James Turrell and Nellie McKay

Today I went with friends to the Guggenheim to see the James Turrell show. The massive site-specific sculpture which dominates the rotunda is magnificent, a thing of wonder and beauty, well worth the very long line to get into the museum.

But then, we were told, there was another piece up on the fifth floor. When we got there we found an even longer line. The wait was well over an hour. Fortunately my friends were great company, and we had a wonderful time hanging out as the line slowly inched forward.

When we finally got to the room (where they let only 12 people in at a time) we were confronted by — how shall I say this — nothing.

I mean quite literally nothing. A bare room with nothing but a featureless gray rectangle painted on the wall. A complete absence of anything at all.

It was fascinating: Here were thousands of sophisticated New Yorkers, each waiting patiently for more than an hour, just to get a momentary peek at the Emperor’s extremely invisible new clothes.

I found myself wondering what everyone else might be thinking after having gone through the experience. Do people even realize that they have waited over an hour for the privilege of experiencing absolutely nothing? Or does reflexive worship of “high art” coerce everyone into pretending that they had actually seen something?

Then this evening I went with a friend to see Nellie McKay in concert, and it was quite the opposite experience. Ms. McKay is not only brilliant and talented, and at the very top of her game, but she is also incredibly generous with her art. A Nellie McKay concert overflows with joyful and intelligent musical and lyrical pleasures.

Maybe this is because it is pop culture — low art. Had this been a high art concert, perhaps audience members would have been asked to sit in total silence, and pretend that they had actually heard music.

Oh wait. John Cage already did that.

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