Taped to the far wall of my room, forming a sort of disheveled collage, are postcards from art museums I’ve visited over the years. Every time I go to a museum for the first time, I stop in the gift shop on my way out and buy a postcard of my favorite work. The only rule is that I must have seen it in the gallery on that day.
But spending hours in a museum isn’t everyone’s thing; I get that. And I don’t think it has to be. Life is confusing, and we all have our own artistic outlets to help us escape and keep sane. It could come in the form of writing, music, comics, whatever. For me, it happens to involve taping postcards to the wall, even if I haven’t been looking at them all too much lately — the fact that they’re there is all that matters anyway.
So of course I was excited when, in September, the University of Michigan Museum of Art opened a Benjamin West exhibit running through Jan. 13. But was anyone else? The pieces on show and the people coming to view them really got me thinking about what role that massive half Beaux-Arts, half minimalist Frankenstein of a building known as UMMA is actually playing for the student body.
There’s a lot of good in the exhibit, but it certainly has its weaknesses. Benjamin West is arguably one of America’s best artists. He was one of the first Americans to study in Italy, and his contributions to Neoclassicism are indispensable. “The Death of General Wolfe” (1776) is perhaps his magnum opus. It’s impressive that the Clements Library was able to acquire one of the original copies. But I, personally, am not a huge fan. It fits the mold of a history painting to a dime, but whether any of West’s techniques actually work is up to you.
The whole picture points to the bleeding General Wolfe. But the blood, struggling to fit into illusionary space, appears to be sitting on the surface of the canvas rather than the surface of his shirt. The blood fails — and not intentionally either — to convince me that someone is actually dying or that I should care. The whole thing seems like an exercise in genre, not in substance.
Looking around the A. Alfred Taubman Gallery, I see the usual visitors perusing about: sketchers, elderly women and parents trying hopelessly to inject some culture into their five-year-olds’ lives. Where are the students? Unless my visits are just poorly timed, they are few and far between.
Wolfe is a masterpiece, and a revolutionary one at that — don’t let my criticisms fool you. But exhibitions, ones advertised with big banners on a museum’s front steps, should offer more than just one big-name piece.
Yet that is exactly what it does. UMMA is squeezing as much publicity out of the dry General Wolfe sponge as it can. Surrounding it are preparatory studies, uninteresting depictions of Wolfe’s death by mostly obscure artists and maps of Quebec. Oh — is that an Audubon? No, it’s a Mark Catesby. UMMA is too good of a museum to be displaying these works just to boast one piece.
It’s naïve to think students would rush the front steps if the curators were to throw in another Copley or a Trumbull. But building an exhibit around a weak foundation, which seems like grasping for traffic, doesn’t do anything for its integrity, either. The hard truth is that UMMA wants to draw students, but students have other artistic outlets.
Art isn’t something you can force people to ingest. You can’t make it popular and you can’t expect it to generate revenue. But a world without it — where it can’t be turned to in times of need — is bleak and emotionless. So for now, what’s most important is that the museum is there at all. That, like my postcards, it should simply exist as a resource, to be tapped for the qualities it does possess when they are sought after. The students who choose to could be in luck.