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.