Unexpected encounters with art help contextualize culture

Tucked between rowdy bars and located a few steps from Brussels’ Grand Place is a tiny, wood-walled pub. The place is easy to miss — there is no sign, and the windows are dark.

Inside, jazz played softly, and a white-haired man in thick-rimmed glasses plodded back and forth between groups seated around the room. He delivered them pints of Belgian beers and shots of Jenever and let out deep bellows of laughter as he moved.

As I approached the bar to order, I noticed lacy G-strings, tighty-whities, striped boxer shorts and other pieces of underpants hung along the walls, each one framed and signed. “This is a museum,” the white-haired man said, noticing my perplexed look. Musee du Slip, or Underwear Museum, was its name.

A woman at the bar asked whether I had ever heard of “The Sexual Life of the Belgians.” I hadn’t. She proceeded to tell me that this man I had just met was Jan Bucquoy, artist, filmmaker and provocateur — “I am the king’s No. 1 enemy,” he later told me. Others pitched in, offering stories about Jan and his accomplishments.

The longer I stayed, the more people I met — almost everyone at the bar knew Jan personally. Many were artists or musicians stopping by for a beer and a chat with Jan. I felt like Owen Wilson in “Midnight in Paris”; the bar was my 1920s Peugeot transporting me into Brussels’ underground. Underwear hung on a wall helped introduce me to Jan and his friends, but most importantly, it opened up a part of Brussels that would have otherwise been inaccessible. It was through art that I was able to experience and understand the city.

Brussels was the fifth city on my trip — a UC Berkeley Summer Abroad course through the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) called “History, Art and Identity in the Heart of Europe.” A few days before visiting Musee du Slip, I was at the famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, this time for class. The museum holds some of the most precious pieces from the Dutch Golden Age. Sumptuous still lifes, portraits and landscapes line the grand halls of the stately museum.

The art wasn’t as provocative as underwear hung on the walls, but as I wove among the tourists, I pushed myself to look closely at each piece and think about the people behind them — the artist, his contemporaries, his patrons and, especially, the people of the society in which he lived. They threw lush soirees with oysters and exotic fruits served on silver platters. They value a conservative lifestyle and warn against rampant debauchery. They have immense pride in their lowland landscape.

Art reflects its producers’ and consumers’ norms and values. Any art historian will tell you this, but to me, the connection between people and art goes far deeper. Art allows us to understand a culture beyond its facade. It lets us dig deep into the past, to trace its evolution to the present and into the future. What values and interests depicted in 17th-century art persist today? How does the art itself aid in sustaining those values and interests? And how can we, as outsiders, access these cultures through the art?

As one of the rawest forms of communication and expression, art allows people to traverse language and cultural boundaries. Art — whether in a museum or on the street — connected me with each city I visited.

Art revealed itself in unexpected contexts. In a small, run-down town Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, we visited Grand-Hornu, an industrial-mining-complex-turned-contemporary-art-museum. The progressive exhibitions included experimental work by a sculptor, an architect and a graphic designer, Stefan Sagmeister, who has given several TED talks. The vitality of the art, housed inside the historical wreckage, expressed contrast between the town’s plainness and innovative spirit.

In Luxembourg, which boasts one of the highest GDP per capitas in the world and a cushy  lifestyle to match, I visited an exhibit called “Altars of Madness,” a collection of cold and distressing artwork inspired by grindcore and death-metal music. Although glitzy designer shops dot every corner of the city, the exhibit suggested the existence of a darker underbelly.

In Rotterdam, one of the world’s largest trade ports, a hub for East-West exchange, we saw an exhibit on anime. The medieval city of Ghent has an alleyway sprayed with layers of bright graffiti that we visited. Allowed by the government, it is among the city’s most celebrated sites.

Whether fulfilling part of the syllabus or not, I spent nearly every day at a museum, visiting a gallery or experiencing art on the street with Vermeer, Sagmeister and Bucquoy as my tour guides. They helped me navigate through the nuances of each place. They allowed me to synthesize my own experience into visual memories, and, collectively, they record these places for future visitors.