I recently had the chance to spend two afternoons at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. (An admission is good for two visits within 10 days.) I was visiting Massachusetts for a cousin’s wedding, and decided to indulge. I know museums can foster a strange perception of art—that good art should be in museums, not in homes—but I love them. Whenever I travel somewhere, I seek out the local art museum to see what I can learn.
That visit—and thinking about this blog post—got me thinking about the role of museums in today’s culture. I’ll probably post more about that in the future. But for now, some first thoughts:
An art museum can show you want good art can look like*, and what to look for in art. Think of Sargent’s “masterful” brushstrokes—everyone call them that—or Monet’s use of color or the energy behind Joan Mitchell abstracts or Jackson Pollock drip paintings. Museums can be repositories of culture, from ancient Greek ceramics to Franz Bischoff’s paintings on porcelain vases. And they can educate you on the history of art or of a country. One of my biggest surprises at my visit came when I recognized the name of an American painter I’d first heard of only a week or two before—on Antiques Roadshow. After that, I started seeing other things by artists or companies I’d seen on the Roadshow: a giant ceramic jug made by a former slave named Dave; fine early American furniture, revolutionary period silver (this is Boston!). And then there was the Tiffany stained glass and East Asian Buddhas.
So, as a first impression, art museums can give you an idea of some of the things a culture values: the kind of artwork, furniture, jewelry, porcelain. They can teach you about taste and style and perceptions in other eras, other places, before photography or even lithography made it possible to reproduce images inexpensively. Gilbert Stuart, for example, is said to have made many portraits of George Washington from the one that was used for the dollar bill, the “unfinished” portrait.
And, for an artist, if you look closely, you can learn a bit about how other artists tackled the subject matter that challenges you. The advice to young writers is to “read everything.” I’d say the same for painters and sculptors and jewelers: look at everything. Learn what’s been done before, learn from the best.
And I can’t forget the goslings.
The second day I visited, I walked for a bit along the Fenway behind the museum, where I encountered this family of geese. They had decided to take a nap in the middle of the sidewalk. I’ve no idea why. They all woke up a few minutes later, but were still on the sidewalk when I left.
Do you visit art museums? What do you like or dislike about them?
(*) except they are vested in modernist art, too—more on that in a future post.