My Mother Vs. Modern Art

I (Liz) don’t know any artists with artist parents — okay, maybe a few and they’re a troupe of singers from Austria. The truth is that most artists live among a majority of nonartists, or at least people who would never dream of calling themselves artists. They probably cook and sing and knit and decorate their houses just like artists do, but “art” seems like such an extraordinary (read: odd, strange, quirky, incomprehensible, etc.) activity that is far removed from their real living.

And in fact, these views about art are not really that surprising. When you look at the art that has been lauded for the past fifty years (since Modernism), you can see why most people feel that art, particularly art that hangs on the walls of art museums, was not made for them. They “just don’t get it.” (Though, really, who does?)

Just for fun, I thought I’d give you a peek at one of my favorite so-called “nonartists” — my mother. Two years ago, we went to the modern wing of the National Gallery in Washington, DC, and I took notes. Does this experience feel familiar to anyone else?


My mother and I walk into an art museum. Already this sounds like the set-up for a joke, and really it is; you could even call it a small miracle that my mother was even willing to step foot inside a building with something called “art” on its walls. Probably the last time we entered the National Gallery together was for my class field trip in fifth grade when, just to be nice, she signed up to be a chaperone.

We buy tickets; she treats — the first reason I brought her along. And as we walk toward the modern wing, she now discovers the second.

“Mom, is it okay if I write down your responses to the art?” I ask, pulling a small black notebook out of my backpack before she answers.

“Yeah, I guess so,” she says.

We walk toward the wall in front of us. “What do you think of this one?” I ask her.

In front of us a canvas stretches across the wall, the length and height of a man, except that no forms or colors are painted onto the canvas’ surface.

“Well…” she says, “Am I missing something?”

“What do you mean?” I say.

“I mean… is this it?” she asks.

I stand next to her, just to her right. “Hm. I see what you mean,” I say.

Then suddenly I step backward. “Let’s look at it from back here,” I say.

My mother joins me, taking steps backward, continuing to stare at the canvas in front of her, her head still. We look for a few more seconds.

“I think there may be a white paint on the surface,” I say, watching my mother’s face.

My mother squints her eyes. Her mouth squirms. Then she sighs, turning to look at me. “I’m sorry, Lizzy, I just don’t see anything at all. It just looks like a blank canvas to me.”

“Fair enough,” I say, grinning. I make a note in pen on a page in my notebook.

We move on to a sculpture hanging on the wall just a few steps away. We pause in front of it.

“Is that what I think it is?” asks my mom.

I laugh. “Almost definitely,” I say, “Marcel Duchamp was famous for his urinals.”

“And that is ‘art’?” says my mother, pointing at the urinal, “Who decides these things?” She makes a few furious hand motions and then turns to leave.

“Hold on, hold on,” I say, scribbling in my notebook. “I came to find one piece in particular. We can leave after I see it.”

My mother sighs and follows me deeper into the gallery. Soon I catch a glimpse of purple and grey paint from a few rooms away: one of Jackson Pollock’s lavender masterpieces.

“Here it is,” I tell my mom. We sit down in front of it on a wooden bench.

“Okay, so what do you think of this one?” I ask.

“Well,” says my mother, “On a first glance, it looks like some of the paintings you created in pre-school.” I laugh.

“And on a second glance?” I say.

My mom stares at the painting for a bit before answering. “As I stare at it,” she says, “I begin to feel sad. It seems sad to me. Is that right?”

“Sure,” I say.

“And… it looks like it might be raining. Isn’t it called ‘Lavender Mist?'”

“Yeah, that’s great, Mom,” I say.

I nod approvingly, trying to encourage her to go on. Instead she says, “But, hun, I still don’t get it. So can we leave now? I’d like to grab some lunch before we head home.”

I smile. “Okay, Mom,” I say, and we make our way toward the cafeteria and then out into the open air, both convinced our outing was a success: for me because my mother was willing to stare at modern art for thirty whole minutes, and for my mother because she knows I will not force her to step into another art gallery for another ten years at least.