Titian? Nice. But Where’s the Gift Shop?

This space rarely, if ever, runs service pieces. But I feel obligated to share a discovery I made recently that may help parents traveling with children to have more pleasant, culturally enriching vacations. Visit an art exhibition as a family.

I’m not talking about museums such as the Met or the National Gallery in Washington. We once tried that at the Louvre, attempting to awaken our oldest daughter, who was around 4 at the time, to the splendor of Renaissance painting by calling depictions of the madonna and child “mommy and baby” paintings. When that failed to spark her enthusiasm, we asked her to find any works that included animals. But then we found ourselves being dragged from one gallery to the next as she proudly pointed out all the cows and horsies she’d discovered while the Da Vincis, Titians and Bronzinos went begging.

A friend told me he’d tried to spark his hyperactive son’s interest in art, or at least keep him reasonably calm, when they visited the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., by telling him to select a postcard at the gift shop and then find the actual painting in the museum. The kid picked Frederic Remington’s The Scout: Friends or Enemies? , the exquisite winter scene of a lone Indian looking down upon an Indian village at dusk, and announced he’d made a match as soon as they set foot in the first gallery by running at the painting at full speed and slapping the canvas with both fists, almost causing the guard on duty to go into convulsions. Fortunately, the painting suffered no permanent damage.

No. The art I’m talking about is what might loosely be defined as avant-garde art. It goes without saying that one would try to avoid any work that features gore, excrement, profanity or videos of the artist and his friends sitting around in the nude smoking cigarettes, as more than a few seem to do these days. But much of the rest of it, in its desire to be technologically cutting-edge, is fun for the whole family.

What brings this to mind is the fact that my family and I just returned from Italy where we had the opportunity to attend the Venice Biennale. I’d heard mixed things about this year’s show. One acquaintance, a New Age type, returned from the exposition praising it as more “spiritual” than the previous Biennale. On the other hand, my brother James Gardner, the art critic for National Review and the author of Culture or Trash? , an unflattering critique of contemporary art, asserted that the show was even worse than the last Biennale, which was bad enough.

But I knew from my own experience at the 1997 Biennale, where we frankly had a blast, that whether the show succeeds as art makes little difference when you’re traveling with a toddler whose fondest memory of the experience will be the stickers or set of magic markers you buy at the gift shop on your way out. In fact, having no priority besides keeping your kids pacified is curiously liberating. No longer do you have to worry about whether you’re “getting” the artist’s message or even who the artist is. Your only standard for success is whether the work prevents your kid from curling up into a ball on the gallery floor and wailing that he hates you.

By that criteria, this year’s Biennale was a resounding success. We struck gold almost immediately when we wandered into the Belgium pavilion and were enveloped in a delicate, dreamlike fog. The effect was apparently intentional rather than the result of the 100 percent humidity outside.

From there we proceeded to a building made entirely of white plastic crates–Germany’s contribution, I believe it was–and caught our breath on stools made of white crates before heading over to the Italian pavilion, which featured a pack of whiskered, 10-foot-tall rats arranged in a circle.

Mind you, if I was traveling with my brother or any adult besides my wife, I’d have been expected to come up with something cogent to say about what I was seeing. Was the fog, though fun, a distraction from the art at the Belgium pavilion–a cluster of water balloons in one alcove, dandelions suspended from wires in another? Were the white crates anything more than a gimmick? What were those rats trying to express about the plight of humanity at the turn of the millennium?

But when you’re traveling with kids, you don’t care, as long as they’re not driving stakes through the paintings and people aren’t whispering about what lousy, permissive parents you are.

Speaking for myself, I’d have to say that my favorite exhibit was the United States entry. It featured several rooms where bright pink sand trickled down from the ceiling over white, Braille-studded walls before accumulating in colorful puddles on the floor. While my older daughter Lucy claims her younger sister Gracie “thought the sand coming down the wall was guts and blood,” I was blissfully unaware the installation by Ohio conceptual artist Ann Hamilton had any higher meaning until I glanced at an explanation by the front door as I was leaving.

“The work looks back to a damaged idealism and yet somehow optimistically forward to the possibility of a more reciprocal relationship between nature and culture.” Who’d have guessed? It was signed “Katy Kline and Helaine Posner, U.S. Commissioners.”

Canada provided our only brush with anything that required parental guidance. Its contribution to the Biennale was a couple of bronze dogs and their droppings. On closer inspection, the turds were penises. Fortunately, Gracie didn’t seem to notice.

“Can I pet one of the statues?” she asked politely.

Since there were no signs saying not to–one suspects that any artist who works in stool probably doesn’t mind people handling his work–I told her to go ahead.

My wife and kids’ favorite exhibit, hands down, was the Russian pavilion, which featured photographs of Moscow taken by a 7-year-old chimp named Mikki. “Mikki often changed the focus by touching the lens with his nose,” stated his handlers, the conceptual artists Komar and Melamid, who apparently did little more than change the monkey’s film. “The impressionistic work that resulted reminded the artists of their nostalgic childhood memories.”

Frankly, I was disappointed by the results, even if they were the work of a chimp. His finger got in the way of one snapshot. In another, where he was apparently trying to get a picture of Red Square, he missed everything except the dome of St. Basil’s. However, my wife claimed to be satisfied.

“I just can’t be disappointed by a chimp,” she stated happily. “They’re such talents.”

When we returned to our hotel, exhausted but enriched, I asked my brother what his problem was. “The art world is rediscovering more traditional media like painting and sculpture,” he explained. “This is a step backwards in the wrong direction to the 80’s, to conceptual gimmick art.”

I asked him to be more specific, but he didn’t feel like discussing the Biennale further. “I have to write an article about it,” he said morosely. “That’s bad enough.”

Titian? Nice. But Where’s the Gift Shop?