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Monday, November 10, 2014

The Museum: Are You Doing It Wrong?



A concert took me to the Cleveland Museum of Art last Sunday. Work-related. An 11-year-old piano prodigy would be performing Haydn and Chopin and Rachmaninoff with skill that was several hundred times what I was able to master in like 11 years of piano lessons way back when.

But never mind. This is not about the freakish miracle of the prodigy. We will leave that for another time (though if it doesn't make you wonder about God, I don't just don't know about you).

Before the concert, I went to the museum early so I could draw a bit. I went immediately to the Buddhism space on the second floor -- drawn, I think, by the prospect of all those big statues and faces. There are wonderful watercolor book illustrations, too, but this (see above) is what I wanted.

There happened to be a bench where I could rest myself and cross my legs and splay my book and uncap my pen. And then I contemplated the head of the Boddhisattva for a while, as well as the woman who took her time really appreciating all the stuff in the case.


Most of us grow up learning that a museum is like a magazine -- something to flip through, to scan to completion. But if you have something like the Cleveland Museum of Art nearby, or even just a modest little place with a few interesting objects, the best thing you can do for yourself is visit often and spend a little time with just a Thing or Two. Get to know it. (Draw it if you like, or not -- if the guards don't yell at you to stop.)

In art school, they teach that the first layer of getting to know a piece of art is just to describe it to yourself as literally as possible. The terracotta godhead is massive, with flat, slanted eyes and a head dress that maybe looks like something a wealthy person might've worn, or maybe not. The left ear is broken off. The nose has crumbled away. The expression is serene. Et cetera.

If that's all you were to do, just contemplate what you see, you would bridge the gap between the person or persons who made the work way long ago and yourself, standing there with this object in 2014. It's not the magazine-flippage experience of the museum. For that, we have magazines.

For the sublime, we have this work of art.

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