Head Art and Heart Art in Museums

Also: Happy Halloween

Hey, There,

The other day I went for one of the natural comforts in these trying times: I went to the museum. The Walker Art Center, specifically; it’s always a comfort to spend some time with a nice installation piece that’s in no way menacing!

The pictures don’t capture the fact that this creepy-ass thing was breathing

It was a good trip. I was glad I went. But it did make me think a lot about the weird duality of the two major art museums in Minneapolis, and how they’re trying to do very different things, despite a lot of outward similarity in mission. If you’re not in Minneapolis, you might be getting ready to bail; but I think there’s some value in reading through this and thinking about how all of this applies to the museums in your town.

Here’s what I’m getting at: there are two major art museums in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA*) and the Walker Art Center (there’s also the U of M’s Weisman Art Museum, which I have very fond feelings towards, but for these purposes is functionally a smaller Walker). The MIA is a huge, “encyclopedic” museum, meaning that it has a big collection that covers a wide swath of art history. There are some Antiquities galleries, some Renaissance galleries, some Impressionist galleries, and so on, up to the present. The Walker, on the other hand, leans heavily into its identification as an art center; it has a permanent collection (if one much smaller that the MIA’s) consisting mostly of works from after 1950 that were cutting-edge at their time, but the Walker also tends to lean heavily on freshly-curated exhibitions that might be made of works from outside the museum. It’s not quite fair to say that the MIA is backwards-looking and the Walker forward- (for one thing, the Walker does retrospectives; for another, the MIA has gotten a lot better in recent years about staying on top of contemporary art), but there’s at least a little bit of that dynamic in the public perception.

*Per a rebrand a few years ago, they want to be known as “Mia,” instead of the former MIA, but I’ve just accepted that I’m going to fight a lonely war on behalf of the old branding, which is what I associate with the place and which has the advantage of not competing with Ms. Farrow for mindspace. If they want me to switch to the new branding, I will happily do so if they hire me for something.

And so far, none of this matter much, unless you live in the Twin Cities and want to know which museum to go to (go to both!). But I think the different experiences in the two museums is worth talking about, because it leads to two (nonbinary; there are plenty of others) ways of experiencing and loving a museum, and these are universal.

I have this crackpot theory of head art versus heart art. With heart art, you have an immediate, visceral reaction. That painting is beautiful. Van Halen’s “Panama” fucking rocks. It kicks so much ass when Kirk tricks Khan into chasing him into the Mutara nebula. Thoughts might come afterwards, and might add a lot to the experience, but they sit on top of an emotional reaction.

With head art, on the other hand, the appreciation is purely cerebral; you don’t feel much right away, but when you get the idea encoded in the piece or the clever way it’s executed, you get a kick out of it. For instance, there’s a sculpture on display outside the Walker that’s just a bunch of wind chimes hanging in a small birch tree. It’s noise. But when you read the label, you see that each pipe in the wind chimes is a note from the Philip Glass score “Dream.” There’s no immediate emotional reaction (besides maybe the universal annoyance caused by wind chimes), but when you see what’s up, it’s hard not to be a little impressed.

It’s not an accident that I used an example from the Walker for head art; the Walker leans hard into head art, while the MIA, outside of an exhibition here and there, is all about the heart art. I’m not 100% if this is tied into the fact that one’s encyclopedic and the other’s more experimental (taking a step back, most of the art museums that come up when you try to name the big guns—the Met, MoMA, the Art Institute of Chicago—are encyclopedic joints that are primarily going to show you heart art), but it’s been broadly consistent for the 25 years (wow) I’ve been going to these museums that the MIA foregrounds beauty while the Walker foregrounds ideas. And I want to be clear: these aren’t absolute, mutually-exclusive categories. They blur. Heart art can make you think, head art can make you feel, and some artists make work that is emotionally reactive as it detonates a nuclear warhead in your skull (I think the painter Andrea Carlson is a good example of this; musically, I think this is what Bowie’s best work manages).

As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a strong hierarchy between the two. It’s hard to beat the aesthetic experience of having an emotional reaction to a beautiful piece of art; it’s also hard to beat the feeling of walking out of a gallery with your head all buzzing. I guess I feel like head art has a little bit more drastic of a failure mode; if a piece is all about the idea, with no effort whatsoever put into executing it (what cartoonist Dan Clowes called “tampon in a teacup” art), that can be a sour bummer. On the other hand, there are a lot of ugly attempts at heart art.

I know this: I’m glad both of these approaches to art museums exist (again, among the many others), and I love that I have easy access to both in Minneapolis’ two main museums. I love to go to the MIA and see beautiful things. I love to go to the Walker and be surprised, even if I know I’m probably going to roll my eyes here and there (a place like the Walker isn’t really doing its job if it doesn’t make you say “oh COME ON!” with some frequency).

Bottom-line: if you can do it safely, wherever you are, you should go to a museum soon.

Right on. Stay safe.


Instead of links and recs, for this one RC suggested that spooky art would be a good idea. And she was right! Brace yourself for some THRILLS and CHILLS.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Goya

Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas Attack, Otto Dix

Untitled (Artist’s Mother), Morris Kantor

The Nightmare, Henry Fuseli

The Healing, Chris Mars

detail from The Last Judgment, Jan Van Eyck


OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.

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