Last Monday I had a few hours to kill before the premiere of Singing silver, so I headed up to MoMA.
In recent years, I have stopped Doing Museums and focused on Doing Art instead. In order to Do Art, I approach museums as if they were concerts: I pick about a half dozen works to spend a total of two hours enjoying. Each piece gets my undivided attention for anywhere from six to sixty minutes.
Undivided is an exaggeration, of course, because the mind is a lively thing. But I do focus intently on the work at hand, waiting until I have a nuanced understanding of its composition before I look at the placard telling me who made it, what it is called and how much it cost. This sidebar information is interesting, but all of it is peripheral, meaning none of it is a substitute for the actual artistic experience. And yet, how easy it is to race through a museum, spending more time reading the signs next to the paintings than reading the paintings themselves.
So now I look the way I listen to music — noting correspondences, variations, intensities, conflicts, etc., as they arise over time. I don’t have much of a vocabulary for the visual arts: my responses are largely pre- and post-verbal. (On the other hand, I have an excellent vocabulary for music, but I can’t say it’s always of much use to me as a listener.)
At MoMA, there were six works, in six different rooms, that got my full attention. Each one showed an intelligence I’m not accustomed to acknowledging in inanimate objects. Over the course of our encounters, each one revealed a multiplicity of perspectives, a greater density of thought than I could have gathered in a shorter time. And when I left, after two hours, I had more to occupy my mind than I could ever find in the most conscientious catalogue.
As I noted above, I stopped Doing Museums a few years ago – actually about ten years ago, when I read Jeanette Winterson’s essay “Art Objects.” I would love to quote the entire essay, because it is full of felicitous observations, but it’s about 20 pages long, so here is just one sample:
“Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar. No-one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language. Only a boor would ignore both and blame his defaulting on the place. Every day this happens to the artist and the art.”
To which I can only add that it’s amazing what you can learn when you assume a work of art is smarter than you are.