are an artist, are you not, Mr. Dedalus? said the dean, glancing
up and blinking his pale eyes. The object of the artist is the creation
of the beautiful. What the beautiful is is another question.
"A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man"
The way art museums work on me is this: The legs go first. Then
the shoulders. The mouth opens and parches. The mind slips into
neutral and begins to entertain such questions as: Is it possible
to walk across this gallery without making the floor squeak? Am
I above the average age of the people in this room? Average weight?
If I'm with a companion and need to hold up my end for propriety's
sake, I may stumble on for an hour. Otherwise, I'm done for in about
When I was a young man, this inability to persevere in the face
of graven images perturbed and even shamed me. And so with the resolute
stupidity of youth I turned deliberately against my natural gifts.
I took courses in art appreciation, where the daily slide shows
hit me like a spike of intravenous Valium. The auditorium lights
went out, and so did I. The lights came on, and I rose and wiped
my chin and stumbled toward the door. As for museums, I devoured
them as though I believed they could cure a man of barbarism. In
those years, which I spent in New York City for the most part, it
was routine for me to enter the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum
of Modern Art on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and not emerge until
dusk had fallen over Gotham, until I had made my dazed way through
every exhibit room open to the public, had read each word on every
note and placard along the climate-controlled way.
Over the course of several months during this period of my life,
I processed through all the art museums I could locate in five European
countries that, as it turned out, were awash in art museums. I was
able to do this because I had by now developed my museum stride,
a sturdy gait that propels me in and out of doorways, along corridors
and galleries and up and down church naves at the pace of a man
who has forgotten where he's parked his car but is confident he
will find it just around the next corner, thank you. Walking at
that industrious but not indelicate speed, glancing right, left,
and upward as required, swivelling past the crowd gathered to take
in the Mona Lisa (I catch a good-enough glimpse over their
heads), I can do a national treasury in a morning, a regional facility
in an hour, a significant cathedral in 20 minutes.
"The purpose of art is to establish a moral order among our
experiences," the 19th-century art critic and aesthete John
Ruskin wrote. I can't say there's much in Ruskin that calls out
to me (he happily spent his long life in art galleries and in final
analysis was a man who brought his mother to college with him),
but this sentence of his strikes me as true and brave. I also believe
(though Ruskin probably didn't) that art is a territory that covers
a lot of ground, a place in which the artist Pedro Martinez establishes
as firm a moral order as does the artist Leonardo.
But in the end, I have had to understand, there are some arts for
which I am not equipped, in the same way that I am not equipped
to be a French speaker. I don't have the childhood. Paintings just
don't order my experience, morally or otherwise. Words do, which
means that I feel more engaged while reading or talking or writing
about paintings than I feel while viewing them.
This is hardly to say that I've never taken nourishment from what
Hemingway liked to call "pictures." Even back when I was
in full museum stride, there were moments when I was brought to
a halt by the moral ordering that appeared before my wandering eyes:
a Hopper painting of a Victorian house in a sunlit trance beside
railroad tracks at the Whitney Museum; a collection of Blake's terrifying
Job drawings somewhere; a Magritte vision of men rising like balloons
on a large canvas in a large museum alongside the Thames in London;
the commotion of Guernica at MOMA; and in the Uffizi Gallery,
in Florence, Botticelli's Birth of Venus on a wall. That
one made me sit down. It was--how shall I put this?--like a poem.
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