Last week, we went to a museum without any kids, and so the last bit of museum pressure was off. I was absolutely free to look at whatever I wanted, for as long as I wanted, in whatever order I wanted. We even took a break for coffee and scones, because museums are exhausting. And if I wanted to read the card before looking at the painting, I did.
A crazy amount of intellectual guilt needed shucking off, to arrive at that decision. I have always been told to look first, look long, and only then to read about what I have seen. Encounter it plainly and openly on its own terms before you let your experience of it get shaped and tutored by whatever few sentences some curator thinks are vital.
But when do we encounter things completely openly, for real? Never. It’s as if we live on one planet, and a work of art lives on another, and maybe the atmosphere there will suit us, and maybe it won’t, but we do need to bring some oxygen with us for the trip. Because we are human. We bring what we have, who we are, with us when we encounter a work of art, because we can’t breathe without it. We bring our prejudices and our contemporaneous contexts, but also just the information we have gathered in the course of a lifetime, information about what it means to be alive. This happens whether or not we read the museum card. There is no such thing as coming intellectually innocent to a work of art. That’s just not how human beings operate. If a body (me) meets a body (art) coming through the rye, my petticoat is gonna draggled. It just will. It’s not a big deal.
I already knew this, but it became so obvious to me when so many people came to see the Catholic works of art, which I understood, and they did not, because they had no context, no frame of reference to behold them with. For instance, I saw more than one madonna and child that was clearly painted as a rejection of Manichaeism. It’s an ode to the inherent goodness of human flesh; but without context, it just looks like the painter had no idea what a baby’s body actually look like. Silly old painter!
People of faith would like to believe there is something so innately human and universal about what is depicted in sacred art that it will speak to people directly whether they know anything about the faith or not. And some of this is surely true, sometimes. Think of Flannery O’Connor’s snarly Parker who gets women pregnant even though he doesn’t like them that way, who meets the “Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes” and is knocked right out of his shoes. It happens. I’ve been struck spiritually by works of art depicting faiths I know nothing about. Power is power.
But it is also true that when museum-goers had the option to push a button and hear some snippets of eastern chant to go along with the altar frieze on display, almost every one of them laughed. A tenor called out “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One!” into the echoing gallery, and they giggled. I don’t know why. It just startled them, probably, or maybe it sounded spooky, or maybe they were not used to hearing a man sing in that register. But despite the best efforts of the museum, this fragment of beauty did not translate well to many, at least not instantly. It did not enhance their wonder; it just confused them.
And of course the same failure of translation happened to me in other galleries. We beheld the art of the Marshall islands, and I had no idea what I was looking at. Even with the cards to help me see what I was seeing in those hollow eyes, rounded mouths, jagged teeth, elongated limbs, the best I could do was to remind myself that what I was seeing was very different from what the people for whom it was made would have seen. I offered a humble shrug, that was as far as I got.
Not all the examples of “I am here, they are there” were that jarring. There was a very odd 1618 Flemish painting depicting the artist as Icarus with his father
, and his expression was peculiar, almost a smirk, and the postures were enigmatic. I did giggle, because I had no idea what I was looking at, and I checked the card, and it said it was not known what the artist intended. Even the experts thought he didn’t quite pull it off. Too dated! Not my fault!
And sometimes it was very obvious that I was misreading what I saw, but I couldn’t help it. I read the card that said the hands of this Asian deity were in gesture called “the fist of wisdom,” and I raised my eyes to behold it, and oop, it sure looked like the thing that Howie did in second grade at the lunch room, and everyone laughed and the teacher got mad. The card told me what to see, and it didn’t help at all, because part of me is still in second grade. A planet too far.
I saw a painting that looked like it had been commissioned in 1957 for a John Coltrane album cover, but when I checked the card, I almost fell over to read: “John Singer Sargent, 1879-1880.”
Sargent was incredibly sophisticated, and clearly anticipated a lot of what was to come; but he also stood out in his own time, painting in a style of his own, ruffling feathers. I suppose this is one of the marks of genius, to be able to see the style of your own era for what it is, with its strengths and its limits, and not to be confined by it.
But we tend to feel that an artist is especially good if they break out of the mold of their era, and this is an odd thing to do, if impossible to avoid. It pits one style against another, and makes us consider everything in terms of being a response to something else, rather than existing on its own terms. This informed approach to art enriches our understanding of what we’re seeing, but at the same time, it narrows our ability to perceive it openly. Would it be better to look at a painting without knowing anything at all about art history? Just to look? Better? I don’t know!
I do know that the galleries with contemporary art were filled with pieces that absolutely required you to know something — not only to read the card, but to be trained in how to see what you were seeing so that it looks like anything at all. And the kicker is, I am the audience this was designed for. I live in this world. And yet I still needed help to see what I was seeing. My husband said that many artists are now making art for a culture that exists only in the art world, and not for the public in general. The art world is the context. Once, visiting a different museum with a bunch of squirrelly kids, I was at the end of my energy. Wondering if I should make the effort to climb yet another flight of stairs to get to the 20th century wing, I peered through and said to the guard at the entrance, “It’s hard not to feel like something went wrong,” and he said, “I know.”
Of course, maybe he was wrong, too.
What a puzzle it is, trying to sort out the things that are actually timeless and the things that simply happen to speak to us in our time. People have never stopped adoring Rembrandt, as far as I know. Gauguin, I myself have made the forty-year trip from mistrusting him and feeling bad about it, to adoring him, to thinking, “If I found this painting on fire, I would look for water, but I wouldn’t run.” Cy Twombly, I didn’t even go to that floor.
Which is not to say that we are doomed to distort what we see. Only that we can feel at home in not knowing everything there is to know. If you can take your ego out of it, and subtract the pressure to be the smartest person who understands things very well indeed, it’s actually comforting to recall how at home we actually are in the time and world we live in. So many of us feel so alienated and displaced and out of communion with our own culture. I look at TikTok or a video game or the previews for upcoming movies, and I think, “What planet does everyone else live on?”
But we are more at home than we realize, more a creation and a creator of our own culture then we may know. It’s just that we may not know it until we step away from it, find some distance, and see what it would be like to be truly on the outside. And that is what happened to me.
But I thought of “Having Misidentified a Wildflower” by Richard Wilbur. It’s such a short poem, I suppose I can get away with quoting the whole thing:
A thrush, because I’d been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not vague, not lonely,
Not governed by me only.
People sit down with their brush or their sculpting tools or their beads and loom, and I suppose sometimes they are trying to make something immortal, something that will speak to the human heart in every age. But the living artists I have met are not like that. Their aims are so much more humble, in general. Many of them are simply trying to capture something because they know it’s fleeting, and they have no illusions that what they create will somehow be more permanent. (Well, we’ll talk about the Egyptians some other time.) Making art is a way of naming the unnameable, of finding a familiar spot in a vastly uncatalogueable universe of experiences.The very fact that we keep doing this is familiar enough for me, and I smiled and smiled my whole way through the museum.
I suppose I’m just happy, happy to be a member of a tribe that sees the world is fleeting and decides, I know what to do! And makes something.