The Museum as a Space for Arousal

Something I’ve been thinking about since creating this column: What happens when we think about the gallery or museum as a space for arousal? (P.S. for all you art nerds: Let’s avoid for now the obvious differences between the two contexts).

Arousal, as a general term, simply refers to the state of being awake or reactive to stimuli. But for whatever reason, it’s tempting for me to think of it solely in terms of sexual arousal – that excited reaction to desire – the visceral, bodily, wet, hard feeling that we all get for something.

The Museum as a Space for Arousal

However, if I stick with the universal idea of arousal – in other words, if I leave the sex out of it – then I think we can all agree that we should be aroused by good art. Or perhaps stimulated is a better term. Yet another word that tempts me into a sexual connotation.


Being a word nerd (in addition to the aforementioned art nerd), I promptly realize I can’t decide which is more appropriate. So, as all good nerds do, I look them up to compare. My Merriam-Webster desktop widget tells me that stimulate means to “raise levels of physiological or nervous activity.” Arouse, on the other hand, means “to evoke or awaken a feeling, emotion, or response.”

Both say something slightly different that I am interested in exploring. But which is the more general response to art, I ask myself? And since I’m talking to myself and can therefore only speak for myself, I would probably have to go with arouse.

You know that feeling you get when you kiss someone that you really want to kiss for the first time? The awe, the excitement, the terror – the absolute sublimeness of it? Of course there’s the obvious bodily reaction, but it’s always more than that. Somehow the newness of those particular lips at that particular moment sparks something deep and lush in the hypothalamus and everything just lights up. Magic.

That’s how I felt the first time I saw Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum in  a converted airplane hanger in Marfa, TX. It’s the way I felt when I saw my first Jenny Holzer at the MCA in Chicago. My first Nam June Paik installation. The opening page of Ono’s Grapefruit.

John Waters once remarked that, “Contemporary art is sex. The artists, the cute kids working in the galleries, the paperwork from the galleries, the crating and shipping, all the young ‘hangers on’ crashing the openings — it’s all about sex.”

I’d say that really, it’s just all about your first time.

Image: xenon on berlin’s matthäikirche, 2001
© jenny holzer

Lilika Ruby earned her M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, where she was awarded a full scholarship to the Performance Art Department. Before attending SAIC, she graduated summa cu …read more


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