Nightmare at the Museum

My first real experience of a modern art museum was not more than a couple years ago when I travelled to Los Angeles. Now, I claim no expertise on any kind of (visual) art, but in the few experiences I’ve had since that trip, I’ve noticed something about modern art museums. They are, at once, fascinating and off-putting. I would even say they can be a little disturbing. Upsetting.

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Obviously some instillations are meant to be upsetting. Manikins wrapped in barbwire, surrounded by photos of the actual decaying bodies of war victims … for example. (Yeah, that one was real. I wasn’t a fan.) But for the most part, pieces, series and installations tend to be somewhat more benign. Yet even so, the feeling remains. A ghost of uneasiness that never really goes away.

Is just me? Am I afraid of culture?

This feeling didn’t really register that first time. It took a few experiences, a few more museums, before I started to notice it. Slowly however, I recognized how I felt going into one of these places, was little different from how felt just before watching a horror movie as a kid. Not quite afraid, but knowing a field of anxiety lay before me.

No, it’s not like that feeling. It is that feeling. Exactly. The feeling I get watching body-horror.

Is my experience everyone’s? Probably not. I suspect, however, it’s much more common than people let on. (Or maybe this is so common, everyone already knows about it and here I am spouting off about how grass is green and the sky tends to be blue when it’s not too cloudy out. Forgive me if this is the case.)

So let’s just go ahead and compare them.

Body-Horror VS Modern Art Exhibitions:

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  • Both make alien out of that which is familiar—either by modification, transformation, or placing it outside its normal context.

  • Both make efforts throw their audiences off balance, create a feeling of disequilibrium. This builds tension between expectation and experience.

  • Both focus heavily on the human form and its deconstruction. (In modern art, this is a deconstruction of the forms and expressions of our bodies; in horror the term is used … in a somewhat more literal sense. The two often look more-or-less the same though.

  • Finally, neither tends to shy away from graphic violent or sexual imagery. Often these are conflated with each other.

So, yeah. They’re pretty well alike.

But that’s really just the surface. I think there’s something else to this feeling, a deeper, more disturbing sense. This, I feel, has to do with two things:

  1. The Subjects - Modern art is an exploration of what we don’t see in day-to-day life, of the hidden, the lost, the ignored. Essentially, it explores human perception. But what about its subjects? Preferring to challenge their audience, modern artists often seems to prioritize subjects and themes of vulnerability and suffering. Even inanimate objects and amorphous creations, are often painted in this light.

  2. The Audience - People tend to think of modern art as serious. As intellectual. And as high as it can get up its own ass sometimes, arguably it is. This affects how we experience it. We tend to examine it. We think about it. We comb its details for meaning. Each piece becomes an meta-cultural puzzle, filling us with a level of detachment we don’t normally get from more conventional works.

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Now combine these two qualities. What do you get? Something of a voyeuristic effect. We, the audience examine that which is vulnerable, that which is suffering, out of academic curiosity. And we, processing these themes on an intellectual level (detached) are merely there to consume them. After all, detachment is the bane of empathy. So if a similarity of features group modern art collections together with horror films and tropes, WE, as consumers of the vulnerable, are the monsters and murderers therein. The experience can be truly upsetting. Horrific, even.

But hey, that’s just a feeling I get in museums sometimes.