Whither the Sensual World?

In March of this year I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The next day, I left New York and drove back to my home in Delaware County. On that day, the museum closed due to the Covid 19 pandemic. That day began the long suspended world we now live in. Artists, musicians, theater artists, dancers have since then made attempts to practice their art in ways that we call “virtual”, using all the various platforms of the internet that allow us to sit in our rooms and watch an approximation of what used to be (and with some luck, will be again) the real world of space and reaction, audience and touch and visual and audio sensuality that has been our world up until the year of 2020.

A few weeks ago, the Met announced it was opening its doors again under strict pandemic guidelines to assure that the museum is not too crowded and that viewers take precautions not to catch or spread the little invisible pests that cause havoc on our respiratory systems. Having been one of zillions who find the virtual world of art, acting, music, etc. extremely unsatisfactory and depressing, I decided to make the trip to New York last week to visit the Met (as well as one of my favorite galleries, St. Etienne). I thought it would be a nice visual experience to see the assemblage of Jacob Lawrence paintings of the American experience. In person.

On my wanderings through the American wing to get to the Lawrence exhibit I feasted on the many twentieth century paintings that grace those walls. Paintings that make you stand in wonder at this magnificent art form and those whose gigantic talents move us through a meditation of visual stillness. Paintings have always seemed to me be the closest art to poetry. Good poetry can be read and re-read, always revealing something new each time. The same happens with a painting. But I don’t think you can experience this discovery and rediscovery without seeing the painting directly, having in front of you with its texture and real world dimension. In the middle of the pandemic, standing in front of these paintings, I was aware of how what a human privilege it is to see works that are tremendously moving and filled with the context of the epochs they came from.

I have never especially been a big admirer of Edward Hopper, but there I was, entranced by his painting of a restaurant with a waitress preparing a fruit counter (can’t remember the title), and acutely aware of its’ painterliness. The word “painterly” I learned from the painters who have been personal friends of mine, and for me the term goes to the dimension that is added to the two-dimensions we think of when we consider paintings. Paintings are, if one observes there painterliness, anything but two-dimensional. And this is why it is impossible to understand and experience a painting without being in front of the actual work.

The sensuality of my visit to the museum that day was unlike any other time viewing paintings of the stature seen at the Met. Our world is a world that cannot be reproduced by the “virtual”, in my opinion. And that world, I think, is in danger of slipping away. The pandemic has shown how important it is. Perhaps that is the silver lining of the pandemic; the appreciation of what is real and sensual.

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