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Prologue: I know it when I read it.

You 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 45 minutes.

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.

Ben Birnbaum

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