The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

Few things in this world are more calming to a frayed set of nerves than a trip to the art museum. Your looming Finance test and History paper are for a fleeting moment forgotten once you step into an exhibit and find a piece that honestly fascinates you. And when the Van Gogh: Face to Face exhibit arrived at the Philadelphia Museum of Art recently, I knew it had the potential to be one of those beautiful moments of escape -- escape from the assignments, deadlines and daily grind of Penn life. Last weekend, I finally found the opportunity to make the trip. Armed with an equally eager friend and my pretentious art-gazing uniform of corduroy pants and a black turtleneck, I set out for a nice Saturday excursion. After avoiding what could have been an excruciating wait in line (by getting there 15 minutes late), I giddily bounced into the first room. That Van Gogh, he certainly was a genius -- from his first black-and-white works of pensioners living in The Hague to his vibrant paintings of children in Auvers, Van Gogh, my headphone-provided commentary told me, was superb in conveying the human condition through art. So fascinating was the exhibit that I was convinced others were enjoying it as much as I was, if not more so. Never having formally studied art, surely I -- the most neanderthal of the patrons at the museum that day -- was not getting half as much out of it as the others. But then why was everyone moving so quickly? How could they brush past the collection of self-portraits painted in 1887 and "The Postman" in such a hurried fashion? Was the Mona Lisa waiting at the end of the exhibit? What was this draw that pulled these people through the $20-per-person exhibit in a blistering 10 minutes? Two words: gift shop. Obviously, getting one's hands on the oh-so-cute blue and green baseball with a Van Gogh quote on the side was more important than the original art by the same man. Or maybe it wasn't the baseball; it was the colored fortune cookies with Van Gogh's sayings inside or the Roulin family finger puppets. Probably not; it was certainly the silk "Sunflowers" scarves or the to-scale replica furniture of Van Gogh's room -- the plain wooden bed, big enough for an 8-year-old, sells for $10,000, I think. All told, I spent about an hour in the exhibit and an equal amount of time in the adjacent gift shop, simply because the crowd in the latter was simply impenetrable. I could only stay at the entrance and hope that the flow of traffic pushed me in the general direction of the exit. In the process of being moved gently -- this was a museum, after all -- I had the opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversations of the gift-buying masses. From the complete lack of discussion over the work in the previous rooms, I could only infer a complete lack of interest in the art itself compared to the overwhelming need to find proof of having passed through the exhibit. And the more kitschy the idea (see Van Gogh fortune cookies), the better. In the end, it isn't the inexplicable way an artist can show you a person's life in one picture or the impressionist influences in Paris that irrevocably altered Van Gogh's work that will continue to draw record-breaking crowds into the PMA until January 14. It's the presence of an event, regardless of content, that pulls status-seekers from across the Eastern Seaboard to Philadelphia. Whether it's the Republican National Convention, the Millennium Celebration or this new Van Gogh exhibit, it never really happened -- we were never really there -- until we have a souvenir to give our friends or plaster on our wall as proof. It's not the experience that we live for anymore. It's the prestige that comes with having been there, wherever there happens to be today, this weekend, next month. And while Van Gogh's honest look at impoverished peasants and pensioners was sobering, that was the saddest reflection on the human condition I witnessed that day.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.