Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Now If Only I Had the Chutzpah to Try to Live There for a Week

Yesterday morning I didn't have much to do, and I'd gotten up delightfully early, and I was reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, so what else could I do but go to the Met?

It was a beautiful day outside - probably in the high forties; I didn't even need my coat. (Instead I wore a sweater and the lovely pink scarf that Meredith sent me!) I took the 7 to the N (no 7 Manhattan service on weekends recently, bleh) to the 5 and then walked a delightful few blocks to the grand front steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I am not sure I had ever actually been before!

Anyway, admission for students (I for sure still use my student ID regularly) is "$10 or whatever you wish to pay," according to the people at the admission desk, so I handed over $5, got my little bendy bright yellow metal admission clip, and entered the vast halls.

I hurried through the Greeks and Romans - I am so over classical statuary and urns - to the African wing, which was mostly 19th-20th Century art from western Africa, plus an Ethiopian exhibit. My favorite piece was from the Wee people around the Burkina Faso area (I think I remember that correctly! I hope I do. I read all the labels, which provide relatively thorough context, but it was a lot of very varied information to absorb at once): It was a mask - I don't know what kind of creature or person it was supposed to look like, or if it was supposed to look like something specific at all - but to me it looked like a fierce, crabby, but mischievous and very friendly little dragon, and it just made me feel so nice inside.

Next I found myself in Meso- and South America. Most of the pieces here were older - 4th-7th Centuries, in general. My favorites were from Peru, because there was so much gold! There is something surprisingly beautiful about gold. It catches my eye with its glint, and then it holds my attention with its subtlety. Or maybe with its craftsmanship?* Anyway, the beaten gold jewelry is just astonishing.

Further along: Instruments of Oceania! Gongs made from big hollowed logs; decorated jaw harps; ocarinas (I love ocarinas especially); one-stringed instruments that use not only your fingers but your mouth; a few but not very m any other stringed instruments; drums; flutes of all sizes; and a really great instrument, I forget what it's called, with a big frond as its curved back/sound space and a cylindrical situation in the middle with many metal strings vertically all round and adjustable tuning levers. I loved this exhibit! Although the number of instruments - and the number of tools and ceremonies designed to access the sacred - reserved for men remind me that I am not a moral relativist, and that the repression/limitation/oppression of women is cross-cultural. (Not, of course, that I am such a big fan of the sacred, but that's maybe a whole other discussion....)

Next: My favorite: Modern art by Australian Aboriginal painters. Not only were the paintings beautiful, exciting, striking, and moving (most Western Modern abstract art I find to be beautiful or exciting or striking, but I find it moving less often, perhaps because of its deliberate lack of meaning, or anyway its lack of intentional meaning. All of the Aboriginal paintings displayed, though abstract, were nevertheless paintings of something, which I find makes them more meaningful, even when I am finding a meaning different from the intended meaning. The precision of the artist's intent translates in some form to a more concrete accessibility for me, if that makes sense. Of course, I know that I am generalizing appallingly about Western Modern abstract art, and I know that I don't know enough about Aboriginal art to know whether I am doing the same with it. That was a hilarious sentence.), but I really appreciated the reminder/acknowledgement that non-Western** cultures are still making art and have been this whole time. I think very often we think of non-Western art as being ancient, where Western art has a spectrum from ancient to current. Many white Westerners forget - or are never taught that or never realize that - people of all cultures have always been making art, often many different kinds of art, certainly with equivalent variety and prolificness*** as Westerners, in some form or another, and continue to do so today. Even in my Drama 120 class in school a couple years ago, which was basically about everything-art-and-resistance-and-culture-and-counterculture-in-all-places-in-the-world-from-prehistory-until-now (talk about a survey course, eh?) didn't really talk about current multi-cultural, multi-ethnic art, except in discussions about inspiration and appropriation, which are all well and good discussions but which are not sufficient.

Anyway, moving on: A survey of (Western) (mostly furniture-oriented) Modern (from the whole 20th Century) art. While I appreciate the ethics/goals/innovations of Modernity, and I appreciate simplicity and form, and I loved some of the pieces in there, there were some I wasn't exactly convinced were art. Like, for example, the metal and plastic chairs that looked like they came from IKEA. Or the perfectly average looking metal tea set. Of course, it is hard for me to understand their context, given that this is more than half a century later, but I can't shake the feeling that "art that makes high quality design accessible to people without a lot of money" is sort of just another way of saying "simple, mass-produce-able, and made with cheap materials." Or are those statements not mutually exclusive? I certainly don't believe that art has to be expensive. I don't believe that beautiful things have to be expensive. I don't believe that art has to be beautiful. I don't believe that art can't be functional. I might not even believe that function in itself isn't art. But I am still not convinced that a boring plastic and metal cheap-and-Swedish-style chair belongs in the museum.

Then again, I have definitely not been able to define "art" satisfactorily for myself, ever, so this is all on instinct.

After the Modern art, I left; I think three hours is the perfect amount of time for an art museum. Long enough to either study one or two exhibits in depth, or get a very satisfactory, thorough survey of three to five exhibits (which is what I did!); short enough that my brain and my feet don't wear out. I walked down Fifth Ave., along Central Park, which is still blanketed with snow, met Alex at his work as he was getting out, went home, discovered that the Olympics are now (!) (how did I miss this fact??) (The Olympics are my biannual highlight!), and proceeded to watch television for most of the rest of the day! Although I did take a brief sojourn with Alex to Petey's Burgers, which, we discovered, run about $6, meaning that they are cheaper than your average $10 New York burger but significantly more delicious than fast food (given that In 'n' Out tragically does not exist east of Utah). Also, I went to bed at 11, before the pairs figure skating was finished, which was very sad, but oh well.

In conclusion: I love museums! Especially the Met! Also, I love the Olympics.

*Is there a gender-neutral word for "craftsmanship"?

**Is there a non-Western-centric way to talk about non-Western cultures, when you are talking in a general way? Like, an equivalent when talking about cultures/societies of saying "people of color" as opposed to "non-whites" when talking about people?

***Prolificity? Proliferation? Not proliferation, that's something different. What, then?


  1. Me too. Love museums and the Olympics that is

  2. Roget says prolificacy. It also says "teeming womb or loins."