Monday, August 4, 2008

Notes From The Brooklyn Museum of Art

Yesterday I came off a night shift and took some of my children to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Although they have staged some offensive exhibitions in the past, I did not heed the call of the religious right to boycott them . To me , museums, bookstores and periodicals are ceasefire zones where one samples the opinions of those with which one would not normally mingle. My wife warned me that the children might be frightfully bored, but the entire place was friendly to children and people with low incomes. Although adult admission is eight dollars, they make it very clear that it is a suggested contribution. They make it clear that those of limited means are still welcome. The addition to the museum still clashes with the original design. The modernistic fatures of the addition seem like a tall fashionable teenager taking an embarrassed walk with an elderly grandmother, hoping to hide her from the view of passers by. Despite this, the addition is a magnet to passers by who sit on its steps and watch the fountain. If I have to choose between awing passer by and inviting them in, I would have to choose the latter. The addition to the front, however flawed does this very well.
The main attraction for me at the museum was its 19th century American paintings. There are some landscapes that people sit in front of for an hour at a time. America is well into its third century, It is good that some of the American art from that period is getting its well deserved respect. Painting before the widespread existence of photography had a much more central place than it does today. I like revisiting that period in art history. Unfortunately, I didn't find any Mary Cassatt paintings during this visit. My older children are fond of her. She painted pictures in the latter part of the 1800's and often focused on mothers and children. I used to show my children her paintings and tell them that they were of them and my wife. I also did that with pictures of penguins. It gives them a feeling of connectedness to artistic creations.
One very small exhibit made a statement that there is no word for terrorism in Arabic. It contrasted this to western languages that do have such a word and then came to the wimpy conclusion that terrorism is a totally subjective term about which a consensus is impossible. I was very annoyed at this conclusion and expressed my displeasure with what is euphemistically referred to as an Anglo Saxon barnyard epithet. This particular display case was a priceless lesson to my children of how history and art can be politicised, that the debates about our present and future reverberate into the past. I shared with my children a quotation of a judge who was ruling in a pornography trial. When asked by the defense for a definition of pornography he snapped, "Don't ask me to define it!!! I know it when I see it!!"
There were several rooms from 18th and 19th century houses that fascinated my children.It was interesting to imagine life in a house with no electricity. Some televisions, radios and household articles were also on display, as well as paintings from the museum collection not incorporated into current exhibits. Some of what shown jogged memories of my childhood.
I pass the museum almost every day yet seldom go in. Going there with my children reminded me of the value of looking anew at your surroundings and those with whom you live.
A slow walk through a museum is a dialogue with the past and those who present it to us. The neighbourhood around the Brooklyn Museum of Art is far less prosperous than when it was first built. It remains an asset to its working class neighbours who are blessed with its close proximity.
Spending time with family in such novel surroundings stimulates a lot of discussion. I am grateful to the management of the Museum for a great afternoon. We definitely plan to return.

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