“When objects of any kind are first presented to the eye or imagination, the sentiment, which attends them, is obscure and confused; and the mind is, in a great measure, incapable of pronouncing concerning their merits or defects.” –David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste, 1757
I stood in front of an enormous pile of porcelain chips painted to look like sunflower seeds while the guard at the door slowly nodded off in the afternoon quiet. Husband walked up and stopped behind me. “Hmph,” he said. I could feel his breath on my neck. “Yeah,” I agreed.
We’d been having this same conversation all over the Tate Modern. After a brief tea in the outside courtyard (museum tours should always begin with scones), we climbed to the top of the gutted power station and started working our way down, winding through white-walled rooms of inexplicable images. A giant wooded plug hung down from the ceiling in one room. In the next space, the walls glowed with a rosy hue as the lights filtered through gauzy red silk draped to recreate a reverse staircase spanning the entire ceiling.
I know, I know…. It’s hard to describe. Modern Art is hard to describe and often harder to appreciate. There were the usual rows of blank canvases, white canvases with a single black line, canvases rent or burned or shot at or spit on by the artist; all of the images that prompt the small-minded “my kindergartener could do that” responses from museum-goers overly proud of their “obscure and confused” sentiments.
Although we made it to the Tate late in the day, we happened to be there the one night of the week they kept the doors open until 10:00 p.m. We could afford the time to try to come up with some way to measure the merits or defects of the rooms and rooms of post-1900 art. We paused in a few dark hallways to watch video installations. I slid down the wall and sat with my knees drawn up in front of me to watch fifteen minutes of a young black man kicking a bucket around the 1970s streets of New York City. The bucket rattled and clanged in the video; it also rattled and clanged through the otherwise empty museum rooms. Walking out of one room of photographs of Russians wearing red, both of us in that sort of museum daze, we found Rodin’s The Kiss scooched off to the side of a connecting room. We first saw a version of this piece when it visited the High Museum in Atlanta for the Olympics as part of the Rings exhibit. “Oo!” I squealed. Husband kissed me.
On one floor, we found a temporary exhibit of Miró’s work; we split into different paths around the wing. I watched the art progress from almost naïve pastorals of Miró’s childhood farm life to the vast canvases of primary colors swirled with angry strokes of his later work, and I thought about seeing Guernica in Spain. Two hours later, Husband and I found each other in a room of canvases calculatingly scorched and charred.
We agreed that we had developed enough taste for one evening, and we could now pronounce the merits or defects of Modern Art with considerably less befuddlement. Now, on to find some pop culture, alá Harry Potter’s last gasps.
On the way out of the Tate, we passed a tall Tate guide with his pants a bit bunched and his long, black hair a bit mussed. He had the air of a young Museum docent—trying to maintain a look of disdain for the tawdriness of the general population while desperately seeking some affirmation of his existence. “Excuse me,” I stopped and said, “can I ask you a non-Tate-related question?”
He took a step back. He looked like he had expected us to think him on exhibit, and he had suddenly been recognized as animate.
I reached into my purse and pulled out a ripped newspaper page with listings for Harry Potter. We wanted his opinion on the closest cinema (not “theatre,” never “theatre” in England.) Every cinema was named Odean something or other—Odean being the AMC of London.
“Oh, they’ve got Odeans all over the place. You practically trip over them,” he assured us.
If there’s one thing we had not tripped over while hiking through London’s main arteries, it was a movie theatre. I pushed a little harder for specifics, and he guided us to the nearest one; then he seemed to enjoy this unexpected moment of human interaction. He asked where in the States we called home. “Georgia,” we replied.
His eyes lit up. “REM!” Tate Guide/REM fan confessed his love of the band and proceeded to tell us all about the trajectory of the band’s career and his own disappointment with some of their artistic decisions. Husband teased the poor guy with stories of band interaction from his teen years in Athens. Since I already knew the stories, I stood quietly and watched people milling about the café. Images of art flitted through my mind, which previously obscure and confused, had now found a way to appreciate Modern Art through the process of appreciating Modern Art. I felt the weight of Miró’s political anguish; the sound of that metaphor-rich bucket still clanged in my head.
A Japanese man sitting upright in one of the café chairs suddenly dropped his chin onto his chest, fully asleep. Feeling the fullness of our day hit me, I agreed with his sentiment.