Art Can’t Love You Back

Nonfiction / Cole Cohen

:: Art Can’t Love You Back: A Visit to the Broad Museum and the Brooklyn Museum Visual Storage Center ::

I hesitate to position myself as an art critic, for a few reasons. First, criticism relies on a steely-eyed objective sense that allows the viewer to engage beyond one’s emotional reasoning, an objective I’m about to lose by copping to being loved back by art.  I think critically because I feel critically, my head and my heart one chimeric organ: I engage art critically largely because I feel deeply. The engine for my work is fueled by affect—make no mistake about it. Second, criticism implies an authority over art that feels artificial to me.  Although it would be more than fair to argue that I am shying away from a certain responsibility toward art,  I am most comfortable positioning myself on shifting territory. To be untrustworthy and amateur is my bailiwick.  It’s safe to say that my own issues with authority include my own ruling eye.

Like any relationship, I have to acknowledge that I am locked in an eternal power struggle with art. I look down at it as often as I look up to it, which is a dynamic essential to my engagement. Naiveté is also a useful cover, though one that I’m about to blow by telling you that I went to art school (but really, art school that makes me an authority on what? Drinking cheap wine from plastic tumblers?). This stance also allows me to make mistakes, and I love to make mistakes. I also love to state my opinion as fact, though I don’t know if that makes a very bad critic or a good one.

A few years ago, I attended a lecture at UC Santa Barbara by the philosopher Patricia MacCormack, in which she said, “Of course, the hardest thing about art is that it cannot love you back.” Shocked, I realized in that moment that it had never occurred to me that art can’t love me back. I’d always thought of my love of art as mutual—if not shared between the work on a wall or the pages of the book and me, than at least an affinity that ties me to the artist or the writer. I have felt “loved back” unconditionally over time, beyond death, by a stranger, acutely.

As an author most recently of a memoir, I’ve experienced the other end, now. Strangers have called out to me over the bridge of a book, or at a reading, or via social media. Readers connect with a container that is both me and not me, which is an out-of-body experience. I believe that my book can love readers back more readily than I can, as books have loved me back. Sure it’s sentimental of me to think so, but it’s a faith that continues to shape me. I also don’t believe that sentimentality is a soppy weakness. Maybe I feel this way because I came to writing through poetry, a genre that exists, against all odds, to communicate the inexpressible.

The Brooklyn Museum’s Visible Storage Study Center, a basement crammed full of the overflow of the museum’s permanent collection, stored in several glass containers, is more like your kooky aunt’s house than a museum collection—assuming that your aunt collects Tiffany lamps, American oil paintings from before 1945, and examples of 1950s design. While the items stored together are generally of the same era, the general feeling is that of a gleeful hoarder who in an attempt to organize, simply places like with like. I couldn’t help but think back to a trip that I took to the Broad museum this past summer when it opened. The difference between the Broad and The Visual Storage Study Center seems to me the difference between “Look how much stuff I have!” and “Look how much stuff there is!” Both are warehouse containers for more art than can possibly be displayed. You can’t take it with you, sure, but you also can’t show it to me if I don’t want to look, and boy do I want to look.

The curation of Los Angeles’s new Broad Museum is approximately chronological, which is how I found myself sitting on a bench between the work of David Wojnarowicz and Julian Schnabel. Sitting in a hall between these two contrasting masculine forces, a brightly collaged and painted piece about alienation in the face of the AIDS epidemic and a massive canvas of smashed plates and splattered paint, both hung here to represent American art in 1986, I felt like I was shrinking away from a dinner party conversation about to turn violent. By removing any context outside of a timeline, these two paintings facing off felt at best like a dark inside joke and at worst vaguely cynical. Chronological curation strips art of any other social context by hanging the work in the fixed presence of the past.

In a room nearby is a collaged tapestry of women, both naked and dressed, surrounding Marx’s grave. Next to the tapestry hang two body suits with cartoonish doodles of female bodies, huge breasts popping out from under scribbled fishnet crosshatches to be worn while lounging on the tapestry. The name of the piece is Death to Marxism, Women of all Lands Unite by Goshka Macuga. It’s just a short stroll from here to the room full of John Currin’s uncanny, swollen, peach-hued nymphs, but I confess to a sensation of whiplash in leaving one overtly political feminist piece to confront a room full of cheerfully alien characterizations of the female form.

My friend was felled by Robert Longo’s Untitled (Ferguson Police, August 13, 2014), a large charcoal drawing of the grim silhouettes of police in riot gear prepared to meet the protestors of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Missouri. My friend sat with his head between his hands on a bench, not far from Ellen Gallagher’s series of collages made in part from smiling 1960s advertisements cut from magazines targeting an African American readership and requested to leave. When the core message of your collection is “this all belongs to me but you can see it for free,” and it contains a drawing the size of half the wall depicting the recent turmoil of oppressed people in your country, it’s difficult to escape the sensation that what the Broad is saying is that what Eli Broad has really collected is your time. Not just your time looking at the collection, but your era, encapsulated. It’s love confused for pride, without any distinction. That scares the hell out of me.

“Just a minute,” I said as I raced around the remaining rooms. I passed a room marked with the sign The Visitors, but I did not go in. Had I entered, I would have faced several video screens, each showing a different musician in a different room in a crumbling mansion. A drummer with his set in the kitchen, a guitarist in a leather chair in the study, a crooner soaking in the tub in the bathroom, a cellist in the living room, all singing the same song together. It occurred to me, watching the video later on YouTube, that this is who we are in the museum, all viewers in different rooms vibrating at differing frequencies.


From the writer

:: Account ::

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about curation, which seems to be everywhere and mean everything lately, from how I organize (or don’t) my closet to my cocktail order. I’m also interested in what happens when symbols of subcultures are displayed not as a secret handshake between obsessives but instead as a game of one-upmanship. In an age where selectivity is the marker of consumption and spectatorship plays a growing role in commodification, the authoritative “secret knowledge” of the stewards of art has lost its potency to anyone with a Google account. I don’t think that’s a bad thing; I’m not interested in arguing against accessibility. I am, however, interested in what this means for anyone, from local branch librarians to professors, who hold a job that, by definition, relies on custodianship and expertise.

This piece is also about art as the foundation of kinship, how powerful it still is to find a member of your tribe, someone who loves the same artists and sees what you see. I went to the Broad with someone who saw the museum as I saw it, as a place where the job of history to synthesize and provide context for events was impeded by the straightforward lining of everything up, chronologically, making for strange bedfellows and inattention that felt inattentive and cynical. If I hadn’t gone with a friend who saw what I saw in it, I would have left feeling even more gaslighted than I already did. I still think that art can love you back, and I think that in an information-saturated culture, it still takes a certain strain of yearning to seek out what speaks to you and stand before it. The word “muse” originally meant to stand open-mouthed at the temple, and for me, a visit to a museum has not lost that sense of awe.


Cole Cohen is the author of Head Case (Henry Holt, 2015), a memoir concerning her rare neurological condition. Her work has appeared in Vogue, The Atlantic, and The Huffington Post, and she is a contributing writer for Entropy. She is working on her second book, Hot Girls, about gender and gun violence.