Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Monday, September 22, 2008

When Heaven Feels Like Hell

Someone asked me recently what it means to be a Pagan. I don't really know the answer to that question objectively. But personally, it means to revere all of nature, to find God in each and every tree, rock, person, work of art, building, everything. There are certain places, people, things, however, that glow more acutely, that bring me closer to the sense of Heaven and the divine in the everyday world.

Any place with a painting by Van Gogh is my idea of Heaven.

So it was with great anticipation that I went today to MOMA to see the Vincent Van Gogh exhibit. I was, at one o'clock, in a very good mood. I had slept in, my stomach was feeling better after a bit of bug, and my day was ripe for a little liaison with my favorite painter. On the way up to the museum I had crossed police barricades, heard the sound of angry protests getting under way as the UN began it's Fall session a few blocks away, but I'd also been granted a "bless you" by a passing stranger when I sneezed on my way across the street, and those small kindnesses count a lot in a big city.

When I arrived at MOMA I waited in a short line and was told by the very grumpy young man at the ticket counter that I could not get into the Van Gogh exhibit for another 3 hours.

I asked if I could buy a ticket for Wednesday.

No advance tickets.

I wondered if I should come back another time anyway and inquired whether he thought the lines would die down after a few days.

He promptly informed that, "it was going to be like this for the rest of my life." I said, "Boy, you're having a rough day aren't you?" (When a customer service person is snarky with me I employ this tactic of being sympathetic with their plight, and they usually brighten up....not this guy.) "I've been yelled at, harassed, complained to...this was a very bad idea!"

I can only surmise that he meant Van Gogh was a bad idea. I took my ticket and wished him the best possible day he could have, under the circumstances.

I then went into the museum. I ate some lunch. I went up to look at the painting galleries. Much to my delight, the general collection at MOMA holds some of my favorite works by Monet, Matisse, Kandinsky, Klimt, Joseph Cornell, Edward Hopper. I generally avoid the modern museums because I'm not one to go in for Pop Art or abstract stuff. So it was with surprise and glee that I began to explore. Very soon, though, my mood began to shift. All around me patrons were taking digital photos of the paintings, some used their flashes, which is strictly a no-no. Flash or no, these picture takers were not actually stopping to look at the paintings with their own eyes.

I first noticed this behavior in Paris the last time I visited Le Musee D'Orsay. That day I left sobbing after only spending a relative few minutes trying to glimpse my friends Van Gogh, Redon, Klimt, all the other beauties through hordes of people with their digital cameras dangling within inches of the center of paintings, cameras blocking anyone else from actually taking in the whole canvass.

"Buy the postcard, people!!!"

That's what I want to yell...."BUY THE FUCKING POSTCARD!!!!" And take the time, here, now, while you have it to actually look at the painting through your eyes, look at it with your heart and soul and find out if that picture speaks to you, what might it be saying. Don't just rack up the famous-painting notches on your belt. Van Gogh's Starry Night-Check....Monet's Water Lilies-check.check check check...

I almost had a nervous breakdown today in front of an Edward Hopper piece. When I lived in Chicago I used to go almost weekly to the Art Institute to look at Hopper's Nighthawks.

This was in the day when that gem of a canvass had it's own wall and a bench right in front and I would sit there for an hour and just dive into the painting. My friend Joe and I did a movement piece based on it I really did get to bring it to life....

Here is the painting from today....very moody, the paint looking as if it has barely dried. In person, it is so luminous. Well this man sidles up next to me and takes a flash photo. At this point I have held my tongue at least 100 times, so I can't take it any more and I say, "You know you aren't supposed to take flash harms the paint." He say, "yeah, yeah, yeah..." and takes another photo. Fucker! It was all I could do not to tackle him and smash his camera against the wall....

By the time 4 o'clock rolled around and I was allowed into the Van Gogh exhibit I was shaking. I kept telling myself to take a deep breath and just enjoy. I always feel like Vincent and I are having some kind of affair...his paintings are so alive, so insistent. I have this visceral feeling that he is reaching out into me and I into him. I imagine he is having an affair with countless others as well, so I try to be respectful of the other museum goers.

Fortunately they do not allow cameras at all into the special exhibits. So I was able to get a little one on one time with some of the lesser paintings. But when it came to the masterpieces, we all had to share. For the most part everyone was very civilized about it. Until we all turned a corner and there was Starry Night. It was here that some old guy decided he deserved a better spot than me and started pushing me out of the way...subtly...but deliberately....until I was stuck squarely behind another man with a large head who was right in front of the center of the painting.

Let me make it clear, I was not in a great spot to begin with. I was a row of people away from the wall. I was off to the side, but I had a clear shot between the heads of people in front of me. And I was not blocking anyone else.

Well, I was flabbergasted.

As I tried not to scream out into the void (which Vincent probably would have applauded, by the way) the man in front of me vacated his spot. Then, as the bully who'd maneuvered me out of the way started to trade in his already great spot for the one in front of me, I boldly stepped forward, blocked his way and took center stage in the light of this painting.

I was not proud of myself. But I had a few moments with the canvass of my dreams....and I didn't end up in jail for decking an old guy with an out-dated sense of entitlement.

I left MOMA sad. My day in Heaven had turned into it's own little Hell.

I walked out into the streets of Mid-Town Manhattan where police men with assault riffles stood ready to protect the diplomats of the world, where bankers at Morgan Stanley, Lehmann Brothers and all the rest struggle with the fall of the American economic system, and I felt ashamed. I'd been in the presence of beauty today and I'd gotten a little more ugly.

I don't have an epiphany about all this to share with you. Just the tale. Take whatever meaning you want from it.

1 comment:

Lynn said...

Here's a story about your story:
There once was a Buddhist who was walking along a country road with a student, when a carriage came tearing down the road right at them, barely swerving, nearly hitting them. The student in the road shouted curses at the carriage and shook his fist. The Buddhist called after the driver, "May your life be filled with blessings and all your wishes come true." The student, standing with him in the road, turned to him, astonished. "How can you give him a blessing like that after he nearly killed us?" The Buddhist said, "Do you really think that if he felt his life was blessed and all his wishes granted, that he would have behaved like that toward us?"