Fragments by Joshua Wolf Shenk



Fragment of a Queen's Face, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Edward S. Harkness Gift, 1926 (26.7.1396)
Fragment of a Queen’s Face, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Conversation Between a Man and a Woman at a Brothel

Man: So I’m paying, so I’m in control.

Man: But I’m new and you’re experienced so you’re in control.

Man: But I get to leave and go back to my life so I’m in control. You have to stay in this shitty situation.

Man: But it’s a shitty situation you totally fucking control.

Woman: If I had any real control believe me I wouldn’t be in this shit.

Man: Same here.


One problem lays on top of another problem, like a city

A new problem comes to lay on top of another problem, like in a city. What’s beneath now becomes an abstraction, much like the ruins underground in Rome.

Say you’re coming home with a problem and it’s 5:15 p.m. and you reach into your pocket and realize you have lost your key. It’s now 5:16 p.m. but in that minute a landslide has fallen and covered the problem of 5:15 in rubble.

The moment the new problem arises, the old problem is forgotten amidst the bustle. The new problem is its own city. It has its own streets, its own cafes, its own fascinations.


The bell curve of suspicion toward art

It is easy to be someone who makes things. Your friends and family will look on you with kindness and affection, and probably some interest, unless they are cold-hearted people. Make a sketch, write a poem for your mother’s birthday, build an elaborate train set.

These activities may be called “art” or “hobby.” It doesn’t matter much. These activities may result in work that is good, or even excellent, but this may not matter a great deal to people who respond to you. It’s just fine to make things.

The curve of suspicion rises, though, when ambition sets in. You don’t merely want to make things now, you want to express something vital or important. You begin to apply yourself with some intensity. Now your friends and family wonder what you are so preoccupied with. Now certain costs become apparent—the cost of the work itself as well as the opportunity cost of the work you are not doing. The work may be suspect. YOU may be suspect. Should anyone outside of your circle of friends or family become aware of your work, it will be subjected to criticism. The question before had been, “Why not?” Now the question is, “Why?”

Very few artists can endure this phase but for those who do, the curve may fall sharply again. For certain marquee artists, anything they’ve done is of value and interest, prima facie. Anyone suspicious of the art is themselves suspect. Lines form around the block at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. A wall in the gift shop names the benefactors, including Canon, VSB Funds, Sompo Japan Insurance, and the Dutch ministry of culture.


Thought on Museums

Why do museums not have chairs or places to lounge or plush carpets to lay on? This question is easily answered. Too many chairs or places to lounge would gunk up the works. Museums, like restaurants, depend on people flow.

But there is also an unspoken idea that art requires a direct gaze from an upright position. It is something like in temple, when we are instructed to stand. The position is intended to generate formal reverence. The rabbi tells you when you may sit.

In a museum, you may sit when you buy your coffee in the cafe.

But this is a mistake. To be in a museum is formal enough. Museums should devote themselves to the holistic experience of art, which may convey all manner of emotion and should be received emotionally.

Art museums should have beds that lovers can climb into and nuzzle.

Art museums should have choices of spectacles with colored lenses, red, purple, kaleidoscopic.

Once an hour or so, or it could be once a day or week, art museums should play, loudly, a piece of music that people can dance to.

Art museums with tall ceilings should offer bungee jumps to their patrons. This may be a perk of membership.

Museums should have pits of foam so that we can look at a work of art and then fall backward safely and softly.


The Van Gogh Museum ought to serve cheap red wine and partner with an Amsterdam’s brothel.


Joshua Wolf Shenk is an essayist with work in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Riverteeth, and elsewhere. His books are Lincoln’s Melancholy and Powers of Two. He is editor-in-chief of The Believer magazine and executive director and writer-in-residence of the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.