Today I spent the morning at the Newseum. Since I knew hitting everything in the museum would be quite an undertaking, the first thing I did was to make my way up to the 6th and highest floor in order to get a view of Pennsylvania Ave. When I stepped out onto the balcony, everything was slicked wet and mist hung in the air, sticking to the highest points of buildings up and down the street. To my left was the Capitol, covered in what looked like spikes but I knew to be scaffolding from the remodel. In front of me was the National Gallery of Art, with a banner hanging down the front featuring Degas’ Little Dancer. To my right, the avenue stretched upward until the end disappeared into the fog.
It became a bit too chilly out on the balcony, so I headed inside to visit the rest of the 6th floor. My plan was to circle around each floor, and then move on to the next, moving downward. This way, I would see the entire museum without spending too much time getting stuck at any one display. When I was finished I could exit and go to lunch at a nearby café I had spotted on my way from the hostel. Everything happened how I had hoped, save a few delays: mainly, the screens that were showing SNL, Jimmy Fallon, and Stephen Colbert clips. (I now consider these shows “educational,” as they are featured in a legitimate museum.)
I was wrapping up my last floor and decided to take one last look at the museum map to make sure I had seen everything. I noticed I had missed the Pulitzer Prize Photographs Gallery, and headed over, curious to see some of the world’s most famous, and infamous, photographs. The collection did not disappoint – the Newseum successfully featured some of the most iconic and astounding photos I have ever seen. The gallery was essentially a visual timeline, which began in 1942, and led all the way up to present day. It was a tightly packed area, with each picture hung closely to the next, and people shuffling by one another and stretching to see over the backs of heads.
Soiling of Old Glory by Stanley Forman
It was too stuffy, too crowded, for such an emotionally charged display. Pictured in the gallery were glimpses of humanity’s extreme highs and lows. There were athletes celebrating their Olympic wins. There were people plummeting to their deaths. There was a mother too broken by sadness to show that she did, in fact, care that her child lay starving in her arms. There were old scars and fresh wounds on display. And, there were people bustling by, consuming all of it.
I felt conflicted. I wanted to see each of the photographs, to experience what the photographer had wanted the audience to experience; but, at the same time, I felt that this was not the proper place to respectfully view and take on the experiences the photographs displayed. I could not adequately empathize in such a public and casual setting. I felt voyeuristic, peeking into the lives of people who I did not know. I was dipping into their world for a few seconds, and then moving on to the next.
I left the Newseum bleary-eyed. Needing something less emotionally draining, I headed over to the National Gallery of Art. It is essentially a building with room after room of paintings, and a bottom floor for statues. I saw Picasso and Monet and Cezanne and Titian and all sorts of famous painters. The majority of the paintings ran together, despite their drastic differences in style. Most paintings were of people sitting patiently for the artist, or of landscapes featuring a beautiful countryside.* It was a vastly different experience from the Pulitzer Gallery. Yes, the paintings were hung close together, and yes, it was crowded. But with the National Gallery, all of the art was carefully planned and executed. There were hardly any “distressing” paintings, and the few that were had a detached feeling to them, possibly because the purpose of the painting wasn’t to be “distressing,” but to show off the artist’s talent. It was emotionally underwhelming compared to what I had just come from at the Newseum.
I know after what I have just shared, I have painted myself as a hard-to-please person. That may be true in some aspects of my life (e.g. at a coffee shop, when my drink ends up 95% milk, tastes like wax, and is served lukewarm), but that was not the case today – I thoroughly enjoyed my time at both the Newseum and the National Gallery of Art, even the parts that were hard to digest. This article is merely me trying to wrap my head around the impact that different artistic mediums have on the emotional experience of the viewer/consumer. A photograph is a millisecond of a person’s life, whereas a painting is planned and carefully executed (save that one painting where it’s literally just a blank canvas. Yeah.). Because a photograph is so quick, it’s easier for the photographer to capture the lives of people who he or she is not acquainted with. It’s easier to capture the lowest points of humanity. It’s the opposite for a painting or sculpture.
These differences cause me to wonder: are photographs more forceful in their exposure of the human experience, even to the point of being exploitative; and, do the benefits outweigh the costs? (I won’t pretend to have the answer.)
*For the record, this was the best painting at the Gallery: