I was able to answer one question Thursday afternoon that I’ve been asking myself for years: why do I get giddy visiting museums filled with art, whether those I’ve visited a dozen times before or for the first time? Because when you think about it most of them are populated with works by the same painters, from Old Masters to modern artists that you’ve seen a thousand times before?
Before providing the answer I probably ought to explain the circumstances of my minor epiphany. Very minor, I admit. It happened on a visit to the recently reopened Metropolitan Museum. That encyclopedic institution had much to recommend it when the pandemic closed it and most everything else in New York City in March. Not the least of its benefits being that it was conveniently located a couple of short blocks from my apartment.
In the old, pre-Covid days, I’d think nothing of dropping by for an hour for a quick shot of creativity and adrenalin, to enjoy what is arguably best about our species – the ability to create objects of no pressing necessity yet that somehow, starting with nothing but color and canvas, manage to stir our souls and perhaps even spark us to believe that we, too, might be capable of rising above ourselves.
I often used to go the Met as a reward for completing writing a particularly challenging newspaper or magazine story, not that I dare put myself in the same league as the artists on their walls, but as a way to rest the eyes and recharge the spirit after days and weeks of maniacal effort.
Visiting a museum is a way to take a vacation – to Van Gogh’s wheat fields near Arles, Canaletto’s Venice or the Eden portrayed by the Hudson River School painters – without having to board a plane. Or in my case even a bus.
But all that vanished with the pandemic. I’m not going to suggest the museum was indispensible. At least in the short run. But if museums were to vanish completely, or be shuttered indefinitely, something indefinably precious, burning in the cortex of our beings, would be lost.
So when I returned to the city for a couple of doctors appointments – that seems to be the main incentive to return for many of us who enjoy the privilege of being able to work remotely – I thought I’d pay my respects to the Met and do my infinitesimal part to help restore its depleted budget.
I made a reservation online – for 1 p.m. – assuming I’d get to breeze in and have the galleries virtually to myself because safety protocols were limiting the museum to twenty-five percent of capacity. However, the line stretched down the block. Two lines, in fact. Temperature checks at the entrance seemed to be causing the bottleneck.
And then once inside I had to join another line to get a ticket. I suppose progress would have been faster if I’d remembered to take my wife’s membership card. But I don’t look anything like a Deborah.
However, once I managed to navigate the gauntlet – not without misgivings about being indoors with strangers for a sustained length of time, even if they were all properly spaced and wearing masks – I made my way up the stairs and found myself in the Greek and Roman wing.
I didn’t linger for long. But the effect of the early afternoon light streaming down on all those ancient statues, busts and urns and even more than that the sight of people milling about them as if it was 2019 all over again, and everything that’s happened since the museum was closed in the spring was merely a bad dream, made it feel as if you could stop holding your breath in some spiritual sense.
I’d considered visiting the museum’s new 150th anniversary show. But when I saw I’d have to join yet another line I headed directly to what my final destination had been all along – the Impressionist wing.
I love Old Master paintings but, given the current circumstances, thought it best to avoid art that involved plagues and crucifixions.
It was as soon as I stepped into a room filled with Monets that I realized why I visit museums filled with art that I already know; if not always the actual paintings then the artists who painted them. It’s for the same reason that you see the same friends over and over again. Or did until recently. It’s the reason that they’re your friends in the first place: because you enjoy their company, are often bonded through shared experience, and because they enhance your life.
Monet’s transparent light, Van Gogh’s wildly skewed yet perceptive landscapes, Seurat’s leisurely bathers discovered along the banks of the Seine felt like reconnecting with a life that had been temporarily, traumatically lost but was now, suddenly, regained.
They survived without symptoms, their simple presence reminding you that gratitude might be the emotion that best meets this moment.
Now, if only I could figure out a way to enjoy art while wearing a mask and without having my glasses fog up.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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