The Gallery

I make my way through an art gallery, taking in the beauty, the creativity, the honor of seeing the world through the eyes of another. Paintings, drawings, pottery, sculpture – the variety of media and the vastness with which every artist chose to use it. Each piece takes my breath away, and I can hardly take in the splendor of it all; it feels utterly overwhelming, and yet I cannot look away.

I wander from room to room, enchanted by each piece, until I come to a room with a single sculpture. It is made of glass, hand-blown by the artist in all sorts of colors and shapes. It stands, massive and captivating, in the middle of the room, but I cannot get a good look at it because the room is filled with people surrounding the glass sculpture on every side. Even still, the partial view I have is enough to enchant me, and I know that I must get a closer look.

With patience and anticipation, I wait – and in the quiet, a comment drifts by me that catches my ear.

“This one is really just so sad. And boring – it’s truly unimpressive. The artist clearly didn’t know what they were doing, and the gallery curator obviously has no sense of art. I could make something far better than that, so it’s really not worth looking at.”

Confused, I scan the room to find the speaker. I quickly spy a small group of people, perhaps four or so in total. I wonder how they could possibly form such a cruel opinion, and then I realize where they’re standing: not by the sculpture, but by the description plaque. The speaker shares their opinions with their back completely turned away from the sculpture so they can address the group, and I see the group’s eyes glued to their leader, not once looking beyond to see the sculpture for themselves. The speaker’s hand rests on a popped hip, as if they’re an art connoisseur and their opinion is fact.

And as quickly as I heard the group ringleader make their official statement, they lead the group away and onto the next room. I stand dumbfounded, wondering how someone could come to an art gallery and never actually look at the art.

They walk right past another gallery-goer, standing in the corner, far away from the sculpture. This person seems fixated on the sculpture, staring intently at it. I think they must be quite mesmerized by this piece, until they share their opinion with their companion standing next to them:

“What a juvenile, unimaginative, garbage piece of ‘art.’ I hate this piece, and I hate this artist.”

Their companion chimes in: “If you tried looking at it from different angles, then –“

“There’s nothing more to see here. I hate it. Seeing more of it isn’t going to change that.”

I take a few discrete steps toward the duo, and I see that the speaker’s expression is not one of enchantment, but of disgust. Their mind is made up, though I admittedly cannot understand how or why. What do they have against this artist? How can they form such a strong opinion when they are making a clear choice to stand as far away from the sculpture as possible? When they are choosing to see only one small perspective of the piece itself, and filling the rest in with their own assumptions?

“I’m done here,” they say with a scowl, a look of utter aggression. “Let’s go.”

“Okay. I’ll catch up with you, I’m going to stay just a few more min –“

“Let’s. GO.” They bark.

They turn and storm out the doorway, their friend sheepishly following behind.

Two for two on wholly negative reviews. Surely it is merely bad luck and poor timing that I happened to hear those two conversation snippets. I feel admittedly downtrodden, but perhaps hearing some positive thoughts will perk me back up. I turn my attention towards the remaining gallery patrons, and the whispers start floating in.

“It’s just not as tall as I thought it would be.”

“It impressed me at first, but the more I look at it, the plainer it becomes.”

“I was expecting something much more remarkable, but this one side just lets the whole thing down.”

“It has pink in it. I hate the color pink.”

“It doesn’t have mustard yellow in it. I love the color mustard yellow.”

“There’s not enough light on it. It needs more light. Otherwise, it just looks dull.”

“It’s just not my cup of tea.”

The voices are coming in so rapidly, I cannot determine who is saying what, but it doesn’t matter. My anticipation to see the sculpture for myself fades with each comment, and I begin to wonder if these people know something that I don’t. Am I a poor art patron? Do I not know how to judge fine art? Am I childish for being so in awe of art and for not looking at it with a more critical eye?

My own thoughts begin to flood my mind. I contemplate just leaving and moving onto the next room – after all, it doesn’t seem like the other gallery guests believe that this supposedly brilliant glass sculpture lives up to the hype.

I look around at the guests in the room, and notice something. Similar to the first two speakers, every mouth that I see moving, belongs to someone standing motionless, like a human statue. Their faces are frozen in a state of judgement, and the only part of their bodies that seem to be moving are their lips.

But there are other people that I didn’t notice initially because they aren’t speaking; they are moving about, weaving through the statues, taking in the sculpture from all sides and all angles. They don’t seem bothered or even fazed by the chorus of criticism. And the expressions on their faces?

Those of awe, wonder, and enchantment. As if utterly captivated beyond words.

I make my way forward, delicately avoiding the garden of critical statues, and begin taking in the glory of the glass masterpiece.

And it is truly a masterpiece.

The colors are brilliant – each one weaving in and out of the next, yet also intentionally separate, holding its own in the vastness of the massive glass vision.

The shaping is exquisite; I get goosebumps thinking about how each element was hand-blown and shaped, how each individual piece received such care and attention as it was molded to perfection.

The shine brings tears to my eyes, and the lighting on the piece from above and below only serves to accentuate the shine. I think about how the exhibit designers carefully placed each light to make sure that the intention and beauty of the piece was perfectly conveyed.

Every element of this piece surpasses my personal expectations, and I find myself joining the school of art patron fish, swimming around the sculpture again and again, moving closer and further away, each rotation making new discoveries that take my breath away.

I stop for a moment and look around at the unmoving garden of people still standing there. How sad it must be to choose to see a piece of art not only from one unchanging perspective, but through the goggles of personal expectations and assumptions. They do not allow themselves to see the art, or to see the artist’s intention; they want the art to be what they want it to be, and therefore see only judgment and criticisms.

How small their worlds must be if they judge art as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ based on whether they believe the artist met their personal expectations, as if they assume the artist created the piece for them.

But I don’t believe artists create to satisfy the expectations of others; they create for the sake of creating. And they create from their own experiences, worldviews, and expectations.

I love entering the world of the artist, of seeing this earth through the eyes of another. And I love taking in the vast and unending possibilities to create beauty in this world.

I cannot imagine a life without that curiosity. Without that empathy. Without the wonder I experience knowing I never could have created the piece standing in front of me – only the artist had the unique vision and skills and knowledge to do it.

I hope someday that those who choose to stand as statues, might decide to move – to see more than their one perspective.

How much richer life is when we choose to do so.

I turn back to the sculpture, and take another lap.

… … …

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Photo credit: Josh Liu from Unsplash