Cultvre Vulture

[World, October 1, 1994]

“What is culture?” asks Tom Weller in his funny 1987 book, Culture Made Stupid. “Not the same thing as culture, which a dish full of germs has…No, cvltvre is something nobler, loftier, finer, thicker with pompous adjectives.”

If there were a Federal Bureau of Cvltvre, it would be the Smithsonian Institution, which sprawls between the Capital Building and the Washington Monument, paralyzing tourists with its bulk. Although there are fourteen museums in the Institution, its holdings are so vast that only 2% can be shown at once. Museums range from the wildly popular Air and Space (which draws 9 million visitors a year) to lesser-knowns like the Portrait and the Building (yes, a museum about buildings, currently showing a barn).

In an effort to give World readers a much-needed dose of culture, today we’ll visit the Hirshhorn, the Smithsonian museum of modern art. The Hirsh is one of the less-crowded museums, but it’s my kids’ favorite. We like modern art because it is fresh, thought-provoking, even moving, and when it isn’t, it’s still good for a laugh.

Today we see familiar friends, Picasso’s amusing scrap-metal woman pushing a baby carriage, and Calder’s fish-mobile of colored glass. We play name-that-sculptor (Brancusi is smooth and Giacometti is bumpy). We meet a stunning work by Kathe Kollwitz: a small, square bronze plaque of a child’s resting face, swaddled in strong loving hands. The title is “Safe in the Hands of God.” Kollwitz sculpted it while mourning the death of her son.

But enough of this old stuff, where’s the modern art? There are two current installations, and we enter “Traveling” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. We first encounter two knee-high stacks of poster-size paper, each printed with a single sentence (“Nowhere better than this place” or “Somewhere better than this place”). The viewer is invited to take a single sheet; according to the show’s brochure this makes us “participants in the work” and enables Gonzalez-Torres to both “undermine the traditionally passive relationship between artwork and audience…[and] question public and private ownership.”

That’s a lot of work for a sheet of paper to do, and we think we could do it better if we sat down and made all the sheets into paper airplanes, but there is too much cvltvre waiting ahead. We push on, finding a pair of office-wall clocks keeping not-quite-perfect time (suggesting, the brochure says, “the theme of mortality”), strings of light bulbs (“ordinary light bulbs which the owner can install in any manner”), and more paper stacks. The cumulative effect suggests the restful feeling one would get after sitting awhile in an office building’s supply closet.

Then we come to a room the kids like. A huge pile of hard candies (“about fifteen hundred pounds”), wrapped in silver paper, has been dumped against the wall. They sparkle appealingly in the light. The brochure explains that each viewer may take one piece, which is then replaced, suggesting “abundance, vulnerability, and depletion.” Okay, but is it art? The brochure-writer grasps at straws: “The rectangular shape and metallic color of the work enhance its sculptural appearance.” But what does it mean? “The viewer assigns meaning to, and thus completes, the artwork.” Oh.

We gingerly take one piece of candy each, but the guard mutters “Take a bunch—the show closes next week and we gotta get rid of ‘em.” We fill our pockets.

Down the hall we encounter the other installation, “Directions” by Jeanne Dunning, which is red, white and threatening. We step through quickly, barely glancing at works like “Untitled Splatter” and “Extra Hair.” Much of Dunning’s work is in stewed tomatoes, which when photographed look unpleasantly like a peeled human body-part. In “Leaking” a grinning woman drools red tomato juice, which the brochure admires as “wicked humor.”

We ignore “The Toe-Sucking Video,” an example of “performance art” which is just what it sounds like; the brochure admits in a rare burst of clarity that “the performance seems absurdly ridiculous.” We spend more time with “The Squeaky Toy Tape,” a video showing a dog playing with a squeaky toy. It’s almost as fun as being home with Sparky, but then that wouldn’t be culture.

Elevated beyond our capacity, we leave the museum and stroll across the mall. My daughter chats as she unwraps an art-candy, pops it in her mouth, and drops the wrapper on the ground. “Megan, that’s littering!” I scold. “No,” she says, “it’s performance art.” Minutes later I hear Stephen complain, “Megan is whapping me on the head with the rolled-up paper!” I turn to face her. “It’s performance art,” she shrugs. Cvltvre can be a dangerous thing.

* * *

Later I visit Sheila, an artist who goes to our church. We are in the dark and cluttered parlor of her rambling home, where her brilliant canvases, abstracts and portraits, crowd the walls. I am bringing her some family photos to be made into small portraits.

“So why aren’t you in the Hirshhorn, Sheila?” I ask, but I’m joking; we both know that stewed tomatoes are more viable than her vivid, engaging works. She is a Christian artist, a widow, with health problems requiring home dialysis; she scrambles to a slew of part-time jobs and rents rooms in her home to make ends meet. Even if she won a grant, she would have to give up her mini-jobs and might not be able to win them back later. The web of her sustenance is too fragile to risk disturbing.

I urge her to give me a price for the portraits; she’s uncomfortable, equivocates, changes the subject. She doesn’t want to charge me. “We’ll talk about that later,” she says. As she brushes back graying hair, I see that the elbows of her sweater are worn.

* * *

Tom Weller explains the “vanishing point” in art: “Early art aimed at inspiring religious feeling in its viewers, the general masses. Later an art arose which was created solely for the esthetic pleasure of its wealthy patrons. Finally art became purely a technical exercise appreciated by critics and congnoscenti.

”Thus, the point had vanished.“

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.