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Flamingos in the museum


Museums are funny places. You take something as inherently unruly, juicy and impious as a work of art should be, and place it in a home of immaculate manners, unflinching protocols, sterilized walls and ask it, all the same, to be itself. What happens to a work when you impose those atmospheric sanitations?


When, for instance, you look at Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, by Picasso, its papal grandeur in New York, and then recall the actual place it was made, a tramp’s grotto in a tenement in Paris at a point when Picasso was almost destitute, you wonder, don’t you, what core genes were altered in that slow exaltation from poverty to wealth. In fact, so anxious was Picasso that he kept the painting hidden for two years from even his closest friends, thinking they would take him for mad (and get him deported back to Spain). Now it headlines the biggest modern museum in the world.


We forget, with any work of art, serenely framed on a museum wall, what hungry, courageous circumstances first coerced its weaving into being.


But it’s more than just a question of origin. A motley host of subsequent twists befalls any object, altering it at times as much as a religious or political conversion alters a person. Things are lost and found again. Things are stolen, maimed and eaten by goats. The great modern works of Germany, Russia, and France, under the ghastly conservatism of Hitler, become not works of courageous foresight, but artifacts of depravity to be stashed away or destroyed. Yes, Kandinsky’s great abstractions have rebounded in full from that oblivion, but they still bear the scars and angles of that diabolical redaction. They know that with any new monster, it could happen again.


Appearance matters, of course, but what an artwork knows is what makes it indispensably rich.


Only in recent history did the Mona Lisa become the Mona Lisa. Now, thanks to its rabid museum fame, it has gone beyond being a work of art: it has become a cultural pathology.

For better or worse, museums change art, exploiting it to death on one hand, or preserving its wisest secrets on the other. But how do we know how? Do museums themselves know how? Can they tell us? All we see is a picture on a wall.


I still think a home is, by far, the best place to see and enjoy a work of art in a complex weather of conversation, music, furniture, volatilities of emotions, whiffs of chocolate, and the intimate ceremonies of any life. My most beloved paradigm is still the icon in a Byzantine church, being stroked by ancient fingers, encased in smoke-blackened walls, flooded with incense, powdered with chant, emanating miracles and poppies. I’m not a believer, but god, it feels so real. How far are we from that in a modern American museum with its cocktail parties and corporate hygiene?


Each Sunday in Paris I made my way across the city to hear the organist, Jean Guillou. A mountain-top virtuoso, he would take Liszt or Bach, and, as a friend put it, Jimi Hendrix him. In short, improvise. Purists were sickened. But how else can works of art be kept alive?

The moment a work of art is hung on a wall, it starts to die. The acute calling of any performer, any museum, is one of perpetual resuscitation.


Easy enough, you may say, to improvise with Bach, or even Shakespeare–think of Richard Burton’s Hamlet. Not quite so easy with art. But one evening will always stand out in my mind. (I may have mentioned this before;) Lynne and I were teaching at the Pompidou Museum when a group of brilliant mime actors suddenly appeared, exotic as flamingos, and through their insurgent silence the painting before us opened wide and the clockwork behind was revealed.


A haunting, nearly: a true museum experience.

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