A place to discuss the connections between various works of art and lateralization
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The Experience of Art
The Experience of ArtPosted by Christina Florkowski on June 21, 2023 at 3:20 am
I just finished reading a really lovely book – “All the Beauty in the World” – by Patrick Bringley who worked for ten years as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He makes a wonderful distinction that I want to share here. He writes:
I am standing in a doorway adjacent to the sculpture court when I overhear teenagers discussing a homework assignment. It seems they’ve been given the following writing prompt: “Did the ancient Greeks really believe in their gods? Explain why you think they did or they didn’t, citing two works of art as evidence.” It is an admirable assignment, and I decide I’ll eavesdrop long enough to learn the students’ verdict.
After listening for a bit, he worries that they’ll split the difference and say ‘both’ so he offers to help and they eagerly take him up on it.
I take them over to the head of the so-called Medici Athena, an ancient Roman copy of a now lost masterpiece by the classical sculptor Phidias (the body of this version is lost, too). Together we look at a face that is placid and impassive but not fixed or frozen – a supple, blood-in-the-cheeks vision of what the goddess of wisdom looked like, her beauty all sturdiness and strength. “Athena was the goddess of a special kind of wisdom,” I tell them. “Have you read the Odyssey? You have-perfect. In the Odyssey, Athena shows up every time Odysseus needs a jolt of confidence and inspiration. You know the feeling….
You’re stumbling around feeling blah and out of nowhere your mood lightens and you have the energy and courage and clarity required to do something that felt impossible moments before. Today we would think that the change came from inside us, but the Greeks didn’t believe that.
For them, all forces originated in the external world, forces that were powerful and unpredictable and grabbed hold of people’s emotions just like it controlled their fates. Athena was sometimes called the goddess of nearness because of the way she could penetrate and transform minds” – I gesture to the face – “for the better, wouldn’t you say? Look at her awhile. Look at what the Greeks thought wisdom looked like. See if she improves your mood.”
Perhaps they are patronizing me, but they nod along like I’m making sense and jot sentences in their notebooks as they circle the head.
Then, saying “Thank you, sir, they depart to find another god–a second marble epiphany – to encounter. Watching them from a distance, I am heartened. Too many visitors think of the Met as a museum of Art History, where the objective is to learn about art rather than from it. Too many suppose there are experts who know all the right answers and it isn’t a layman’s place to dig into objects and extract what meaning they can. The more time I spend in the Met, the more convinced I am it isn’t a museum of art history, not principally. Its interests reach up to the heavens and down into worm-ridden tombs and touch on virtually every aspect of how it feels and what it means to live in the space between. There aren’t experts about that. I believe we take art seriously when we try to discern what, at close quarters, it reveals. I hope those kids will take their assignment seriously, and I think they’ve made a good start.
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