Does art really move us, or do we pretend, for appearance’s sake?

“The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”

I was about to abandon room 58 when the man broke suddenly into tears, convulsively catching his breath. Was he, I wondered, just facing the wall to hide his face as he dealt with whatever grief he’d brought into the museum? Or was he having a profound experience of art?

Once the man calmed down, which took at least two minutes, he wiped his face and blew his nose with a handkerchief he then returned to his pocket. On entering room 57, which was empty except for a lanky and sleepy guard, the man walked immediately up to the small votive image of Christ attributed to San Leocadio: green tunic, red robes, expression of deep sorrow. I pretended to take in other paintings while looking sidelong at the man as he considered the little canvas. For a long minute he was quiet and then he again released a sob. This startled the guard into alertness and our eyes met, mine saying that this had happened in the other gallery, the guard’s communicating his struggle to determine whether the man was crazy—perhaps the kind of man who would damage a painting, spit on it or tear it from the wall or scratch it with a key—or if the man was having a profound experience of art. Out came the handkerchief and the man walked calmly into 56, stood beforeThe Garden of Earthly Delights, considered it calmly, then totally lost his shit. Now there were three guards in the room—the lanky guard from 57, the short woman who always guarded 56, and an older guard with improbably long silver hair who must have heard the most recent outburst from the hall. The one or two other museum-goers in 56 were deep in their audio tours and oblivious to the scene unfolding before the Bosch.

the-garden-of-earthly-delights-large

What is a museum guard to do, I thought to myself; what, really, is a museum guard? On the one hand you are a member of a security force charged with protecting priceless materials from the crazed or kids or the slow erosive force of camera flashes; on the other hand you are a dweller among supposed triumphs of the spirit and if your position has any prestige it derives precisely from the belief that such triumphs could legitimately move a man to tears. There was a certain pathos in the indecision of the guards, guards who spend much of their lives in front of timeless paintings but are only ever asked what time is it, when does the museum close, dónde esta el baño. I could not share the man’s rapture, if that’s what it was, but I found myself moved by the dilemma of the guards: should they ask the man to step into the hall and attempt to ascertain his mental state, no doubt ruining his profound experience, or should they risk letting this potential lunatic loose among the treasures of their culture, no doubt risking, among other things, their jobs? I found their mute performance of these tensions more moving than any Pietá,Deposition, or Annunciation, and I felt like one of their company as we trailed the man from gallery to gallery. Maybe this man is an artist, I thought; what if he doesn’t feel the transports he performs, what if the scenes he produces are intended to force the institution to face its contradiction in the person of these guards. I was thinking something like this as the man concluded another fit of weeping and headed calmly for the museum’s main exit. The guards disbanded with, it seemed to me, less relief than sadness, and I found myself following this man, this great artist, out of the museum and into the preternaturally bright day.

Ben Lerner

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