Watch this 1 scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off & you’ll instantly “get” art
“I don’t get art.”
As Internet culture seeps into every aspect of our lives, it’s becoming more acceptable to admit our shortcomings in the quest to connect to similar souls. A search for “I don’t get art” turns up post after post of shrugged sentiment and unrepentant prejudice. A few decades ago, a person would only whisper it to a friend while trying to hide his confusion. Now the phrase will find you a whole community of confused compadres.
“I don’t get art” is a somewhat valid position. If art is what the art industry tells you art is, then yes, none of us really get art. The art industry (yes, it’s an industry, and quite a dirty one at that) has a vested interest in keeping art esoteric and elite. Very few museums curate for real humans. Curators curate for rich patrons and mostly — other curators. It’s like they’re secretly competing for the most obscure and unrelated piece groupings to see who can confound, shock and awe the best of the best.
Most people make the logical choice to keep away from the whole endeavor. I don’t visit museums often myself. Instead, I turn to more accessible media for those days when I’m on a hunt for deep meaning: the library; photography; movies. One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from the 1991 movie Grand Canyon:
“That’s your problem: you haven’t seen enough movies. All of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.”
So true. Ironically yet fittingly, this riddle about how to “get” art is answered in a minute-and-a-half scene in the great John Hughes film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. What, you may ask, does this iconic ‘80s senioritis skip session have to do with anything, let alone the lofty world of art? Lots. Let’s take a look.
In The Museum
When we come upon this scene, Ferris, his girlfriend Sloane, and his uber-worrywart, super-hypochondriac best friend Cameron Frye, are halfway finished with their romp through Chicago’s
mean very clean streets. Lots has happened already, including Ferris’s reckless absconding of the prized vintage Ferrari of Mr. Frye, Cameron’s dad. The trio stop by the famous Art Institute of Chicago to check out some paintings and sculpture.
Take a watch first of the clip and then we’ll discuss:
Don’t get art yet? It’s OK. I have some things to tell you about this scene. Stay with me.
All the Feels
The Director and writer of the film John Hughes is amazing here. Hughes employs everything at his disposal, the shot angles, the art, the juxtaposition of the pieces and people, the soundtrack, the lighting, etc. to reflect what is happening inside the characters themselves, especially Cameron’s internal struggle to break free of his father and find his own path in life. (Some might say the entire film is really Cameron’s story, and Cameron is a reflection of John Hughes himself, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
The music is The Dream Academy’s instrumental version of The Smith’s “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” Here are the very simple lyrics of the song:
“Good times for a change /see, the luck I’ve had /can make a good man /turn bad //So please please please /let me, let me, let me /let me get what I want /this time
Haven’t had a dream in a long time /see, the life I’ve had /can make a good man bad /So for once in my life /let me get what I want
Lord knows it would be the first time
Lord knows it would be the first time”
Any kid growing up in a horribly dysfunctional home like Cameron’s could relate to those words. But the lyrics and their relevance are there to find only for the keen investigator. Hughes’s decision to do an instrumental version of the song was definitely the right one for the scene’s tone, but we can also interpret it as the director telling us Cameron was so deep under the thumb of his terrorizing father that he had no ability to even think about it, let alone express it in words. Indeed later in the movie, Cameron lapses into a catatonic state of abject fear when he realizes a nasty confrontation with his dad is imminent.
Let’s take a quick look at the scenes, without getting all wrapped up in the deeper relevance of each art piece (you’re welcome to look up each piece’s name and history. Knowing John Hughes, there are more nuggets of wisdom awaiting anyone willing to dig deeper. Consider sharing in the comments if you do).
After we see the “big kids” entering the museum with a bunch of little kids, with a smattering of adults standing around, ignoring the children, we see Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting Nighthawks.
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper
Notice in the painting there is also a trio, a man and a woman together, and another man sitting alone and perhaps stealing glances of the couple from across the bar. This same set-up is repeated throughout the movie, with Cameron being a third wheel to Ferris’s and Sloane’s intimacy:
Continuing through the museum:
The next few pieces further convey the concept of “contrast,” to reflect Cameron’s internal struggle: Smooth and soothing versus excited and sharp; warm and comforting vs. cold and concrete; round vs. angular; young vs. old; intimate vs. distant.
The camera moves to icons of The Mother, pieces symbolizing motherly devotion and feminine love. Cameron is a very defensive person: He has a dad who hates his mother; he has no girlfriend or even close to know how transformative the love of a partner can be; and he hasn’t cared to know about any of it. Cameron could be represented by the stubborn-man sculpture (which all three characters reflect in their crossed-arm poses).
In a confusing mess of spite and desperate attempts to garner any type of care from anyone — especially from his cruelly negligent parents — Cameron resorts to affecting constant physical ailments. Throughout the course of the film, Cameron starts to use Sloane as a kind of fill-in girlfriend, and Sloane does deliver some of that feminine caring that Cameron so painfully lacks. The feminine art pieces hint at how Sloane somewhat fills this role for Cameron, but they also lead up to the transformative effect the art has on Cameron’s life.
While Ferris and Sloane have a mock-kiss-your-bride scene, Cameron takes in a detail in the 1884 pointillism painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by George Seurat (note how he is wearing a pertinent
double– gazillion-entendre “Howe” jersey on — “How will I live? What kind of person will I be?” UPDATE: A reader pointed out that this Howe jersey is a signal of Cameron’s rebellion against his father. Read more about it at the link at the bottom). Cameron, studying “A Sunday Afternoon…” looks closer and closer at the baby holding its mother’s hand. What at first glance appears to be a face turns into a mere smattering of tiny dots. No distinguishable identity exists for the baby. In this moment, Cameron realizes no real Cameron exists either. He is merely a collection of tiny colored dots, like the endless prescription pills he’s been given as a substitute for love.
The walls of Jerico come tumbling down
This realization breaks a pillar of Cameron’s defense system. When the next blow comes (the Ferrari’s odometer has doubled), Cameron’s defenses are gone. When the final blow comes (Cameron accidentally kills the Ferrari), the old Cameron dies. A new Cameron rises from the ashes, standing with the help of Ferris’s and Sloane’s love and compassion. He gives a monologue of epic proportions. “I gotta take a stand,” Cameron says, and the transformation is complete.
Here’s the scene (not the greatest quality, sorry):
So, back to the art.
Hughes used film, paintings, sculpture and sound to show us that all of life’s riddles are answered in art. Advanced art degrees aren’t necessary to appreciate artwork. We don’t need to know “the artist’s intent” for a piece to speak to us. Art is there to answer the specific questions that haunt us at the time when we are viewing it. People throw so much money at fortune tellers and Magic 8 balls when they could just offer up their question to an art museum. Ask yourself the biggie metaphorical Q “what do I want?” before you enter a collection and see what pieces catch your eye. The big A to your big Q is hiding in there somewhere.
Art is a medium through which you discover yourself. Museums aren’t about the artists or the collections or even the exclusive curators. They are about you. Think of it: A whole building, filled with stuff all about you. Some things may not make sense to you right now. In fact, most art in life will not grab you. So what if you don’t feel anything from that particular piece? Leave it for another time in your life. Leave it for another human. Or, maybe the fact that you are turned off by it is insight in itself? Take a second to ask why it turns you off or confuses you. But other pieces may just be the thing that takes that part of you buried deep inside and pulls it out, asking — and maybe answering — exactly what you needed to know.
The best, most beautiful aspect of art? THERE. ARE. NO. WRONG. ANSWERS. There is no “getting it” or “not getting it.” There’s nothing to get. There’s no one right way to interpret it. Art is all about you, and only you can know what it means for you.
So go discover some parts of yourself you’ve lost. Go invent parts of yourself you’ve been missing. Go answer your life’s riddles with some art.