What can make a museum membership worthwhile are repeated viewings of works of the Old Masters, and thinking about them chronologically and relative to contemporary art.
In my observations of visitors to the Art Institute of Chicago, Impressionist paintings still get the most "Likes". They were in some sense, the first "postcards", depicting scenes of people reclining, in places such as La Grande Jatte and the Bois de Boulogne. These artists really must have felt that a new zeitgeist had arrived, and perhaps viewers well over a century later are picking up on that feeling. In some ways Impressionism was the foreshadowing of abstraction, something we are now perfectly comfortable with.
"Only with the Impressionists did aesthetic theory begin to accept the view that the pictorial image is a product of the mind rather than a deposit of the physical object. The realization that the image differs in principle from the physical object lays the groundwork for the doctrine of modern art. The similar fundamental break with tradition occurs in the psychology of visual experience a few decades later. The comparison with Impressionist painting can also help us to understand the nature of "visual hints" and "flashes". Instead of spelling out the detailed shape of a human figure or a tree the Impressionists offered an approximation, a few strokes, which were not intended to create the illusion of the fully duplicated figure or tree....The elusive quality of such experiences is hard to capture with our language, which commonly describes objects by their tangible, material dimensions. But it is a quality and valuable for abstract thought in that it offers the possibility of reducing a theme visually to a skeleton of essential dynamic features, none of which is a tangible part of the actual object" Arnheim, Rudolf. Visual Thinking. Berkeley: U of California, 1969. 108
The Impressionist gallery is one of the two "ante rooms" for the museum, the other displays 18th- century religious-themed work by Tiepolo. They are the first two galleries at the top of the grand staircase, and is my understanding has been this way since the museum was built.
(If the museum was virtual, the galleries would be the equivalent of what's not at the top of the stairs but what has ascended to the top of your Facebook feed.)
As you move through the European Art galleries from the 16th-century forward, you realize the painters started having more freedom in what they were doing, from themes to pallets, to artists signing the work. (Artists didn't typically sign paintings and were usually attributed to a collective or studio of artisans.) Painting was gradually becoming more innovative--surely with Van Gogh and Cezanne. Technological progress was evident. Certainly, Monet's Water Lilly series was full of a sense of freedom of experimentation with light effects and use of more high-frequency color (blues and purples) as well as oriental influences such as Japanese woodblock prints.
By the 1900s, technology again was having an influence, with the advent of electricity, radio broadcasts and new forms of automation, as grist for new freedoms of expression. The idea of "pop" must have been there in its earliest stirrings, but the term would take fifty years to be coined. There was also the element of speed; They were simply painting faster, because the allure of abstraction obviated the painting of things like catch-lights with a one-hair brush. By 1950 Pollock was almost "supersonic" in paint application.
Ironically the galleries showing the 17th and 18th-century Dutch portraits seemed to get very little traffic. These were commissioned "look at me's". The gallery with the famous Rembrandt "Old Man With a Gold Chain" was almost empty.
The contrast between the Old Master's work and contemporary work is shocking. It could be that people are still attracted to the ambiguity inherent in 20th-century art. It could be that the "don't make me think" contingent is shrinking. Given the heady nature of contemporary SciArt, we love thinking.
Perhaps the feeling is "we're not going back to the old ways". Painting with a mop and paint bucket is still somehow more interesting and you can tell by its popularity in the galleries, even if people don't get it. But they're getting something...
Salon-style painting collections were the old version of what we now could consider (at least partly) as "noise", even though each painting is complete "signal". Paintings are like a book collection: you have lots that you'll never read again, but they become a nice wallpaper that represents both signal (books you love and never want to give away) and ones you will never read again. A "Collection" could never be noise because each item comprises an integral whole that is perceived as a whole, like one large painting that fills an entire wall.
Partly as a result of the new minimalist Movement, spartan is in vogue. The rationale is that there's more "signal" in simplicity, as diametric to (or militates against) complexity (noise). And yet we still love to collect the simpler technologies, like books and LPs, and amass digital clutter, something we now can't even wrap our minds around, because it's nicely tucked away.
In Toward an Architecture, Le Corbusier goes on a diatribe against excessive decoration:
"Why then, on the pretty villas all around, these big useless roofs? Why the scant windows with small panes, why these large houses with so many locked rooms? Why the mirrored armoires, the washstands, the chest of drawers? And why these bookcases decorated with acanthus, these consoles, these vitrines, these China cabinets, the dressers, these sideboards? Why these enormous chandeliers? Why these mantelpieces? Why these draped curtains? Why this wallpaper full of colors, of damask, of motley vignettes? There's no light in your houses. Your windows are hard to open. There are no ventilators like those in any dining car. Your chandeliers hurt my eyes. Your stuccos and your colored wallpaper are as impudent as valets, and I'll take home the picture by Picasso that I came to give you, for no one will see it in the bazaar of your interior."
And so on.
His solution was to put everything neatly into cabinets, leaving the room barren. It was an attempt to square maximalism and minimalism, and it never worked that way. The middle class was a similar compromise, but consider that history. It's probably useless to defend extreme positions on design. Corbusier probably railed against Frank Lloyd Wright's "maximalism" but that style is still extremely popular, as is Modernism.
If one listened to today's pop from the vantage of 1950, it would sound stupid and/or broken. That wasn't the future then, at least in pop music. Future music then was Henry Mancini, Perry Como and Guy Lombardo. The future is always in harsh un-patterened noise, that is continually self-fulfilling.
Futurization of music is hard to do. Bowie was great at it because he used everything with sophistication, without resorting to pastiche. This is what Miles, Sun Ra and Ornette were doing. Jazz is still the future of music because of its natural sophistication.
The past is all there waiting to be used. How do you use Mancini and deconstruct it? Would you want to? The idea of neo-big-band is kind of exciting, but the music education armatures are missing. No one would have the skill (or attention) to play it.
Musical "facadectomies" are still possible, a device borrowed from architecture where new structures are built on the base of an older structure. Up until now futures have been all "neos" or "posts". That's good too. The 90s are now up for Neo, a period where we started sampling the past. These days, everything might be Posts.