Happy Things: Art Museums

“Day at the Museum” by Allan Henderson, from Flickr (CC 2.0)

I went to the local art museum today. Last Fall semester I had long breaks between classes I was teaching, and I would take lunch breaks at the art museum at least twice a month. But for a variety of reasons, I hadn’t had a chance to go to the art museum since May. I had let my membership expire, for lack of funds or time. And it made me sad.

There are few things I love as dearly as museums. Museums make me happy to an almost ridiculous degree. Every time I travel somewhere, I go in search of the nearest museum. Big, small, it doesn’t matter. Every city I live has at least a couple museums, and I visit them multiple times a year if I can. Science museums, historical museums, nature museums, random museums like: The Museum of the Funereal Arts. Museum of the Gulf Coast. The Museum of Contemporary Crafts. But I think my favorites are art museums.

Art museums are special to me. They are kind of like walking meditation. Joyful, contemplative, invigorating but also restful. While I love going to science and nature museums with friends and family, I generally go to art museums alone. These moments are some of the only times when I can be alone, and feel alone, without also feeling lonely. I spend most of my time, even around people (my students, my less-than-restful family, etc) feeling surrounded but lonely. At art museums, I’m alone: surrounded the whispered hush just barely above silence that is typical of museums, no one bothering me or trying to talk to me, no one looking at me or expecting anything from me. But I don’t feel LONELY. I feel comfortable. There is a sense of belonging in art museums I get in very few places (concert venues, is the other place like that I can currently think of).

So, I went to the art museum today. I made today a “work day” for my students, which they all appreciated, and I came in to the downtown area early, and I took the metro-rail into the Museum district. I also renewed my membership. While it’s a bit pricey, and I have to be careful about money, the art museum is simply too important to my mental health, my self-care, to let it slide any longer.

“Untitled” – Mark Rothko, Licensed Under Fair Use via Wikipedia

There’s a Mark Rothko Retrospective exhibit going on right now, so I started there. Mark Rothko is not my favorite artist ever. I like some abstractionists, but there are limits to my… faith, I guess, for lack of a better word – my suspension of disbelief, so to speak. I do not argue that his work isn’t art – if someone created it, and it moves someone (and possibly, if someone buys it) then fine; it’s art. But it’s not always art I can appreciate it. Some of Rothko’s work is quite striking and beautiful. Colorful, full of spirit and interest. There is something quite meditative as well about some of his work. I found myself breathing a little more slowly, pausing a little longer on some pieces.

“Untitled” – Mark Rothko (1970) Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

And yet… canvases simply painted black, or brown, or gray – no matter how much philosophical rumination one writes about in one’s artist’s statements – just doesn’t feel legitimate to me. I do not begrudge those who do like Rothko’s Black Works and other such pieces, but… I just cannot join them. Some have accused me of being a philistine, of being not as supportive of postmodernism as I claim to be, of missing the point, or being blind, or being stupid… but. No. Sorry. I just can’t buy into this version of art.

In any case, I still enjoyed the retrospective overall. However, the real highlight for me was the exhibit on Joachim Wtewael – a 16th century painter who could do a little of everything with equal skill and grace and color and attention to detail. The immense amount of detail, the tiny tiny intricate details, these are what really drew me to him. As well as his striking color schemes. Brilliant reds, deep blues, warm golds. Popular colors of the 16th (and 17th) century, to be sure, but he used them beautifully. Masterfully.

“The Raising of Lazarus”, c. 1605-10 by Joachim Wtewael – National Gallery. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

I spent a little over three hours at the art museum today. My knees hurt, and I’m getting a bit of a headache, but I adored every second of it. And I’ve come back to my little shared office on campus feeling a little better than I did yesterday. More peaceful. Gentled by a few brief moments of joy in an otherwise dreary and exhausting week.

The Wildmind Buddhist Meditation website explains walking meditation in this way: “In walking meditation we use the experience of walking as our focus. We become mindful of our experience while walking, and try to keep our awareness involved with the experience of walking.” Going to an art museum is not QUITE the same thing as walking meditation, of course. The focus is less inward and more outward, at the objects around you. But sometimes this outward focus helps to facilitate an inward focus. And I believe that visiting an art museum is very close to the same ideas of awareness and mindfulness that are advocated in walking meditation.

At the very least, I highly recommend it.

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