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A museum: The place where we can view objects shorn of all but their fascination

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 2010; R04

A restaurant is the place to go for the serious contemplation of food; a home-cooked meal, no matter how great, almost always comes with distractions.

A concert hall gives you a special, intense experience of music that your living room can't ever quite match.

The same for a stadium and sports.

And a museum is the one best place to sink deep into the things humans make.

There is nothing quite like settling down with a museum display. Where else are we as likely to spend hour after hour with our minds focused on nothing but an object or 10? For some of us at least -- for tens of millions of us, if museum attendance is anything to go by -- giving that kind of attention to objects that are there only for the looking is one of life's great pleasures.

A museum can become a vacuum chamber, with nothing there but you and the pieces you want to take in, whether they're painted masterworks, precious instruments or landmark cars. All other contexts that art and artifacts come at us in -- the walls at home, commercial galleries, art fairs, shops or even garages -- pile other agendas on top of the objects.

I want to contemplate a 1942 Harley Davidson, like the one at the Smithsonian, without wondering how I'll ever pay for it, or what the neighbors will say, or whether it will break my neck.

Even if I could afford to own it, I wouldn't want to think about protecting Domenico Beccafumi's "Holy Family" -- one of my favorite Renaissance paintings at the National Gallery -- or about how much it is gaining in value. I want to be able to do nothing more than look at the painting, undistracted, until it has nothing more to tell me -- or until my feet give out, which is sure to happen first. Even after years as an art critic, spending a quiet afternoon in one room in a museum still yields tremendous joy. It's escapism, in that it leaves so much behind, but it's as far from empty as an experience could be.

Choices by the pros

A wild range of experience is on offer in museums: One recent day on Washington's Mall, I pondered new videos by a Chinese-Indonesian-Australian-Dutch artist, contemplated a 2,200-year-old bronze urn from Cambodia, puzzled over a case of Victorian curios. Museums offer surprises, even shocks, that you can't get by buying an object, if only because you buy things you already know you want. By having smart professionals do the collecting for the entire society, we get exposed to experiences we'd never have otherwise. We can learn to share values with people, or whole cultures, with quite other tastes and concerns. A museum can even get a non-driving art critic thinking deeply about a juiced-up Harley.

I don't buy the idea that you have to live with a fine object to truly get to know it. I've spent nearly my entire life living with the square-in-square abstractions of Bauhaus master Josef Albers. I've enjoyed their company. But I can honestly say that I'd never seen them as well, or understood them better, than when I contemplated precisely those same works in a recent show at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn museum. Home includes all the mess that goes with living.

A few collectors can display their works as well as a museum can. But even for such people, only a museum can make looking the only task at hand.

As for commercial galleries and antique fairs, they are first and foremost venues for shopping. Maybe what I like most about museums is how they can pull a few notable objects out of the cycle of consumption we're all drowning in. It's hard not to notice that many of our biggest problems, from global warming to the housing bubble to credit-card hell, stem from our love of owning ever more and bigger stuff. Works of art can easily get caught up in that consumerist frenzy, becoming just more disposable commodities on their way to the landfill. And museums, at their best, can turn those works into communal goods to be shared by us all, and preserved for the future. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I've got a sense that each of us can afford to own less, because a museum is doing better owning, for everyone.

I've nothing against the market for art and precious things. It's one fine way to get rare objects preserved and to keep their makers fed. It's just that I don't believe that the market should be the place to go to truly experience important objects. At best, a gallery or showroom is where you first taste works you hope someday to devour in a museum.

You could say that when objects are worth having in a great museum, they're worth too much, to all of us, for any one person to own them.

Magical objects

Some of them are in our museums only because all of us deserve the chance to genuflect in front of them, in a public place, as a communal act. Barely anyone could really profit from getting a close, considered look at the Constitution's first printing, or at Bell's 1876 telephone or at the first rocks to come home from the moon. We put such objects in museums as almost-holy relics, or icons, of central values and moments in our culture.

Of course, most artifacts or artworks weren't made to sit in a museum. A medieval chalice wasn't commissioned as what we would call "art," for dispassionate contemplation; it was made to live in a church, for the passionate invocation of favors from God. Titian's stunning portrait of the 12-year-old Ranuccio Farnese in the National Gallery was made to live in a palace, to shore up his family's power. Titian's nude "Venus With a Mirror" may have been a sex aid before it was art -- but that doesn't mean you should drop your pants at the National Gallery. You stay clothed in front of it because, whatever purpose such artifacts might once have served, once they're in a museum, they become pure objects of contemplation. And that's where museums come into their own.

A museum can be thought of as a microscope or telescope. It's custom-made to let us scrutinize what certain talented humans have turned out -- looking at a medieval chalice and thinking through how each detail invokes God, or considering how sexy a sex piece might have seemed to its patron. In a history museum, Remington's first typewriter (capital letters only) isn't there to help you correspond, as it once would have done. It's there so you can turn your mind to concepts such as "firsts" and "writing" and "machines."

The point is just that however and whatever you want to think about an object, you need to have the space and time to look at it first.

And there's simply nowhere that's as good for doing that as a museum.

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