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Art Museums for the Uninitiated

Let’s spend the afternoon at the art museum.” How do those words make you feel? Many, if not most of us, would probably admit to some apprehension. Why is this? Most of the art museums I’ve been to have been really affordable if not free, save for the suggested donation. So it’s not the money. And every one I’ve ever visited has been a beautifully designed facility. So it’s not the architecture either.

So what restrains our excitement about a day in a building full of art? May I suggest it is the art? I don’t mean to suggest the art is bad. Of course it isn’t. The apprehension many of us feel is due to the fact that art is demanding. It hangs on the wall with its amigos calling “look up here, look up here.” A day in an art gallery will wear you out and you’ll wonder how the simple act of looking could be so exhausting. The answer is, of course, that there’s nothing simple about really looking at art. If you let it, a great painting can demand as much from you as reading War and Peacein one sitting.

Maybe many of you have read this far and have no idea what I’m talking about. You love Art Museums. You’d spend every chance you could happily browsing the galleries, going from ancient China to the European Renaissance to the impressionists to the moderns without a care in the world. If this is you, you may stop reading and go to the museum. This isn’t for you.

If, however, you are a person who needs to gear up to visit an art museum—if you feel anxious about the way these hallowed halls of priceless history and beauty leave you feeling–how should I say it–a little dumb, read on. I’m going to tell you how to walk into an art museum like you own the place. I’m going to liberate your conscience, affirm your intelligence, give you focus, and teach you how to develop a lifelong love of not only art but of the museums that house it.

In High School, I had the good fortune of having an art teacher who loved art. She wanted us to love it too. So she introduced us not only to great works of art but, more importantly, to the people who created them. She broke out the old projector and filmstrips so we could tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” from our classroom in Tipton Indiana. She impressed upon us the role of math and dimension by taking us on the trip that is M. C. Escher. She broke our hearts with the sad and beautiful story of Vincent van Gogh by making us watch the wonderful Technicolor Kirk Douglass film from the 60’s, Lust for Life (which is based on Irving Stone’s book by the same name—a great place to start with Vincent).

Every year she took us to the Indianapolis Art Museum. There I learned how exhausting art can be. She’d turn us loose for the afternoon, and I’d meander from room to room trying to look at everything—you know, to get my money’s worth.

But I’ll never forget the first time I walked into the room with the van Goghs after I had learned about his story. His canvases struck me in such a way that I had to sit down and just look. In fact, I spent most of my time in that room that day, just looking at van Gogh. I checked the dates: 1887—this one was earlier in his career. He was still trying to find a way to be a commercial success. 1890—that year he painted close to a canvas a day and that summer he shot himself in the heart and died. These late paintings, with their thick, vibrant colors looked urgent–desperate.

That day with van Gogh shaped the way I would approach art museums thereafter. I developed a strategy that was simple, find van Gogh, look long, and if there’s any time left, wander around and look at other things.

That’s how I found Rembrandt. When I was younger, I looked down on Renaissance realism. I don’t know why, except that I suppose I figured it couldn’t be too hard to paint what you saw as you saw it. (I was an idiot.) But then I found myself in front of a Rembrandt, and the figure in the painting was looking harder at me than I was at him. It creeped me out and drew me in.

I discovered that Rembrandt’s peers regarded him as The Master even while he lived. And I learned he was a man who loved the Gospel. That opened up a new wing of the museum for me. Now I was looking for Vincent and Rembrandt. Well, before long Rembrandt introduced me to Caravaggio and van Gogh introduced me to Gauguin, Seurat, and Cezanne.

In more recent years, I’ve come to think of visual artists like artists on my iTunes. I have my favorite musicians and they have a body of work I return to over and over again. For those I like the most, I welcome every new song they release. I think about the visual artists I love in much the same way. I regard their works like songs. I’m not interested in hits. I’m interested in the body of work. Vincent’s “Starry Night” is great, but I don’t love van Gogh because of that canvas. I love that canvas because it came from van Gogh. I love the story he told through that work—the tragic tale of his hope of glory locking horns with his disillusionment toward the church (the only building whose windows are dark and lifeless in Starry Night—which you could argue is as much a painting of a church as it is the glorious sky above it.)

I want to see anything Rembrandt etched, drew, or painted. Each new piece is a part of the puzzle of his life and a window into his vision, theology, artistry, and burdens. Same with Vincent. And now, all these years later, same with Rodin, Caravaggio, Chagall, Hopper, Rockwell (as in Norman), Delacroix, and Picasso.

When I enter an art museum now, I have a plan. Find my friends. I know it will wear me out. Art is a lot to take in. So I don’t try to reach too far. Its not a race. I have whatever time the Lord has ordained for me to be a lifelong patron of the arts. So I’m taking it slow. I’m returning as often as I can. When I do, all I need is a map and time—and both are free. See. I own the place.


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