On a Saturday a few weeks ago, I took a short road trip with some friends to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Detroit’s been in the news lately. And among other whispers, there’s been some talk of selling some of the DIA’s art to pay down the city’s debt. Last Wednesday, Christie’s Appraisals released its preliminary report estimating the value of the museum’s city-bought work (this is an important distinction, as it indicates that only about 5% of the DIA’s pieces are under consideration). Michigan Radio put together a sharp article outlining the details of the appraisal and what it does and doesn’t mean.
We made it to the city in time for lunch, so we walked a few blocks from the museum to find food (unreasonably passing on a café whose window quoted Jay Gatsby: “Well, he’s no use to us if Detroit is his idea of a small town. . . .”).
Once in the DIA, we paid for our admission and two of the three of us (myself included) sprang for the audio tour. I had never used one before. It looked like a cell phone from the black, blocky, pre-flip phone era attached to a lanyard. I wore it around my neck and was only ashamed for a minute. To use it, you have to dial in the three-digit number of the piece you’re looking at and hold it up to your ear, like a phone, and listen. Unfortunately, on average, only one piece per room is marked and numbered for the audio tour. Even so, I’m a convert.
We split up right away, promising to meet at the coat check in three-and-a-half hours. There is certainly more than an afternoon’s worth of art to admire, but—again, unreasonably—I felt that I needed to canvass the place. I started on the top floor (European Painting, mostly) and worked my way down.
The thing about whirlwind strategies like this is that they come with a certain amount of fatigue—many pieces, and even whole periods, didn’t do anything for me. The stamina required to travel through hundreds of years of art and bring my brain along to every stop does not yet reside in me, though I aspire.
A few works, though, mesmerized me long enough I felt I had to check the time. One was a bronze sculpture by Alfred Gilbert called Comedy and Tragedy: Sic Vita. The scene is of a man wearing the mask of Tragedy. He has just been stung by a bee in the ankle, and his face looks away pained, but he holds out the much larger mask of Comedy to his other side. From the right angle, you can see the man’s head through the mouth of the second mask.
I had another moment when I wandered into Diego Rivera’s mural room—Detroit Industry, or Man and Machine—whose scale and detail is thought-stopping (a kind voice on the other end of my tour-phone stepped in to take over for me).
Time was short and I rushed through American Furniture, Native American Art, and Photography. I skipped the Egyptian exhibit. In the Contemporary wing, I found a bench in a room where a couple was staring at the museum’s Rothko and joking about all the things it was making them feel. “I really get the sense of the anger the artist is trying to convey here,” the man said to who I guess was his girlfriend, smiling. I thought I was bigger than them somehow for about a second, because I took a class once. Then I punched in the numbers for the sculpture behind me that looked like, you know, a pile of wood.
David Greendonner (’12) is an MFA candidate at Western Michigan University where he teaches writing and is the managing editor of the literary magazine Third Coast.