Can You See It All?

Yesterday I visited an old, best friend - the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  When I first moved to New York City in 1983, I lived at the YWHA on 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue, just a few blocks from the Museum.  I would walk by it and look up the big front steps in awe.  I was too scared to actually enter it.  Finally,  I had to go inside because one of my first year classes at Cooper Union required us to go there.  It was overwhelming - but in a good way.  I couldn't believe that I missed all those other opportunities to spend time in there but, better late than never, as they say.

One of the privileges of living in New York is that you can pick and choose what to see at the Met; make short visits to see just one thing.  Now that I no longer live there, I almost immediately started to feel the urge to spend hours looking at everything.  It is, of course, impossible but I am not sure if there is a much better way to spend one's time.  The place is a human-made miracle.

And yet.  Yesterday, I entered the Museum, made my donation and hustled myself to the far reaches of the American wing to see Sara Berman's closet, an installation/reproduction of Maira Kalman's mother's closet.  Her story is fascinating and her closet essentially tells the story without giving away any secrets.  She only wore white and her things were always perfectly folded and arranged.  There is a bench set right in front of it so I was able to sit and just take it in for a good, long while.  There was something so touching, so meaningful about the simplicity and ordinariness of it all.  And it felt important to tell this story, not that I really know or understand what, exactly, this story is.

Sara Berman's closet, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through the end of January, 2018.

Sara Berman's closet, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through the end of January, 2018.

After I spent time there, I wandered over to see an exhibition of drawings in the Lehman Wing, which always seems kind of fun and strange since it is so unlike everywhere else in the Museum.  It was a collection of drawings from the European Renaissance to the Impressionists - masterpieces, all.  But something in me could barely stand to look at them.  Maybe it was Sara Berman's closet that made it impossible to see these drawings and not think about all the women who might have made masterpieces but were not allowed to because they were female.  To think of the masterpieces made by people of color that have yet to be recognized as masterpieces because we live in a place and time where the word means, by default, white and male.

These drawings - these gorgeous drawings! - just looked like blood and violence and oppression to me.  Especially by the Nineteenth Century, I could barely look at these depictions of female nude bodies.  Why are we still glorifying this? is all I could think.

I sat for a long while in the big open space of the Medieval hall and thought about these reactions.  I felt some tenderness towards the awe-struck 18 year old who somehow managed to find herself in a relationship with all this art, despite its heavily male perspective.  How much of myself did I need to push to the side in order to feel it?  Surely the purpose of art is to transcend such things?  Still, now that it felt impossible to see this work without the blood stains on it, has it been ruined for me? 

Can I appreciate it all - the beauty and the violence that it represents?  It's big question for all of us.  It is tragic that the majority of the world needs to push aside their own experience in order to relate to this work, which is given so much importance and value.  I am glad that I live in a time when that is starting to shift.  I can feel the call to make sure that my own voice, however small, is heard.  Maybe your's needs to be too?