Is Star Wars Art?

The man standing next to me outside New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art holds a PhD in English literature and a plastic, retractable light saber. He's been standing here for an hour with his eight- and six-year-old children (a young Darth and Amidala), and in the last five minutes, he's asked his masked son three times if he can "breathe in there." "We're here for the opening of the Star Wars show," the man explains, adjusting his glasses and button-down shirt pocket, checking again for his tickets. "[The museum] said costumes were encouraged."

These three aren't the only ones to heed the museum's suggestion. Among the mostly plain-clothed masses gathered on the Brooklyn sidewalk stand Princess Leias with hair coiled like pastries, full-grown Storm Troopers, Luke Skywalkers, and Yodas of all sizes. The exhibition won't open for another hour, but Brooklyn is the last stop on the U.S. tour, and the museum expects more than a thousand people to show up tonight.

Originally developed in 1997 by the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., Star Wars: The Magic of Myth attracted over one million visitors and was one of the most visited Smithsonian shows of all time. The exhibition of artwork, props, models, and costumes from George Lucas's epic film saga has since toured renowned museums all over the country, including the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in Texas, the San Diego Museum of Art, and the Field Museum in Chicago. In each venue, the show has drawn record crowds, attracting people who might otherwise never have stepped into an art museum. That's hardly surprising: The event is fun, and people of all ages seem to flock to it with youthful spirit and nostalgic wonder. Yet it raises the question, what is this show doing in an art museum? And with the next two Star Wars film episodes in the making, why don't we just call it marketing?

This isn't the first time museums have grappled with such questions. The Brooklyn Museum itself sparked great controversy a few years ago when it mounted Sensation, an exhibition intended to inspire shock, discomfort, and in some cases revulsion among its (record-breaking number of) visitors. New York's Guggenheim took flack in 1998 for devoting a whole show to motorcycles, and the Jewish Museum of New York set tempers boiling this year when it showed artwork using famous Nazi images.

Yet with the Star Wars exhibition, the stakes seem to be different. Unlike the other installations, this isn't a show that inspires anger, political ill-will, or even much controversy over taste. Instead, it calls into question what an art-exhibition is supposed to do. Once the crowds arrive, what exactly does the Brooklyn Museum aim to show them?

According to the curators, the answer lies in the show's title. As the Brooklyn Museum's press release states, Star Wars: The Magic of Myth "examines the mythological roots of the now legendary film saga that explores themes of heroism and redemption and the triumph of good over evil through the creation of characters that exemplify chivalry, nobility, valor, and evil." And the exhibition does indeed explore how the themes of the "young hero, the faithful companions, the endangered maiden, the wise guide, and others" play out in Star Wars. (For the record, some have seriously questioned whether the "mythic" elements of Lucas's saga are really all they're cracked up to be.)

But if the curators were truly interested in attracting the "multigenerational viewers" their press materials tout, then one might expect something more serious from this high-profile show. To its credit, the museum has devoted an anteroom at the exhibition's entrance to the enduring universality of the hero myth, displaying works of art from other eras and cultures that feature this motif. But anyone who's ever read a book or watched a movie, from Homer's Odyssey to any of the Superman flicks, will already be familiar with this "universal hero theme." Visitors over the age of twelve will glean little from the placards explaining "The Call to Adventure," "The Journey From Child to Adulthood," or how the episode of Han Solo's carbon freeze on the planet Bespin shows a hero willing to make a sacrifice.

This is not to say the exhibition's conceivers got it entirely wrong. The Star Wars movies have been a defining force in our popular culture, and their efforts to understand why that's the case are worthwhile. Moreover, the films were certainly filled with artistry -- artistry that informed and affected our entire subsequent visual vocabulary.

So why not look at that aspect of the film? After all, this is an art museum. Why not explore more thoroughly the models and visual effects used in the film? Lucas's special effects broke countless barriers in the filmmaking world, requiring entire cadres of artists and engineers to conceive and develop his ideas. The Brooklyn Museum shows us models of the Millennium Falcon, the Imperial Walkers, the Rebel B-Wing Fighter, among others, but tells us little about how they were brought to life. Walking past the exhibition's glass-encased outfits, one might glean an Art Deco influence on the famous C3PO robot, or find similarities between Darth Vader's helmet and medieval Japanese warrior armor. These aspects get a passing reference in the optional audio tour, yet there's no visual to accompany it. If you've never seen Japanese armor, then the comparison means nothing.

Other museums around the country have developed auxiliary exhibitions intended to integrate their own traditional collections with the Star Wars show. For instance, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston offered a self-guided tour entitled "The Journey Continues," exploring paintings and sculptures within its own collection that echoed the themes of The Magic of Myth. Similarly, the Brooklyn Museum's classical artifact anteroom is a step in the right direction. But it's not enough. When, after wandering through the two-floored exhibition, I was dumped into a museum shop brimming with Star Wars paraphernalia -- life-sized character cut-outs, Ewok Pez dispensers, cookbooks with recipes for "Wookie Cookies" and "Darth Malts" -- I found it hard to remember learning anything (other than behind-the-scenes trivia) from the show at all.

Star Wars: The Magic of Myth will certainly take you on a hero's journey. Just be prepared for it to end in a gift shop.

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