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A Day at The Met

"What, then, are our galleries if not prisms that shift our gaze and reverence toward the act of making?"

––Jhaelen Hernandez-Eli, "Building Tomorrow's Met," December 6, 2022,

Every time I step into a museum, I hope to be saved. By saved, I mean this mostly in the Catholic sense, as if before I arrived, I was living in sin and hope to be forgiven by God's grace. When I say God, I don't mean in the Catholic sense, since I've long renounced my association with the Catholic church, but purely in an aesthetic sense, some higher energy that exists in art that has the power of transcendence and freedom from sin, an aesthetic sin, as in not living life in adherence of some moral law centered around not divine law, but artistic law; that one is not fulfilling their duties to high art itself. In a way, a lot of my time outside of a museum is living in aesthetic sin; I spend a lot of time on my phone, on social media, I watch sports and mindless 30-minute comedies on Netflix, all of which, while fine most of the time, often feel spiritually empty, especially in comparison to reading and writing (this is just for me, personally). When I start to feel the itch to go to a museum, it's probably because I've been consumed by distraction, by work and anxiety about money, by material want and laziness, by petty urges and temptation, when my dedication to the act of writing fiction lacks a certain devotion. This is what I bring to a museum, and what I hope to leave with is a certain peace and a hope to create again.

When I think back to my hours spent in a church as a kid, I realize that was my first experience with that aesthetic power. My parents weren't museum people, so the church was probably my first exposure to stepping into an artistic space. During the sermons, I was often distracted and couldn't pay attention to the words the priest read from the bible. Instead, my eyes followed the images in the stained glass windows, the life-like statues, the thick velvet curtains and gilded candles, the marble altar, and most of all, the massive recreation of Jesus on the cross. I remember staring at it and struggling to understand who he was in the context of history (I was too young), but seeing something in him, maybe in the pain of his face, that spoke to me and my angst. This experience might explain my seriousness when entering a museum. The power of art lies in the recognition between subject and viewer. The subject offers something to the viewer that the viewer is calling to the subject for. For me, whose first experience with great art was the awe-inspiring Baroque imagery of Catholicism, so it's transcendence, while for others, it could simply be wanting to see something beautiful, to witness greatness, to feel connected to human history, to get out of the hot May sun and get their steps in, to go on a date, to satirize art itself and make jokes about all the paintings of naked women and chubby babies, to film content, to draw, to people watch. What makes art great, is that all of these reasons are equally as valid.

On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, I decided to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It would be my first trip to a museum by myself, and I was curious if being alone would change that feeling of recognition I seek in art, that if the subjects would offer something more, like a secret they've been waiting to share with only me. I also wondered how I would be as a singular viewer, without the presence of someone else and the anxiety of wondering if they were engaging with the art as I was, or if they were bored, or if they truly loved me. You know, normal things. I was also scared that I would have some sort of mental break, and the paintings would talk to me...but this was just a joke I made to a few people, to shrug off my discomfort for going to a museum alone during a holiday weekend. Mostly, I was hoping for some inspiration for the book I'm working on.

Since this trip wasn't about beauty, aesthetics, or bliss, I shirked past the tourists flocking to Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh. Instead, I found myself in the far corner of the European Paintings gallery, as far back into the past I could go, gazing deeply into the eyes of portraits of people who were mostly unknown and unnamed, portraits titled things like, "Woman sits in shadow." This first gallery room I stopped in was called "The Powers of Portrait." I looked around the room and saw one other person, an older Asian man, who coughed to himself and quickly fled to the next room before looking at a single painting. I inserted my Airpods into my ears and looked for something ideal to listen to in a museum. My first assumption was classical, but within 30 seconds, it felt too intense, too cinematic, which removed me from the gallery space and instead put me in the middle of this film-like drama of art and classical music clashing together. It felt cliche, silly, and over-the-top. Instead, I opted for a Spotify playlist titled "Art Museum" and felt embarrassed and slightly shameful about this, but the music, soft jazz, felt just right for the space, and before I knew it, I was comfortable with being alone with the art.

Of the space, I first noticed the lighting. It was bright, yellowy, and gave one the impression of being outside, as if the paintings were hung beneath a canopy of trees filtering the perfect amount of light. I looked up at the ceiling, expecting to find windows, but instead could see bulbs through khaki film tinted panels. It was then I realized I was in a curated space, that that effect was engineered and, of course, the point. I had forgotten that museums are art installations themselves; much as the church is thoughtfully designed to nudge one toward feeling awe and bliss, the museum is curated to do much of the same. Instead of this accidental peaking behind the curtain ruining my experience, I actually appreciated it more, and began to not only continue to admire the portraits, but the color of the paint on the walls, the lighting, the flooring.

There was something comforting about being in a room alone with portraits, as if the room wasn't empty at all. I found myself walking up to each new portrait the way I would approach a stranger. Tentative, curious, subconsciously figuring out what I found attractive, engaging, unattractive, or off-putting about each one. Eventually, I realized that the affect the portraits had on me wasn't one of peering into the lives of other people. In looking at a portrait, something in me asked, "Who were you?" And something in them said, "You." There was this recognition across time, space and medium.

In "A Maid Asleep" by Johannes Vermeer, I felt the weight of her respite, and thought back to just the day before, when I had, overcome by exhaustion, stress, overstimulation, and low-level anxiety, plopped down at my own kitchen table near the corner windows, light coming through in sparse angles from the overcast sky, looking out over the busy Montclair street, in what felt like one big sigh. The description of the painting says, "The misbehavior of unsupervised maidservants was a common subject for seventeenth-century Dutch painters." And later adds, "Vermeer transfigured an ordinary scene into an investigation of light, color, and texture that supersedes any moralizing lesson... Vermeer chose to remove a male figure he had originally included standing in the door­way, heightening the painting’s ambiguity." In casting the maid alone, without the presence of the male figure, we finally get a glimpse of how the maid is in a moment to herself. And in casting myself as the maid, what I felt wasn't ambiguity at all; I felt her frustration, confusion, calm exhaustion, and sympathized with her respite away from work to think, to dream.

If Baroque images of Christ on the cross had shaped my viewing of art as a kid, it has developed into an almost uncomfortable distaste for it. Thinking back to my first trip to Paris and Germany last fall, after visits to the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, I returned to New Jersey thinking I'd seen enough depictions of Jesus to forego ever having to step foot in a church for the rest of my life. I'm going to spare you any psychoanalysis on why, years after struggling with Catholicism, I'd develop an aversion to its art, and instead stick to the feeling of no longer being aw inspired by it, but rather bored of it. This stuff was swirling somewhere in the back of my head as I made my way through the Italians, through the wing titled "Flesh and the Spirit in the Age of Rubens," and the Spanish, quickly shuffling along, not really stopping to take in any single piece. That was until I got to Salvador Dali's "Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus)" which stopped me in my tracks.

Dali's depiction of Christ on the cross, first off, is massive; the photo above, taken on my phone from an angle to capture it, doesn't do its presence justice. Juxtaposed against the purple walls, it just pops, as if the entire room was painted to coordinate with it, to give it this effect. Once again, I was hit over the head by the power of curation, and stunned. The description to the left of the painting reads: "Dalí utilized his theory of "nuclear mysticism," a fusion of Catholicism, mathematics, and science, to create this unusual interpretation of Christ’s crucifixion. Levitating before a hypercube—a geometric, multidimensional form—Christ’s body is healthy, athletic, and bears no signs of torture; the crown of thorns and nails are missing. The artist’s wife, Gala, poses as a devotional figure, witnessing Christ’s spiritual triumph over corporeal harm. Several dreamlike elements from Dali’s earlier Surrealist work feature in this painting: a levitating figure, vast barren landscape, and chessboard." Standing before this painting, I started to understand Dali's dreamlike interpretation and began to recognize myself in Gala, in the way she is standing before Christ, "witnessing [his] spiritual triumph over corporeal harm." That part stuck with me for some reason, and I began to wonder if maybe in my own dream space, exists a Christ unharmed by my own confliction with the Catholic church (the scene is a chessboard, after all), that maybe this was what Dali was suggesting: this figure follows me through my life, regardless. I left that room feeling something closer to spiritual than I had felt in a long time.

Before my trip to The Met, I had read a piece in The New York Review of Books about some renovations and updates that were completed there, especially in the European Paintings wing. One renovation was, as I called out earlier, the lighting. Another was curation, with a focus on juxtaposition. Pieces were hung deliberately to not just speak to the viewer, but to speak to each other. To comment on or make a comment regarding the theme of the room itself. Recall my experience with Dali's Christ; it was hung in a room with other religious depictions, more classically Baroque, and therefore rather a little bland. Which led to Dali's Christ to pop even more. It was a delight to walk through the halls and not only take in the artwork, but look for these meta Easter eggs of curation.

One such curation that stood out to me was Adrian Piper’s "Everything #4" which was hung in the "Still Life" gallery. Among the paintings of flowers, fruits, and other objects like skulls, shells, and silverware you get, tucked in the far corner of the room, simply this mirror:

When I first tried to approach the mirror, a man was trying to hold up his phone to take a selfie in it. I looped back around, looking at some more paintings of flowers, before I grew impatient with him. "How long does it take to take a fucking selfie? Do it quickly in shame like everybody else!" I thought. He was there for a few minutes, repositioning his messenger bag, fixing his hair, adjusting his glasses, trying different heights and angles with his phone. By the time I got back near the mirror, I think he felt my frustration because he scurried away, looking back as if he still didn't get the perfect shot. My anger, which now that I think about it, probably had to do with my impulse, upon first seeing the mirror, to also, ugh, take a selfie in it and post to it to Instagram, because why not? But after watching him, I was confronted with my own shallowness, and loathed him (me) for it. I opted for the shot above instead, hoping to get a good angle to see some of the other paintings in its reflection. For the record, I took a quick snap in shame, and wasn't sure how it came out until later.

Etched into the center it says "Everything Will Be Taken Away." According to The Met, this piece, which is one of five around the entire museum, "invites viewers to contemplate its otherworldly statement and their reflection in a variety of contexts." I meditated for a moment in the room after reading the message on the mirror. In the reflection of its morbidity, how silly I now felt over the man and the selfie, over my own petty impulses. The mirror was right, everything will be taken away. And then the curation began to sink in. Everything in that room, the flowers, fruits, and objects, will be taken away. By whom? Thieves, governments, time, disaster, death, and decay. Obviously. But how did this revelation change anything? I wish I could say it made me appreciate the beauty of the paintings, but that would be a cliche; I already appreciated their beauty before seeing the mirror. Instead, it just asked me to pause and consider the fact of the temporality of all things. Of flowers, fruits, objects, of men who take selfies, of art and the museum itself, and of me and life itself. It was only a moment, in a reflection of a mirror. I did, however, shortly after that, see the man who selfied again, this time showing his phone to a woman, who was smiling. I didn't feel anger or disgust or shame, but almost a silly fondness. How ridiculous I felt! If nothing lasts, then why not take a selfie in front of an art installation to later show your partner? I will say, maybe just do it with some quickness and mindfulness, as there are other people waiting to make fools of themselves, too, and time is running out.

Of what more I can say about my solo trip to The Met, I'm not sure. I didn't have any epiphanies about my novel in progress. I didn't make any secret discoveries or meet someone famous. Luckily, none of the paintings came alive or spoke to me out loud. I did, however, leave feeling the way I used to feel as kid when walking out of a good movie; I felt the inklings of hope, inspiration, and connectedness one feels when witnessing human creativity. The sun outside was bright and hot, and I was alone, and I was continuing on like a ploughshare in a new field.

"The Veteran in a New Field" - Winslow Homer


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