Every time I watch a stand-up comedy I wonder if it’s going to work for this thing I’m doing, and then I watched Marc Maron’s new special on Netflix and he reminded me that this just might work. “Too Real” is the rantings of a middle-aged man, and I mean that in the nicest way possible because it’s freaking hilarious. He sits on his stool, crosses his arms, and just agonizes over the future of our country and his own future as a man who doesn’t really like to do all that much. “How do you have fun? How do you guys do it? I don’t think I would have come to this show,” he explains. Watching his show, you definitely see that he a lot of interests; he name drops a lot of musicians (and even goes into an amazing bit about The Rolling Stones and their descent into old age), he plays the guitar, he is in awe of his girlfriend’s artwork, but he can’t find the mental energy for adding anything new into his life. Maron believes he is a “cultured” person but also feels like he’d rather stay home than participate in today’s culture:
There’s things I’m supposed to like. You know, I’m a smart guy, and relatively sophisticated. I’m interested in things. Like when people go like, “Do you want to go to the museum?” Inside I’m thinking like, “Ugh. No.” But, like you don’t say that. You’re like, “What’s going on down there? What’s going on?” And I don’t want to close my mind. I’ve looked at a lot of art. I like art, and I just… But I think I’ve seen enough…And also, there’s a problem I have at museums. If I go to a museum, right when I walk in, and get to the desk where you pay for the ticket, the donation, the suggested donation. Right when I’m putting money down, I’m just like: “Oh, my God, I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted. I don’t know what just happened. I’m exhausted. Is there a mid-century bench that’s not part of an exhibit that I could maybe just take a little snooze on? A little nappy? I can see half a painting in that room over there, and I don’t know what it wants. I don’t know what it needs from me, and I’m tired. I’m just tired.”
As someone who is inside of a museum for the majority of her week, I can understand the way that visitors feel when walking inside the building. Maybe it’s really hot outside and they’ve been walking for hours and then they finally come inside of a dark, cold building? In that case a nap sounds amazing. So there is a physical exhaustion that comes with museum experiences, but what is more interesting to me about Maron’s stress is that he experiences a mental one as well. “I can see half a painting in that over there, and I don’t know what it wants. I don’t know what it needs from me…” Can an art object need something? It might not necessarily need something, but it will get something from you.
Objects have agency. They act and produce specific results, all the while controlling those that help it create these results. Sounds strange but it’s true. They hold things, bring other things together, and change the way that we behave. I think about this every time I carry a freakin’ coffee to work. I’m like “look at this stupid mug making me keep my arm level at a right angle so I don’t spill hot liquid all over myself” and I feel a bit silly. But the mug has a purpose and it is living this purpose.
Alfred Gell, an anthropologist, wrote a book called Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory that was posthumously printed in 1998. He argues that art objects, especially ones that are described as “decorative arts,” such as vases, textiles, etc., have historically been analyzed through a passive point of view where we think about what the object looks like and not how it is used. Think about what these objects look like inside of museums: a Greek krater, one of those huge black and orange bowls you might see that was used as a wine bowl for parties, is displayed in a glass box usually next to other kraters or fragments of other artifacts. This kind of display isn’t allowing the viewer to understand the life of that object. A krater was placed in the center of a room at symposia. They were quite heavy when filled so a servant would have to fill a smaller vessel and deliver wine to guests and return back to the krater to refill for another person. There is so much movement and life surrounding this object, but all that is usually described is the year it was made and maybe the iconography on the surface of the bowl.
I like museums, but they can really suck the life out of stuff. The most invigorating displays, to me, are ones that treat objects like the illusive things that they are. One of my favorite places to be in the Philadelphia Museum of Art right now is Gallery 228 in the South Asian galleries. This room displays an illustrated manuscript from India called Gulshan-i Ishq (Rose Garden of Love) (1743). This is a book that recounts a North Indian Hindu love story for an Islamic court in south-central India. The story is recounted as a poem and accompanied by paintings to assist the reader in following the narrative. The words and pictures in Rose Garden of Love bring the reader into a magical world where star-crossed lovers have to face a series of challenges and separations before they can live happily ever after.
There are two versions of this manuscript on display. The first is the “real” one, the one that sits in a glass case and has the descriptive label next to it. This is the manuscript as an object, a book with a page open to show you an image and text. Then across the gallery there is a facsimile of the manuscript with a label asking to PLEASE TOUCH. The label encourages the visitor to flip through the pages of the story, keeping in mind that the Persian Naskhi script must be read from right to left and back to front. The space for the two objects is sectioned off by the ceiling of a Persian Cubiculum, or residential complex.
So yes, you can touch an object in Gallery 228, that’s super cool, but there is something deeper happening here too. This display is allowing the object to remain an agent. It shows that this book wasn’t something that was closed and placed on a shelf; it was an object that was revered, displayed, and touched by its owners. It contains gold and leather, materials that convey wealth and therefore would want to be on display. The installation of the muqarnas (vaulted) ceiling is important as well. High ceiling are a staple of places of worship; they act as an interlocutor between an individual and the heavens. This gallery is allowing the visitor to physically engage in a space with spiritual intent: the manuscript of love that details the ways that romance between individuals involves a divine presence, and the ceiling allows one to engage more closely in this presence with your “soul” having the ability to rise above into a higher realm.
The manuscript was not a book that was picked up and carried it around. Its size shows that the reader was brought to the manuscript, and not the other way around. It is not passive in its existence, rather it has a purpose of tactile social interaction and connections. The Rose Garden of Love gathers people, it wants you to come and take a closer look. So maybe if Maron stumbled into this gallery he would understand what the manuscript needs from him, or at least go into the video gallery next door to take a little nappy.