Yesterday I had a meeting at Northeastern University, so instead of taking the T straight to either the Northeastern or Ruggles stops, I got off at Fenway, walked along the Muddy River, then cut through the Museum of Fine Arts on my way to campus. I had time to look at just one exhibit–“New Blue and White,” a collection of contemporary works inspired by traditional cobalt-and-white ceramics—so I circled through that exhibit several times, looking at the pieces and taking pictures before I continued on to Northeastern, which is virtually across the street from the Museum.
This is what I like best about having a Museum membership: the ability to pop into the MFA on my way to something else, quickly checking out a single exhibit or simply enjoying an air-conditioned, beauty-rich reprieve on my way from Point A to Point B. When you spend an entire day at a Museum, you run the risk of museum-fatigue, your achy feet and glazed-over eyes feeling the effects of trying to cram too much culture into a single outing. But when you explore one tiny corner of a museum, there is little risk of fatigue. Instead of trying to swallow an entire smorgasbord, you can sip and savor just a small spoonful.
Museums work best, I’ve found, in small, frequent doses, not marathon cram sessions. When I was a graduate student at Northeastern in the 1990s, the University had an arrangement with the MFA where students and faculty got into the Museum free simply by showing their ID, and I took full advantage of this, going to the Museum whenever I had a break between classes and wanted a quick reprieve from the demands of juggling doctoral studies and teaching.
In retrospect, that habit of taking short trips to the MFA—either on my own or with my students, whom I’d give an assignment requiring them to find a work of art they liked, then write about it—was perhaps the most valuable thing I took from my years at Northeastern. For me, trying to “cover” an entire Museum in a single trip is too much like work: there’s too much to see, and there’s more than a bit of anxiety or guilt involved, as if it were a moral failing if you miss or improperly absorb something. It feels like a kind of failure—a stress-inducing thing—to try to cram an entire art education into a single session as if there were going to be a test afterward that you have to pass, or else.
When you establish the habit of visiting a world-class art museum both frequently and casually, dropping in now and again, as you’re able, you come to see art itself not as an abstract or elite thing saved for special occasions when you’re feeling particularly cerebral. Instead, you come to see art fondly and even affectionately: an expression of natural creativity that belongs to the entire human family. Familiar, oft-visited pieces become dear to you, like extended family members you enjoy seeing again and again.
The works in “New Blue and White” reminded me of John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” which stands flanked by the blue-and-white Japanese porcelain vases that appear in it.
Sargent’s “Daughters” is a painting that frankly makes me happy whenever I see it, and I’ve visited it more times than I care to count, first in the old wing, then in the new. Only when you’ve been to a single museum many times can you enjoy that kind of relationship with particular artworks, seeing someone else’s daughters (and the décor they posed against) as being part of your extended family.
“New Blue and White” is a temporary exhibit on view through Saturday, so I saw it just in time: the next time I drop by the Museum of Fine Arts, something else will be on display in its place. That is, of course, yet another reason to visit a museum early and often: in addition to the longtime friends you’ll see repeatedly, you’ll also meet works that, like you, are just passing through.
Click here to see more images from “New Blue and White.” The title of today’s post comes from Jeppe Hein’s sculpture featuring neon tubes spelling out the best way to enjoy a museum:
“Please enjoy relax
steal dance touch flirt smoke wonder feel muse eat sing listen talk ask touch neon look communicate touch each other use camera flash.”