Friday, December 4, 2015

Stuff Heard in Museums

Sargent's Portrait of Graham Robertson

During our recent (too long!) sojourn, we had the opportunity to visit many museums and see multiple shows.  Certainly the finest show of 2015 was the overview of John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and now traveling around the country.  (Look for this show … it is among the most beautiful things you will ever see.)

Aside from Sargent’s mastery, however, my multiple visits garnered some of the most amusing comments I’ve heard in my nearly 40 years of museum going.  Here’s a sampling:

Upon looking at Sargent’s masterful portrait of Graham Robertson (covered elsewhere in these pages), one Upper East Side lady-who-lunches said to her companion, “Let’s go see some art that is not as pretentious.”  (I hasten to remind you that it is she and others like her that keeps the museum industry alive.  Dark days, indeed.)

Standing before Sargent’s dramatic picture of the great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, one teenager bent to read the explanatory card and explained (in a voice that carried all the way to the lunch counter downstairs), “F—k, this sh-t is old!”  This is, perhaps, the most incisive example of art criticism coming from young people today.

Again, two middle-aged ladies standing in front of the magnificent portrait of Dr. Samuel Pozzi (perhaps the most striking piece in the show), exclaimed, “he was a gynecologist!  How crazy was that!”

Not that it was easy to see many of these masterpieces – one had to brush aside a forest of selfi-sticks, or stand aside from people having their pictures taken beside the paintings.  Indeed, we don’t seem to look a pictures any more, we merely record that we were in their presence.  A dear friend and knowing art critic once said that cameras should be banned from museums, but that each and every visitor should have access to paper and pencil so they could sketch their own impressions.  Since the greatest threat to art in museums today is not theft, but defacement from visitors, perhaps this is not such a good idea…

In another visit to the Met, I took a break from the Sargent exhibition and strolled through the medieval collection, where a couple nearby examined each and every piece of armor and wondered what the dollar value of the silver would be.  That same day, in the Chinese wing, I overheard someone say, “Those people sure were smart.”

If all of this sounds elitist or condescending, it is certainly not meant in that light and not my intention at all.  At heart, it is a call for more passionate, more engaged, more aware museum-going.  A museum is not a destination to be seen, but a place in which to see.  In the right museum, you are witnessing the triumph of the human spirit over barbarism, the evolution of artistic technique both intellectual and spiritual, and connecting with something more primal an elemental than ourselves.  Museums are sacred places … shouldn’t we behave differently inside of them?

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