The first time I visited an art museum was in a book. The book was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which has perhaps the niftiest conceit in all of children’s fiction: two suburban runaways hide out in the Met, sleeping on eighteenth-century French beds, stowing their belongings in a sarcophagus, filching coins from the fountain for food money. At one point the squatters, Claudia and Jamie, camouflage themselves into a group on a school field trip. As the docent drones on, they realize that a gap has opened between them and their fidgety peers. For every night they have stood raptly in the presence of a statue they believe to have been made by Michelangelo; toward it they feel a possessive reverence for which no dutiful lessons in art appreciation have prepared them. It’s a scarily good argument for criminal trespass.
I closed this book with a fierce envy not only of Claudia and Jamie, but of the more ordinary children who got to go on that field trip. At the backwater public library where I spent my teenage years, I checked out the twelve apostolic volumes of John Canaday’s Metropolitan Seminars in Art, with their sober dove-gray covers and accompanying envelope of color prints. Full of unfocused longings to be someone, somewhere else, in those days I devoured every new book that appeared on the “Literary Fiction” shelf—an incongruous diet of John Updike, Anne Tyler, John Cheever. The Canaday volumes helped me decipher some of the proper names I recognized as the secret code of worldly people: Gaugin, Campari, Nantucket.
You see where this plot is headed: small-town girl realizes her dream of going Back East to college and learns the bittersweet lesson that she is not alone—that in fact her kind is legion. I bought a Cézanne poster for my dorm room and took trains to all the fabled cities and their enormous, awe-inspiring museums. When I returned from my $10-a-day, Let’s Go-plotted European tour, I ringed my monkish bed with carefully collected postcards: the Bayeux Tapestry, Boccaccio, Goya, Modigliani, like so many assets deposited into the savings account of my cultural capital.
At the same time I was gradually coming to see how blind Canaday had been to his own Western bias, how patriarchal his disquisitions on the female nude. After college I became involved with a brooding, whip-smart Manhattanite who prodded me toward further insights about the commodification of art, and the need to resist the seductions of the merely pretty in favor of the genuinely critical. Instructively, his mother was an art consultant who shepherded rich-but-clueless collectors through the go-go market of the late 80s. She led us on weekend marches, not through the halls of the Met, or even MOMA or the Guggenheim, but through downtown galleries and the studios of conceptual artists. Once, this formidable woman bought me a black T-shirt with a Jenny Holzer Truism: Expiring for love is beautiful but stupid. (It was intended as an investment T, but I laundered and squandered it.) Holzer’s Truisms mixed insidious clichés (Repetition is the best way to learn) with liberal pieties (Raise boys and girls the same way); the viewer’s work was to sift out the genuine insights from the hack messages of corporatized mass culture. It seemed emblematic of my failure to shine in this heady intellectual environment that I could not parse this T-shirt: was it a gutsy feminist message or a warning against risk-taking? Why wasn’t the conjunction and instead of but? Regardless, it proved remarkably prescient for an article of clothing. The relationship expired in a blazing nuclear meltdown, and in its residue, long cooled, the beautiful and the stupid now lie forever fused together in my memory.
The fact is that I’m just not very good at assessing what’s going on around me; I feel more comfortable looking backward than trying to read the present. This has made my subsequent life as a museum-goer easier, for rather than feeling obliged to keep up with the latest important show, I’ve followed random attractions toward quieter buildings. I have been unpredictably moved by a room made of felted wool; by James Hampton’s garage-built aluminum-foil altars; by the sixth-century Buddhas from the caves of Xiangtangshan–one of which especially has the most perfect representation of compassion I’ve ever seen; and by the whimsical yet spiritual animal shapes of Moche ceramic water vessels.
This adds up to exactly zero expertise. But neither is it an embrace of that greatest cliché about viewing—I don’t know about art, but I know what I like. To which I always want to say: do you, really? If you embrace a pure emotionality that brushes off as irrelevant all knowledge, all context of time and space, what besides narcissistic interest in your own “liking” are you bringing to the artwork? Even in Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, the children are driven by their passion for the statue to go on library binges, finally finding resolution in the mixed-up files of the book’s title. When you love something, every bit of information about it is delightful. We have so few models for this kind of joy, of gathering our little incomplete fragments together to make some kind of sense. As I get older, as both my head and my actual file cabinets have begun to resemble Mrs. Frankweiler’s, it happens more and more that some random footnote will fire a connection to something heard or seen before. I’m not convinced this means I am any smarter than I was in my 20s—the insights might be no more than truisms—but I can say with confidence that I am happier.
Recently I found myself again in a big-city museum, before a famous canvas that is mostly filled with a depiction of this crowd—
–and it brought to mind another crowd, in a painting that I’d seen in a Spanish church a few months earlier:
In Thomas Eakins’s The Agnew Clinic, a surgeon directs a mastectomy before an auditorium of medical students: you can almost smell the ether, the funk of masculine self-congratulation.
El Greco’s The Burial of the Count of Orgaz depicts a group assembled at the funeral of their local lord, whose compassionate concern for the well-being of others was so great that two saints–Stephen on the left and Augustine on the right—have appeared to fetch him directly up to heaven. In both paintings, one figure points ostentatiously at the center of the drama: look, see this! Yet the spectators bend their heads in every direction, perhaps angling for a better view, perhaps unsure in which direction to look. The Burial, in particular, is so monumental, and so artfully positioned in its little shrine in Santo Tomé, that it would be hard to stand in its presence and feel no emotion whatsoever. Nonetheless, it was a historical footnote in the gift-shop booklet that made me truly come to love it.
Commissioned to paint a parish legend that had occurred two and a half centuries earlier, Doménikos The Greek brought in, as models for the onlookers, Toledo’s most important men–not to mention himself, looking straight ahead, and his little son, pointing. (Naughtily, or obsequiously, he also placed the still-living King, Felipe II, in heaven: he’s the white-bearded guy with hand on chest, near the left hand of Jesus). Despite the historical nature of the subject, he painted these figures in contemporary, that is to say sixteenth-century, clothing. This was not unusual; art belonged to sacred time.
But Gonzalo Ruiz of Orgaz laid his body down in 1312, when America and Europe were innocent of each other, in one of the world’s most brilliant cities—the center of Euro-African intellectual and commercial exchange. When El Greco metaphorically resurrected Ruiz to star in this Christian morality fable in 1566-68, it was to a dramatically more brutal landscape. The Inquisition had hammered to pieces the convivencia built carefully over centuries in Toledo between Jew, Christian, and Muslim, scattering the Sefarad and its legendary learning to the corners of the earth, even to the despoiled New World. That gold pigment on the lavish robes—was it looted from one of those families, or from Atahualpa’s ransom? That crimson—was it ground from cochineal insects gathered by Oaxacans on orders from their new overlords? If the real Señor Ruiz had been as full of Christlike charity as the parishoners believed, wouldn’t he have been horrified to see how bloodily attained was the fortune behind this magnificent, stupefyingly expensive painting? But his eyes are shut, his mouth closed. Like the naked female patient on Dr. Agnew’s operating table, he can neither consent, nor protest the uses to which he is being put.
I will be accused of being a PC killjoy. So let me say that seeing this painting was an experience of bodily rapture and indrawn breath—if I could, I would have camped out there—and that reflecting on it over time, with new information, has brought equal pleasure. Past my anger (no way does Felipe II get allowed into heaven!) lay a different conviction, in which the dark stripe of the crowd of spectators became the real focus of the painting for me, rather than the action above or below on the canvas. The caballeros and priests aren’t thinking consciously about the Conquest, any more than Eakins’s medical students are meditating on what the triumph of medical science means for women’s control over their own bodies. The men in those crowds, with their heads turned every which way, don’t even comprehend how blind they are to the shadow of History moving over them. The more I look, the more I am compelled to renounce any smugness I might feel about my knowledge of self and world. For if I judge those spectators, how will future ages judge me? What am I not seeing; or more painfully, what do I will myself blind to? Will they be horrified, those viewers in the future, that I so blithely gave potable water to roses, ate of pig and tuna, wore T-shirts made in Honduras? Like the crowds in the paintings, we can try turning our gaze in different directions, but none of us sees the whole picture– the beautiful stupidity that is this world. Forgive us our blindnesses, then, as we forgive those who were blind before us.
Kirsten Silva Gruesz is neither Scandinavian nor Portuguese nor Czech; guess again.