Hello and Goodbye

by Tom Swift

We were at the Minnesota Museum of American Art viewing an Arab-inspired exhibit — a geographic mishmash of a description if ever there was one — and the gallery guide was telling us about the painting before us.

A man walked into the gallery. The MMAA is small. The man had pushed hard on the door brace into the galley. The door had closed with a noticeable thud.

This portrait was from the mid-1990s, our guide said.

“Hi!” the man said. He had walked up to the first person he saw. The man’s voice was high-pitched.

“Are you gay?” he asked.

He walked to each of the people he encountered. He smiled. He never stopped smiling. It may be more accurate to say that his default expression seemed that of a man prone to happiness.

“Bye!” he said.

The portrait was by an Iraqi American at the time living in Detroit, a picture of the artist himself regarding his fellow Iraqi American, a friend, our gallery guide explained in the tones gallery guides use.

“Hi!”

The man had reached our small group. He had cropped hair. He was about 40 years old, I would guess.

“Are you gay?”

The portrait was created, our guide continued on, in response to the Gulf War. It demonstrates the diaspora among Iraqis living in Michigan at that time, not many years after America invaded Iraq.

“Bye!”

The man talked as though he were the human equivalent of one of those old toy dolls that has a string in the back.

“Are you gay?”

“Bye!”

You might take from this description that I am making fun of the man. In fact, he made me smile. I am writing about him to place him more clearly into my memory.

I go to galleries because when I look at art I usually feel better than I did before. I don’t have an especially sophisticated sensibility. Sometimes I don’t, frankly, know what I am looking at. I am not especially drawn to the post-modern, for example, which is generally less accessible, in my view. I find visual art calming and challenging at the same time.

Early in our tour, the guide, in response to a question from our group, made the remark that all art is open to the patron’s interpretation. I am not necessarily down with that view. The artist labored for some time to arrange colors, objects, expressions — every element is chosen by the artist for a reason. She or he might not be attempting to make a single statement. That would be unlikely; the point isn’t to decode. Yet if there is a wide discrepancy between the experience the artist is trying to convey and my reading of that conveyance, well, then, it seems to me, a failure of some order occurs. (That failure, I’m fully willing to say, may be mine. I think we can — should — be multitudes — patrons of fine art who also, say, watch hockey or eat at Chipolte. That is different than saying we will be at one with every artist.) Art takes us to a place we do not already inhabit. If we are not made to bend, a least a little, in the experience, what is the point of art? And if we don’t expose ourselves to things that might change us, what is the point of life?

That said, there are times I go to a gallery like this one and make more of it than is constructive. As this portrait was the one in this particular gallery that most captured my attention, one of few that did at all, I had the conscious thought just then that I might be trying too hard to make something of the moment.

“Hi!”

I had not noticed that the man was now upon me. He put his hand on my shoulder. I said, “Hi.”

He said: “Bye!”

The man was an antidote to my trying. Some would say the man has cognitive impairment. I do not wish to attempt to diagnose him except to say that, clearly, he was not minding the usual social graces and there was reason to believe he did not know of the existence of those social graces.

The man moved around to the front of the group. He went up to the guide. He came inches away. We were still regarding the double portrait. She stopped talking for a moment.

“Is this art?” he asked.

The guide said that it was.

The man turned and walked around the corner.

“Bye!” he said.