My mother, having been an art teacher, one might think that I would have been to a museum or two growing up. But my father was a Methodist minister in rural Mississippi, which did not afford many opportunities, unless you drove to one of the “bigger cities”. My primary introduction to fine art came through my mother’s portrait and still life paintings. There was also book of art that she kept on a living room coffee table in the parsonage where we lived. It was the most formal room in the house and the book was in keeping, to my adolescent mind, with that formality. I remember going in there on summer days, driven indoors by a combination of the noon heat and boredom, plop down on the low angular green sofa, take up the book and thumb through the pages. From those glossy sheets I remember Da Vinci’s self-portrait as an old man. That sketched face, aged and effecting an expression of deep sadness, looked back toward my own and disclosed to my youth the melancholy attending times’ passage. Raphael’s The Three Graces, was also captivating to me; their delicate stances, comportment and the coloring of the work all played lyrically upon the eye and mind.
Nothing further of the art world cross my path for a many years, accept for the obligatory Art 101 class in college. At the time, I was enough of a philistine, spending too much time carousing and too little time contemplating, that if by mode of teleportation I had found my way to the Louvre itself, little more than a yawn from would have been elicited from my unresponsive imagination. The grandest beauty cannot penetrate a dull heart. Both Plato and Aristotle recognized that one had to be cultivated toward an appreciation of civility and beauty. As true as this is, it is often by a more circuitous path that many find their way to these two. Beauty and discipline are superlative teachers but some have had to learn from sterner pedagogues. And such was my state when stood before a Degas’ The Convalescent in the New Orleans Museum of Fine Arts. Among the gay colors of his Ballerina’s and Horseraces I found myself drawn to a room off to the side where this portrait hung. It is hard to describe the effect it had on me; her languid expression; of just being there, almost a prisoner in her own body, ambivalent to her own existence. Though not recovering from any illness, I was recovering from about eight years of bad decisions and aimless wanderings. Had the frat boy, which I once was, been there, he could have only seen some lady sitting in a chair looking bored. But the young man, I now was, who stood before it, could see something much different. My sterner teachers had taught me. That painting could now name what I had felt but could not have spoken over the preceding years. Even now I cannot adequately describe what Degas’ work help name for me about my life up to that moment. Some things are better shown than said.
Nietzsche, with a view to higher culture, once observed, “at the age of thirty, when it comes to higher culture, one is a beginner, a child.” His, I believe, is a correct observation, at least in my own case. It would be sixteen years before I set foot in another museum. When I did, my wife and our two small children were with us. Now living in Houston working as a high school teacher, my wife and I decided to take our children to the Museum of Fine Arts. Having a two and six year old in tow does not make for a quiet contemplation of fine art. Nevertheless, with more enthusiasm than sense we entered the very (tasteful) modern museum and after preemptory warnings along the lines of “Do not touch the Rembrandts!” we set off. Making our way through the Ancient Art collection we eventually came to the second floor that houses most of the painted works. Having pursued an education that had greatly expanded my reading; having continued to deepen that reading in literature, poetry and philosophy; experiencing life it all its ebb and flow, the breaking and receding of hope fulfilled and delayed- now, at this time in my life, I was ready, as Nietzsche observed, I could begin to take in what was before me. What does that mean exactly? One would almost say that such a statement is rhetorical flourish and I would be inclined to agree if it were not for the following experience. Having seen artifacts and works of art that spanned 4,000 years, my family and I found ourselves in a long gallery where paintings lined either wall running the length of the space. My wife was down from me a ways with our children, who found greater interest in the large benches that ran down the center of the gallery. In a moment, as I stood there, surrounded by works inspired by gods sacred and profane a deep wave of emotion broke over me. I felt I might be, embarrassingly, overcome with tears. In that moment I felt myself caught up in the grand sweep of history. And not history in the common understanding of the word. I mean history by way of all the collected longings attending Man. Such a thing, even to my ears, sounds as excruciating exaggeration. But I can only speak, however poorly, of what was disclosed to me there. Whether depicting God, gods, nature, revolution, sensual beauty, aristocratic ideal, or the melancholia of life, they all found as their inspiration, what George MacDonald claimed as the origin of philosophy- homesickness. Art Critics and historians would disagree; I can only attest to my experience. What I came to see in that moment, having been shaped and molded by my past years, is that all of these works are man’s touching attempts to attain something good, something true, something beautiful. The artist pursues these holy three and can succeed in but capturing their shadow. Museums are houses of longing.
I have been to our museum many times after that day. I often take my family. Sometimes I go by myself. To contemplate those works, to see the brush strokes, and to think that through oil and canvas a shadow of that other World might fall upon ours, are an experiences from which I never tire. A highlight for me was the recent experience of meeting some of my AP European History students at the museum. I often think that the joy (and maybe paradoxically a hazard) of being a teacher is often the joy of making introductions. And this was the joy I had this day as most all of the students had never seen fine art in person. With the exception of showing them a few pieces, I decided upon a course that would allow the students just to experience being there. As they wandered about, mystified, we came to the same gallery where, a few years back, I had had my own revelation, so to speak. Some of the students gathered about me and I took a moment to ask them what they thought of the visit, thus far. The responses were all affirmative but one young lady’s reply, in particular, took me by, pleasant, surprise. She said all in innocent wonder, “It is all so beautiful, I almost want to cry!”