how several political, religious and economic elites made absurd attempts to pass off these fraudulent artifacts as evidence of untold Old World influences on Native American civilizations, Young stresses what is at stake when those with the power to declare what is real and what is fake wield their power irresponsibly.
Specifically, the purported existence of these tablets were weaponized in favor of what Young identified as “the myth of the mound builders: (That) these mounds could not have been built by Native Americans,” referring to the monumental landforms left behind by Native American tribes in Midwestern states.
Young went on to explain the political reverberations of such denials of authenticity to Native American civilizational achievement: “You can see how that can really start to become a narrative, which it did, to deny native people their traditional homelands.” In fact, she pointed out that Andrew Jackson invoked the Michigan Relics “in a speech to Congress in 1830 to justify why Native Americans should be removed off their traditional homelands and shipped out to Oklahoma.” Because they were not allowed to lay claim to real art — “Because they’re just in the way.”
Of course, in the case of the Michigan Relics, we’re talking about archaeological objects, but as Young herself warned, there are various parallels outside of the archaeological sphere. In the discussion section of her class, students examine knockoffs of brand names. The resonance of this archaeological conflict over the facts with contemporary trends of political debate and “fake news” are addressed.
It makes you rethink the weight of the accusation of fraudulence, even when levied against a work of art. It reminds you: There is an artist behind that work of art that you’re disenfranchising.
Is art only real if it’s the “original”? (Resisting the ethnocentric narrative, part two)
Dr. Natsu Oyobe is a curator of Asian art at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. As a curator, she falls into the camp that the DIA’s Jillian Reese identified as the staunchest defenders of art’s rightful place being inside the museum. Oyobe has a distinct, refreshing take on what counts as “real” and “fake” in the world of fine art.
“Copying is a really important sort of training and mastering,” followed by interpretation and the creation of “something of your own,” in the East Asian tradition, Oyobe explained. She added that in response to nineteenth century Western influences, “the idea of copying really is tarnished in a way. Because of that Western idea (that the original has the) only true authenticity. That’s something that also embedded into the minds of Asians as well.”
Oyobe will confront these conflicting notions of authenticity in an upcoming UMMA exhibition she is curating. Called “Copying and Creativity in East Asia,” Oyobe’s exhibition will showcase art that prizes imitation, like that of the Chinese and Japanese literati painters. “The way they create their own work is to first copy brushstrokes of the masters who came before them,” Oyobe explained. “You have to have knowledge. If you paint this way, that really refers to this painter in the fifteenth century.”
Through her exhibition, which will open Aug. 17, 2019, in the Taubman I Gallery at the UMMA, Oyobe seeks to “argue against that kind of binary,” which arbitrarily sets imitations at odds with originals.
Does art become real when we build a relationship with it?
I’m circling back to Youn, and I’m taking some of Oyobe’s wisdom with me. Both women have refreshingly radical conceptions of what makes art real, though they approach it from two very different angles. I think their unexpected harmony is where the answer to my initial inquiry may lie, the answer to my question of whether believing art should exist outside of a museum makes you an enemy of art.
Youn says, “The policemen … stand whispering/in the galleries: ‘ … but what does it all mean?’ / Someone has the answers, someone who, grasping the frame, / saw his sun-red face reflected in that familiar boiling sky.”
Oyobe said, “Sometimes the donor or collector who owns objects comes to us and says they want to donate these pieces, or they have these art objects but they don’t know anything about this.” And they ask Oyobe, “Would you tell me what this is?” She told me she often screens these inquiries and often has to be the one to disappoint them. “But I always say that, if you like this reproduction,” she added, “I think that really becomes authentic to that person.” She said, “If you love that piece,” then that inscribes the work with authenticity all the same.
And I say: The answer to my opening question is no. No, none of us are in enmity with art. Museums provide a beautiful home for artwork. They pay homage to the complexity of art, the individuality and collectivity of art objects, The DIA, UMMA and numerous other museums are on the front lines of affirming the value and meaning of art. But they are not keepers of that meaning and they are not what makes art real. We make art real. Think about it: Could it exist without you? Without your eyes upon it? Without your body in front of it? Receiving its message, interfering with it, making it dynamic and communicative and rich and resonant?
That is why I want osmotic art. I want art that can be rained upon. I want art that subverts the norms. Perhaps all this concentrated thought and talk has made me sentimental, but I want art that becomes real when I have a relationship with it, the way a child wants a toy that becomes real once they love it.
I want to be someone who “has the answers,” to see my own face reflected in a work of art. And I don’t want to have to steal art in order to experience that. I don’t want to be told my experience with a work of art is fake. I want people like Jillian Reese, Lisa Young and Natsu Oyobe at the helm, expanding our notion of what makes a work of art real. I want to escape the unnecessary antitheses set up between what’s “real” and what's “reproduced,” and I want to focus instead on the reality of the meanings we construct when we take it all in.