Hey kids, time to walk slowly past old stuff

FESCHUK: What’s a family vacation trip without a little culture jammed down the children’s throats

Hey kids, time to walk slowly past old stuff

iStock; Getty Images; Photo illustration by Taylor Shute

After enduring the Spider-Man musical, which is neither good nor bad-good enough to warrant more words than these, we wandered through Central Park toward the Guggenheim Museum. It was time to get the kids some culture.

That’s a thing we’re supposed to do as parents: expose our children to “culture.” Enough of this having fun and enjoying everything we’re doing, kids—it’s time to walk slowly past some old stuff.

At the Louvre last summer, our family and every other tourist in Paris had the idea of heading straight for the Mona Lisa when the museum opened. At first we all walked casually. But the competitive instinct kicked in. Soon we were race-walking. Grown men were throwing out their elbows and grunting. Our boys charged ahead, weaving through the fading old ladies. They don’t remember anything about the painting but still talk about how they blew past a large Italian family on the final turn before the salon.

This summer, the Guggenheim is devoting much of its space to a retrospective of Lee Ufan, who is a very important “artist-philosopher” according to the noted authority, Sign I Read On a Wall.

Our first exposure to his work was a painting made up of a long brush stroke along each of the four sides of an otherwise bare canvas. And there on the floor: a boulder placed at either end of two long pieces of metal. We walked on. Another canvas, this one with a few small squares of grey paint. Another boulder, this one with a metal pole leaning against it.

It was at this moment that I learned something I didn’t know about the Guggenheim. I learned that the Frank Lloyd Wright design ensures the human voice reverberates when spoken at anything more than a murmur. This is especially true if the human voice is that of a 12-year-old boy saying too loudly: “This is all a big pile of junk.” Meanwhile, our 10-year-old was silently contemplating the possibility that leaving behind his snack wrappers after watching TV makes him not a slob but an artist-philosopher with a provocative view on human consumption.

We did nothing to halt the critique of Lee’s oeuvre. When having culture inflicted on you, it’s important to realize that art can be beautiful or bogus, magnificent or nonsense, and that you don’t have to marvel over a couple of rocks just because some tour guide claims they represent “a durational form of coexistence between the made and the not made.”

Feeling left out? On the Guggenheim website, you can watch a video of Lee lifting a boulder and dropping it on a sheet of glass. Make sure you listen to the curator emptying her Roget’s in an effort to depict this as the genius gesture of a master artist. Clearly, she missed the groundbreaking work I did in the 1980s with a baseball and a kitchen window.

Over decades of museum and gallery visits, I have developed a foolproof theory related to art: the more impenetrable and pretentious the quotes about an artist’s work, the greater the likelihood that the art is going to be pretty ridiculous.

We stopped to learn about Lee’s minimalism. The artist himself was quoted: “If a bell is struck, the sound reverberates into the distance. Similarly, if a point filled with mental energy is painted on a canvas, it sends vibrations into the surrounding unpainted space.” The phenomenon, he says, causes the viewer to fall silent and “breathe infinity.” “You can’t breathe infinity,” said Will, our youngest. “It wouldn’t fit in you.”

Lee’s work suggests that each of us is one paragraph of flamboyant prose away from being an artist. That coffee ring you just left on the table? Your spouse would call it “an eyesore” and wipe it away. A savvy art agent would call it “a self-initiated rebellion of the hand and awareness of the coffee table as an infinite unknown” and get you an exhibition at the Whitney.

The Lee Ufan exhibition concludes with a site-specific installation featuring “a single, broad, viscous stroke of paint on each of three adjacent walls of the empty room.” The curator described it as establishing “a rhythm that exposes and enlivens the emptiness of the space.” James, our oldest, described it as “something he probably did in four minutes because he needed money.”


Hey kids, time to walk slowly past old stuff

  1. I think your title of the article is not correct. Why do you confuse “culture” with “art”. If you wish to discuss or promulgate culture I would suggest a visit to show your kids the humongous Canada Goose in Wawa. And then teach them something of “our” Canadian “culture” by provoking a discussion on Who they think a “Canadian is?” Tim Horton’s, Hockey Night in Canada, poutine?. Of course, if you would begin with the Group of 7 or Jean-Paul Riopelle-who?. Gilles Vigneault, Margaret Laurence, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Marie-Claire Blais, Irving Layton, Mordecai Richler.. then you are speaking of “culture”. – an angry Canadian

    • So to ever speak of “culture” one must include everything possible about a society. Seeing as you list some art in your Canadian culture list, I assume you think art is part of culture. I think Feschuk was just speaking about high-brow culture as evidenced in the art at the museum. That is one aspect of culture I’m pretty sure. And are you angry because he didn’t speak about Canadian culture or because he spoke of only one aspect of culture? Everytime someone does a piece on culture you don’t have to include every part of that culture. It is called writing. This comment is as disingenuous as saying a history of Canada isn’t really a history at all because well you didn’t include every event that ever happened in the geographical space of Canada.

      • ooowie .. big word “disingenuous”. maybe he should have approached the subject from a slightly more anthropologic perspective. “society” IS a big word. Namely whose? And then we can speak of “culture”. After all, the www is cultural too – flummoxed

  2. Oh I love this, you are describing my 13 year old son too!

    Luckily my 12 year old daugther is a 5000 year old being in her little body, very wise and smart and could live in a museum. Hard to believe she came out of me : )

    My 13 year old brings his PS2 EVERYWHERE in a  museum he just wants to find a place to sit and play that useless thing, until we went for a relaxing day off to the beach in the South of France, oh my, I forgot women go topless! He threw that darn game thing in a second and his french all of the sudden became quite fluent, his eyes were moving around like if they were going to pop out and his head was going to explode, he had the best time of his life and now he talks about his wonderful trip to France and how educational it was!

    • female glands do it all the time. what is this fixation with them anyway? the “suckling” thing doesn’t appear to adequately explain it. On the other hand, a cat’s kneading appears to make sense. Maybe it has something to do with this? “Culture”, what’s that?

    •  I’m a bit late on this, but just discovered this gem. I too hate the pretensions of the art elite. Clearly I am too simple minded to understand the “depths” of modern art. However, what I can understand is that your 13 year old only brings his PS2 EVERYWHERE because YOU allow him. Are you not the parent? Try some parenting. My 13 year old does NOT bring his PS2 everywhere. Why? Because I don’t allow him. Strange how this parenting thing works …

  3. This will be my third comment ever posted on the great beast called the World Wide Web, but I just have to tell you Mr Feschuk that you are one of the few writers out there that I know will entertain and be somewhat cynically informative everytime. Thanks! This article for instance speaks to many people’s reaction to art culture these days.

  4. I have just returned today from a trip to New York. I took my 14 year old daughter, just the two of us, for some “culture” and shopping before she enters high school.  We too, went to the Guggenheim and were witness to the minimalist art of Lee Ufan.  My daughter commented that the works “didn’t look finished” and was especially taken by the room of boulders resting on biege pillows, with the exception of one boulder that was removed from the others and resting on a purple pillow. We did  contemplate this for a moment or two, before hearing a small boy claim that the store probably ran out of beige pillows.  How wonderful children are??
    We completed the tour in record time and headed to central park for a bike ride.

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