Which is more inclusive: the place where staff curse constantly or the place where they ignore you? Which has more social impact: the place frequented by educated art lovers or the one populated by blue collar joes? Which has more aesthetic value: the famous one-of-a-kind masterpieces or the images people love enough to put permanently on their bodies?
Over the last several weekends, my husband and I have been visiting a different kind of art institution: a tattoo parlor. For years, we'd discussed getting tattoos instead of rings to memorialize a marriage commitment, and last week, wedding over, design concept in hand, fears somewhat in check, we finally put ink to skin and made it official.
I had always thought about getting tattooed as an outcome-oriented event. I love having a permanent piece of symbolic art on my arm. I love carrying a social object with me that opens up casual conversation with strangers on the street. I've written before about the power of dogs as social objects to which we can deflect our attention--thereby making peer-to-peer interaction between strangers more socially comfortable. Tattoos are like dogs, but they don't need food or walks. People ask questions. People tell stories. It's like I've joined a club of disparate individuals who are bound together by art. I'd love to see a museum offer temporary tattoos instead of stickers at entry... but that's for another post.
The real surprise was in the tattooing experience itself--the pre-outcome affair. I expected it to be both physically and culturally uncomfortable, something like going to a dentist in a Harley garage. I was wrong; while the experience had its negatives, it was one of the best content-related social experiences of my life in an art establishment like no other.
I spent about 5 hours in a busy tattoo studio (interesting how they are rebranding away from "parlor"), both times on Sundays, and my highly uninformed impression is that most of the people who walked in the door are not museum-goers. They are the kind of people we can't even get to the museum door, let alone through it. And yet here they were streaming into a place where they would spend hundreds of dollars on art, pore intently over books of images and talk earnestly with the artists about their vision. The staff were friendly and knowledgeable. The music was loud and angry. It was clean, well-lit, and comfortable... and there were needles, gloves, and lots of skin. People were spending time with art and in dialog with artists. They were telling offensive jokes and cursing. People were having complicated emotional experiences about loved ones they were memorializing and designs that came from deep intention. They were making haphazard selections of reductive, faddish icons. It was both high- and low-brow, but everyone was engaged and energized with both the art and each other.
In art museums, I try to force myself into the art in all kinds of ways--by imagining things from the artist's perspective, scouring the labels for clues, looking cross-eyed at the piece like one of those 3D optical illusions. With tattoos, getting into the art takes less effort. The story behind it is available, and in most cases, the canvas wants to tell its secrets.
And that, to me, is the basis for a great social art experience. After our time in the tattoo parlor, my husband and I debated the relative comfort and merits of tattoo parlor vs. art gallery/museum. He argued that the auto-erotic asphyxiation jokes were just as off-putting, if not more so, than guards who eye you warily or gallery staff who studiously ignore you. I'm not so sure. Maybe it's just the other side of the pendulum swing. If there were more museums where staff were loud, offensive, funny--in other words, free to act like real people--they might draw a different clientele. Not necessarily more inclusive but fundamentally different.
And thus this gets back to museum comfort in a more global sense. We often talk about opening our doors to more visitors, but the underlying caveat to that desire is a reluctance to change the core experience we're offering. We don't want to alienate our current visitors--no matter how few or homogeneous they are--to court future visitors who may never materialize. Any future group could be offensive to current visitors, whether it's little kids or burly tattooed guys, but some seem more threatening than others. Being in the tattoo parlor revealed how wide the gap is between the culture of what determines comfort in a museum and in this other thriving art environment. People who will confidently walk into a tattoo parlor may not confidently enter a museum, and vice versa. But if you can get over the threshold fear, check it out. It's worth the cultural trip.
The artist who did my tattoo has an MFA, but when I asked him about the art establishment / tattoo divide, he smiled and said, "overall, we're glad they're not interested." Well, I'm not. Tattoo parlors may not need museums. But we need them and their audiences if our interest in inclusivity, in engaging people with interest in art (or any content), is going to go more than skin deep.
And yes, my mother hates it.