Imagine a Line

Beltane                                                               Waning Last Frost Moon

A very interesting conversation among fellow docents over lunch.  When I reflect on it, it seems like we’re asking a potentially troublesome, certainly challenging question.  What is the role of the docent?  The museum?  Art in a museum?  What kind of experience do we want our visitors to have when on a tour?  Should it be entertaining and fun?  Should it be informative?  Should the experience include wrestling with difficult topics like rape, violence, feminism, racism, colonialism, homosexuality or are those kind of topics best left alone?

Art, any art, whether in a museum or gallery or private collection or still resident in an artist’s studio, represents a dialogue between an individual and their interior life on the one hand and between an individual and the context of influence in which they swim, on the other.

Museums represent a democratizing of arts role in the culture in that they preserve works over time and exhibit them to anyone willing to come and, if necessary, pay an entrance fee.  Otherwise art remains locked away behind walls of privilege, secreted in private rooms or hung in institutions of wealth and power  corporate, governmental or religious.

Art’s intimate dialogue, a dance really, within the artist’s person expressed in the artist’s world, does not end with the finished work, rather, in one sense, it is only then that it truly begin.  Arts life, its voice, emerges only in those one-to-one moments when another individual stops, looks, wonders, connects, feels.  Imagine, if you will, the great stream of people who have seen Michelangelo’s Pieta since he finished it in 1499.  Imagine them as one long queue, standing patiently, moving slowly, each person stopping.

As I take my time before it, I’m moved by the tenderness to pity (pieta) both Mary and the crucified Jesus.  The humanness of a mother with her dead son cradled in her lap suggests heartbreak, anguish, maybe even despair.  In my case I may reverse it, remembering my mother, dying from a stroke at the age of 46.  The emotions, the experience comparable.

The smooth finish of the marble, the folds in Mary’s garments, the limp body pressing into her lap not as a long piece of stone, but as dead weight.  Her downcast eyes, her upturned left palm, her apparent youth.  All of these create in me a response not dictated by the material, marble, but by the marble’s transformation at the hands of a 15th century Italian, a rugged, intelligent, sensitive man.

Michelangelo speaks directly to me, soul to soul.  The conversation is lively, profound, memorable.  Yet he’s dead, just like Jesus.

The line moves on.  Who knows what the next person will experience?  What will their dialogue with Michelangelo be?  There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, probably millions in that line.  The Pieta is only one work of art.  Imagine the lines that have formed before Botticelli’s Primavera?  Rodin’s Burghers of Calais.  The Sphinx.  The Churning of the Sea of Milk in Angkor.   In each instance we offer ourselves up to another, at best we become vulnerable, the conversation is two way.

Then, there is the more complex phenomena of groups encountering art.  That is, of course, the essence of touring.  How can we make that experience, that encounter with a work, intimate?  What extra do we add to the experience that makes us worthwhile?  Answering that question, it seems to me, is the journey on which this small group of docents has begun.  Sounds significant to me.

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