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How the art world excludes you and what you can do about it

In her new book <em>Get the Picture, </em>journalist Bianca Bosker explores why connecting with art sometimes feels harder than it has to be. Above, a visitor takes in paintings at The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London in 2010.
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In her new book Get the Picture, journalist Bianca Bosker explores why connecting with art sometimes feels harder than it has to be. Above, a visitor takes in paintings at The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London in 2010.

When Bianca Bosker told people in the art world she'd be writing a tell-all about their confounding, exclusive ecosystem, "bad idea," they responded.

"They didn't come right out and threaten my safety or anything," she writes in Get the Picture, "My reputation, well-being, and livelihood as a journalist —that, however, was another story." Judging from the book's recent reviews, she need not worry too much.

Bosker's motivation for writing the book was partly frustration. "I didn't know how to have a meaningful experience of art and that bothered me," she tells me, "But also like I think the art fiends that I got to know, it's not just that they look at art differently. They behave sort of like they've accessed this trapdoor in their brains and I envied that."

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Other journalists might have relied on research and interviews. Bosker went gonzo. She spent five years immersed in the New York art scene, working as a gallery assistant and helping artists in their studios. After getting a license to be a security guard with the state of New York, she got a guard job at the Guggenheim.

Bosker didn't necessarily set out to write a takedown of the art world, though the result is pretty much just that. She writes about the time a performance artist sat on her face. And recounts a conversation with a dealer who said her mere presence (he didn't like her clothes) was "lowering my coolness." It's unvarnished, awkward and eye-opening.

Borderline hostile

"Working at galleries, I became initiated into the way that the art world wields strategic snobbery to keep people out. And I think it's deliberate and I think it's unnecessary," says Bosker.

Take the wall texts you often see at art museums. While they might be well-intentioned, Bosker believes they're part of an over-emphasis on context.

"For the last 100 years or so, we've been told that what really matters about an artwork is the idea behind it." Bosker says that "art connoisseurs" were very interested in "where an artist went to school, who owns her work, what gallery had shown it, who he slept with" and was surprised by "how little [time they] actually spent discussing the work itself."

Of those wall labels, "I thought they were annoying, like borderline hostile ... they just drove me crazy."

At a recent visit to the Guggenheim, we saw one that included the phrase:

"...practice explores the liminal spaces of human consciousness..."

If I had a dollar for every time someone in the art world used the word 'liminal' ...

Bosker shudders. "If I had a dollar for every time someone in the art world used the word 'liminal,'" she laughs. One artist she worked with told her, "'Reading the wall labels is like you're trying to have a conversation with the artwork, but someone keeps interrupting.'"

As a museum guard, Bosker occasionally took the matter into her own hands.

"I would actually try and stand in front of the wall labels so that people wouldn't just fall back on the approved interpretations. They would challenge themselves and really wrestle with their own eye, which is so strong," she says.

Small galleries deliberately keep out the 'schmoes'

If museums make some people feel unwelcome, Bosker learned that small, contemporary art galleries can be even worse. One that we visited in downtown Manhattan was hard to find. That's typical, Bosker explains.

She says a lot of galleries "deliberately ... hide themselves from the general public ... I worked for someone who referred to general public as 'Joe Schmoes' and I think there are a lot of ways to keep out the schmoes, and where you put your gallery is a big one."

Now, to be fair, those galleries are in the business of selling art.

Gallery owner Robert Dimin likes that Bianca Bosker is unmasking "our opaque art world" with her new book <em>Get the Picture</em>.
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Gallery owner Robert Dimin likes that Bianca Bosker is unmasking "our opaque art world" with her new book Get the Picture.

Rob Dimin, another gallery owner Bosker worked for, does not refer to the general public as "schmoes" but he does like that his new gallery is tucked away. It's on the second floor of a building with just a small plaque by the entrance.

Dimin's last gallery was a storefront. "You [were] more likely to get people that had no intention or idea about the art or really interested in the art, just maybe kind of stumbling in," he says, "There [were] moments when we were on the street level that people would come in and just have phone conversations on rainy days because it was an open space."

People walking into a gallery to get out of the rain aren't usually interested in buying art. But Dimin admits that the art world is "opaque" and he's glad Bosker is unmasking it. There are parts of it even he doesn't understand.

"Even as an art dealer, it sometimes is confusing," he says, "Like, why is X, Y and Z artists getting acquired by every museum and having these museum shows? What is challenging for a person like me who's been in this business for 10 years, I can only imagine a person not within the industry having more challenges."

How to have a meaningful experience with art

Intentionally confusing, elitist, cloistered. While Bosker's new book likens the art world to a "country club," she says her feelings about art itself haven't been diminished.

"Seeing artists in their studios agonize over the correct color blue, over ... the physics of making something stick, lay and stay, really convinced me that everything we need to have a meaningful experience with art is right in front of us," says Bosker.

Bianca Bosker takes a close look at a work by Julianne Swartz at the gallery Bienvenu Steinberg & J in New York. Bosker says it's OK to "walk around a sculpture ... just don't touch it."
Elizabeth Blair / NPR
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NPR
Bianca Bosker takes a close look at a work by Julianne Swartz at the gallery Bienvenu Steinberg & J in New York. Bosker says it's OK to "walk around a sculpture ... just don't touch it."

Here are a few tips she has for readers looking to evade the snobbery:

Slow down

"My philosophy had always been when I went to a museum ... a scorched earth approach to viewing. I was like, 'You have to see everything. That is how you get your money's worth.'" Bosker says "museum fatigue" is real and compares it to eating everything at an all you can eat buffet. "No wonder you feel a little ill at the end of it."

"If you find one work and you just spend your entire half hour, hour, hour and a half at that piece, you've done it. And I think that that can be oftentimes an even more meaningful experience."

Find five things

"An artist that I spent time with encouraged me to, in front of an artwork, challenge yourself to notice five things. And those five things don't have to be grandiose, like: 'This is a commentary on masculinity in the Internet age.' It could just be, you know, like this yellow makes me want to touch it." Taking the time to notice those things will help viewers think about the choices an artist has made, Bosker believes.

"I think being around art ultimately helps us widen and expand our definition of what beauty is. And I think beauty ... is that moment when our mind jumps the curb. It can feel uncomfortable, but it also is something that draws us to it. ... It's something that all of us need more of in our life. And art can be the gateway to finding more of it. It doesn't have to happen with the traditionally beautiful artwork."

Get as close to the source as possible

"What we see when we go to a museum is not necessarily the best that culture has to offer. ... It's the result of many decisions by flawed human beings. And one way to get around that is to widen your horizons. ... Go to see art at art schools, go see art at the gallery in a garage and just kind of go close to the source."

This story was edited for audio and digital by Rose Friedman. The web page was produced by Beth Novey.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.