There’s a piece at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art by Carl Andre. It’s called Aluminum and Magnesium Plain, and you can walk on it. If you’ve been through the contemporary galleries, you’ve seen it. I’ve walked on it. I have a picture with my foot on it.
But, my recent interaction with it basically told the story of my life.
At first, two museum staff were in-view when I approached the piece. Now, they know I can walk on it. But, I don’t know that they know I know I can walk on it.
Scenario one: If the staff know I can walk on it, but they think I think that I’m not supposed to walk on it, then, I can’t walk on it. Because I’m uncomfortable thinking that they think I think I’m doing something I’m not supposed to do.
Scenario two: The staff would acknowledge that it’s ok for me to walk on it. At this point, I would absolutely walk right across it. But, that defeats the whole point of the piece in my opinion. Being given permission to walk on it means I’m not a risk taker at all. And, more than that, I’d have the instinct to say to the staff, “I know; I don’t need your permission to walk on it. The artist wants me to walk on it.” And, yet, without permission from the docent, I don’t feel comfortable walking on it.
Soon, two gallery visitors entered the room further complicating the situation for my brain. But, the staff had left.
It turns out that this really didn’t change the game. I believe that most museum visitors don’t know you can walk on the piece. I mean, I believe that part of the point is that almost nothing else in the museum can be touched, so it’s meant to be confusing that the intention of this piece includes touch.
Scenario one: I assume that the other two people in the room don’t know you can walk on the piece. I assume this because they don’t stop to read its information (where it clearly indicates one can walk on the piece). So, I stand super close to it, but I can’t walk across it because I cannot tolerate the thought that the other museum visitors would think I’m breaking the rules. But, I wouldn’t actually be breaking any rules.
Scenario two: The staff still aren’t back in the room and the museum visitors have gotten just far enough away that I muster the courage to tap the piece with my foot. That’s it. Just tap it.
And, at 39-years old, I walk away from one of my most favorite pieces in the museum wondering what the path forward in life for me should be. Do I work towards accepting the person who stood at the piece only willing to tap it with her foot when no one (well, cameras) was looking because she’s afraid someone might *think* she’s breaking the rules or the normal? Or, at 39-years old, do I work towards seeking the courage I need to walk across the piece without much regard for who’s looking or what they might be thinking?
I don’t know which direction I’ll go. What I do know is that someone at some point in that piece’s history has looked at it and asked, “Why are a bunch of metal plates assembled on the floor considered art?” And, if that’s all they see, I’d submit to you that they are missing an opportunity much greater.
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