Children not looking at modern art

Two little girls captivated by looking through a vent instead of the modern art on the museum walls.

I can’t overstate how much I love this photograph of two little girls not looking at modern art in the San Francisco Museum of Art. I am unsure of the date and photographer of this remarkable image but, according to this source anyway, it seems to have come from the archives of Life Magazine. The caption of the photograph implies that it was almost certainly taken before 1975, the year when the museum changed its name to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

What I think is so interesting about this photograph is the way that the girls are responding to the space of the modern art gallery: they are not merely ignoring the art on the walls, but literally looking beyond those walls. It is not a quick glance or sneaky peek, either. This is intense, curious looking that requires them to physically crouch down and brace themselves against the grate in order to get the closest possible view through the vent. The square grid-like vent seems congruous with the canvasses of the modern art gallery, and the children are inspired to look beyond the surface of lines and shapes. They might be unknowingly challenging expected behaviors within the museum, but the little girls are also undertaking the exact type of close scrutiny and imaginative looking that curators and artists dream the art gallery might inspire.

As Clement Greenberg, that stalwart champion of abstract expressionism, once said: “To hold that one kind of art must invariably be superior or inferior to another kind means to judge before experiencing; and the whole history of art is there to demonstrate the futility of rules of preference laid down beforehand: the impossibility, that is, of anticipating the outcome of aesthetic experience.” (From his Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon, 1961), pp. 133). So, the girls might not be looking at the abstract art on the gallery walls, but who is to say that their examination of whatever lay beyond that vent is any less of a valid aesthetic experience?

// Image via MindMarrow.

Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things:

Models of Grant Wood's American Gothic with painting

24 thoughts on “Children not looking at modern art

  1. Pingback: Robert L. Peters » Children not looking at modern art…

  2. That’s great but a lot of little kids like Jar Jar Binks too. So it’s a cute photo but I’m not looking towards holding children to affirm someone else’s feelings about modern art.

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  6. A brilliant photograph. Interesting how difficult it is to display minimalist art in contemporary galleries when the spaces themselves are competing for attention. I am reminded of the frighteningly bad hang at the Tate Modern, where small wooden markers are placed on the fllor to prevent people getting too close to the art works, but end up feeling like minimalist art works themselves.

  7. I am sure this picture is by Diane Arbus.
    There aren’t many of her photographs that would be out of place in a museum of ridiculously interesting things…

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  14. An excellent image and a fantastic interpretation. I think if I were a little girl, I too would prefer that vent covered by the grate, to that “piece of art” that hangs on that wall. I think that as we grow up, our behavior becomes a lot more constrained (while even after having grown up I’d prefer the grate but my inhibitions would stop me from crouching down and peering into the vent) and our preferences become affected by our environment.

    Glad I stumbled across your post.

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