Everyone in my class is supposed to publish two reviews a week on a forum the professor set up. We're supposed to review either poetry books or poetry readings, but the lines are blurry. This is my first contribution.
My Day in Art: Of Curators and Light Bulbs, Violins in the Subway
Where is Jasper Johns?
Not here, nor there. Not behind the samurai swords; not between the Gustave Courbet self-portraits, regarding each other with onanistic awe; nowhere near the Roman busts or New Guinean death masks. Somewhere on the floor above. Somewhere that takes twenty minutes to reach.
I am in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I am irritated, all elbows and glares. I have written two poems in my little diary so far: one about pants (Most of them just cover the meat / Some of them are glazed, pointing to this month’s shoes) and one about feeling overwhelmed by history, which I am finding a jolting reminder of transience and this museum something inappropriate in a way, unwilling to let the thing DIE. Scrawled: I am surrounded by dead people. / We have been over this. / These are my limbs, I use them to move. / This is my heart, I use it to fear death.
Which is easy to do, having the cumulative progress of the millennia laid out before you. Here we sprayed some berry juice on the backs of our hands. Here we drew a pretty picture of a horse. Here the horse stands forever in polished marble. And here Picasso examines a woman from twenty angles simultaneously. These are all gone moments, now, and suggested price for appreciation is twenty dollars ten with student ID.
So I commence the Goodwill litmus, favorite tool for dispelling snootery and illusions of immortality. It goes like this: the best way to gauge the merits of a particular piece of art is to imagine that you happened upon it in a thrift store and it is selling for five dollars. If you would buy it, it is worthy. If you would not, it is just a very expensive smear.
Monierre Dawson: Statement, Meditation
Drab messes of dark lines, pastels on small canvasses.
Helen Torr: Crimson and Green Leaves
Looks like Ikea overstock.
Fernand Léger: The Bargeman
Someone’s Montessori eighth-grader flipped through a book on Cubism and broke out their My First Paint Set.
Henry Matisse: The Young Sailor II
Looks like Walt Disney was painting a male nude by flashlight under the covers, his mom discovered him and made him superimpose baggy clothes as punishment.
But there is still something askew. A thought persists: We have been over this. Why are we dwelling? And then counter-memories, of the agony of all street theater, the inanity of Bansky and all others attempting to extend the museum beyond its walls. Still, I am mostly unmoved by visions of the past, somehow redundant; even the Pollock seems very still.
But where is Jasper Johns?
Whether from too much time on my feet or not enough street vendor pretzels, I am weak, headachy and nauseous. The feeling is one of entombment – trapped with the squinting, nodding, sweater-shouldered, bored-child-dragging effluvia of the Looking On world, forever treading in circuits through the relics. I want to leave but am going to find this exhibit, god damn it.
I ask five different security guards. Second floor, down the hall, turn right, all the way at the back.
When I find it, a sweat breaks and a new poem enters the diary in under a minute:
Saying No to Jasper Johns
I spent twenty minutes
walking through this
labyrinth of a museum
to find this?
Awesome, art devoid of color or life,
just sap the fucking life out of the clay.
This whole building is vulgar, somehow.
This building is a series of fine graves.
The pieces are soupy with pretense. We are asked to examine the nature of art, or something. There is only the monochrome, meant to reveal the brush strokes, the creative structures underlying the spectacle of painting. But how joyless. Like eating a cake made of flint and cardboard. Somewhere, a superior baker is fattening a jubilant many. Somewhere, Those Who Do Not Squint are awash in sweets; somewhere that takes more than twenty minutes to find.
In the subway, a man is playing the violin for change. At first, it is only novel. The underground is usually the territory of bucket-drummers, gospel quartets bellowing golden oldies for tourists, homeless men wishing you a “PROSPEROUS DAY” at the top of their lungs. He plays two pleasant songs and I give him some quarters, not expecting to have my life changed.
After applause from the sizable crowd he has gathered on the platform, he plays the opening notes to a piece that is so profoundly remorseful and beautiful that I am frozen where I stand. Tears begin to well. I am having that experience. Oh Christ, it’s so trite. But the notes. They wrench.
I walk away in under thirty seconds, winding through a dozen people, so I don’t begin to openly weep.
This has never happened. I don’t even like classical music.
But something becomes so clear, riding jumpy-throated back to Brooklyn, held together through force of will alone. This is the only litmus necessary. This is the meaning of great art, the true immortality that has nothing to do with polished floors, expensive cafés that smell like your grandma, with gray or samurai swords, with the embalmment of academia, the obscenity of squinting. Simply,
Do you have to turn away?