Mindfulness And The Bucket List At Museums

When I went to the MoMA, I went not knowing what exactly they had in their collection. I do that with museums — why spoil the fun of discovery? I went to the National Gallery of Art in 2012 and was preoccupied with a Sol LeWitt and a Lawrence Weiner before I rounded the corner and happened upon Tony Smith’s Die, a seminal minimalist artwork that I never dreamed of encountering in person, the kind of artwork that absolutely requires your physical presence in order to actually understand the artwork, and I was floored and overwhelmed by how lucky I felt to be in the same room as this object.

It was the same way at MoMA. I have a tattoo on my wrist of Lynda Benglis doing one of her floor pours, and they had one of her floor pours. They have a huge display of some of Warhol’s soup cans, which I care less about personally but feel no less lucky to have seen. They had another Weiner and a Kusama. And of course, they had a Lygia Clark retrospective, but I’ve already written about that.

But the real breathtaker at MoMA was Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Because of the way I entered the gallery, I didn’t even see it until I was done looking at various other artworks and had turned around. When I did, I almost cried. Again, I felt very, very lucky.

All I wanted to do was stare at it for twenty minutes, which is what I like to do with artworks that I really, really love. I tried. I got as close to it as I could without making life more irritating for the gallery assistants. I felt fortunate to get a few insights on the painting that you can’t get through pictures, like that some of the coloring is negative space — the canvas was unprimed, and Van Gogh didn’t cover the whole thing, so the canvas itself contributes to what you see in the finished painting.

If it were up to me, I’d be able to touch Van Gogh’s paintings to feel the texture of the paint on my hands, to feel that it’s real, but I can’t, because it would damage an artwork that is priceless and irreplaceable. But tell that to the people who were there not to look at the painting, not to enjoy its absurd beauty, its joyfulness, or its sense of humor, but to take pictures with it. They kept getting so close to the painting that they were touching the frame. The guard called over for them to step back probably once a minute or so.

I think, Please, tell me what the point is of a picture of you with a painting? To preserve the memory? Fine. But then why didn’t you stop to look at it, if you cared about its magnitude? What memory are you preserving, then?

Maybe I’m being too quick to judge and these people just value other things more, slow down more for other life experiences. I hope so. Tasha Golden at Ploughshares wrote this week about the Bucket List-ization of our lives that makes us feel like we have to check things off our lists and move on without really appreciating them, that compels us to take photos to say “I did this!” and call it a day. It’s not a phenomenon that I really understand: People want to take photos of me next to things when we’re traveling quite a lot. I hate posing next to something to prove that I was there — that’s not why I’m there, and I don’t really feel like getting distracted from the object itself.

I would rather look at the painting itself than a picture. There are pictures abound of artworks. But I could be wrong about that, too — maybe the picture a tourist takes contains hints about the tourist, in the way they choose to line up the shot, the moment they choose to capture, where they end up keeping it.

These picture-takers and I are operating on the same motivation, ultimately: Life is short, and we don’t want to feel like we’re wasting it. I opt to take my time with a few things I really, really care about rather than speed-walking my way through a lot of things that I kind of care about. I’m not saying that it’s intrinsically a better approach. I will say that I see a lot of good — and, for me, a lot of necessity – in bypassing the stress of rushing around, particularly while traveling, in favor of a 20-minute break to look at an artwork to try to discover what the paint, the canvas, the clay, the steel, the bronze, can tell me about the artist, myself, and humanity.