Here’s a holiday gift idea: Take someone you love to an art museum.
Just go. Take your mom. Take your husband. Take your girlfriend.
Meet them there, or catch the train in together. And remember: No pressure. It’s not like a play or a movie or a concert, which your companion might like but might just as easily hate, leaving you both stuck in your seats, and you feeling responsible. You can walk out of a gallery any time.
And you don’t have to ask someone you love. Try just someone you more-or-less like. Your mother-in-law. Your boss. The lonely old widower you sometimes shovel snow alongside. Go on a date with your lab partner, the one you think is giving you funny looks. Or a double date with the couple you used to see on weekends before they moved out of the neighborhood.
Have a plan, or don’t. Personally, I like to know where I’ll be having lunch. But other than that, I’m up for anything.
Don’t be like those determined gold-diggers carrying metal detectors on the beach. You don’t have to scour the entire museum. Just wander through one or two galleries, then out again. (Worried about the expense? Pick up a pass at your local library, wait for free evenings, or become a member to keep the cost way down.)
If you’re in New York, spend half an hour at the Whitney Museum of American Art, then wander along the High Line. If you’re in San Francisco, go to the de Young, then sit down to eat in the Japanese Tea Garden. In St. Louis, if you’re done gorging on Matisse and Max Beckmann, wander across the way to Picnic Island.
In Boston, I like to drop in to Harvard Art Museums, then meander up through Harvard Yard to my favorite ramen place, Santouka. Sometimes, it’s nice to be on my own. But generally if I’m in company, things look and taste better.
Another suggestion: Don’t wait for the big Delacroix retrospective at the Met, or the massive Warhol extravaganza with the huge lines at the Whitney, the expensive tickets, the two hours of ridiculous jostling. Just wander through the permanent collection.
You don’t even have to go to one of the big museums. There’s a decent chance (America is so lucky!) the college art museum a lovely hour’s drive away has a Delacroix, but if it doesn’t, it will have an Ingres, a Corot, a Courbet, a Seurat, a Cezanne, a Monet and a Morisot. The French 19th century in a nutshell, in other words, on permanent display. And no crowds.
But wait. You’ve never heard of Corot? You “know nothing about art”?
I hear this a lot. I get it. There’s no end of stuff I know nothing about. But really? You’re telling me you don’t know how to look at pictures?
Let me help: That, there, is a battle scene; you can tell by the smoke and the guns and the frightened-looking horses. That, next to it, is a portrait of a feisty-looking woman wearing a big, white ruff — she clearly means business. The painting in the next gallery is “abstract,” which means it’s not a picture of anything, per se — but it’s okay if it reminds you of a goat. Over here is just about the most desolate, melancholy landscape in the world. And there is what some lucky people look like without their underwear.
It’s not hard is all I’m saying. I dropped English literature at college after a few weeks because I couldn’t keep up with the reading. I took up art history because it felt good to be flicking through picture books in the knowledge that I was studying.
And I was, by the way. I learned a lot. Museums, too, are great for that. You’re learning — and learning to learn, to discern, to discriminate — without putting in much effort. If there were a comparable fitness technique, it would become the next craze in a flash.
I know surgeons who take their busy students to museums to sharpen their observational skills. It makes them better diagnosticians. I wonder, too, whether my kids wouldn’t learn more than they do at school by spending their days at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Everything about Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt is there for the taking. Civics and social studies? Covered. Comparative religion? American history? Race? Colonialism? Trade? Economics? It’s all there.
And, of course, you’re looking at the real thing, not textbooks. That Egyptian statue of Menkaure and his queen survived 4,500 years of human strife to be here. It has more to say to you and me than either of us could possibly know what to do with.
But hang on. This was supposed to be a holiday gift, not an obligation to improve oneself!
Quite right. Consider then the trappings, the wrapping, the satin bow: You’re going to a big, beautiful building with vast, stately rooms. It’s heated. There’s coffee and cake. The bathrooms are clean.
Better yet, there are things here you just can’t believe. Some are so beautiful you want to cry. They’re sensuous. They’re surprising. They’re full of poetry and feeling. Over here a child’s violin from the 18th century. Over there the most elaborate vision of hell you’ve ever seen. And here a zebra in the gardens of Buckingham Palace.
Those model ships, those Japanese ceramics, those Dutch winter landscapes. You try to imagine what it would be like to be alive back then, shoveling snow with your neighbor, skating on the canals of Amsterdam in the gloaming, centuries before the advent of electric light, when merchants and missionaries voyaged through storms on the high seas, arriving in Japan wary, bewildered, intrigued.
Pay attention and you realize: Every object here is like this. It’s all so strange.
So, skip the stuff that bores you. Don’t even turn your head. Enjoy the luxury of letting whole galleries, entire schools of painting, centuries of civilization slide by in a Gerhard Richter-like blur as you laser in on those satin skirts in the painting by Gerard ter Borch, or hunt down your daughter’s reliable favorite, Copley’s “Watson and the Shark,” or simply follow the signs to the bathroom.
Then leave. It’s time for lunch. Don’t fret about what you missed. This stuff is not going anywhere. It’s yours. It’s your daughter’s. It will be here, just as dazzling, when you come back in April. And it will be here, God willing, 50 years hence, when someone you love — or perhaps just someone you like — is kind enough to push you, in your wheelchair, past these same, extraordinary creations.