For a long time I thought I was too dumb for art. I would go to museums and stand in front of a piece worth more than my life, and simply not understand what was so great about it. This all changed when I read about Henri Nouwen and his experience with The Return of the Prodigal Son, an oil painting by Rembrandt.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt
After initially being moved in a profound way by the artwork, he went on a journey to find the original and eventually was not only able to see it, but ended up spending many uninterrupted hours alone with it.
His extended gaze led to crying, praying, smiling and more, it fed his soul.
The next time I went to a museum I tried this tactic. I chose a piece that caught my eye, and spent some time with it.
Arab Mendicant in Meditation by Charles Camino
There were people all around me, taking photos, trying to read the descriptions, and having casual conversations about aching feet and plans for lunch. I planted myself a few feet from the artwork and tried my best to focus.
In this time, I noticed the people around me would spend an average of five to ten seconds looking at the painting, and then, off to the next one.
There was enough space so people could walk in front of me if needed, but after a while, the occasional passerby, although close in proximity, seemed distant. I was in the zone. I noticed the colors, the shading, angles, and minute details. “Is that a rosary?” “No, that is a misbaḥah.” said the docent, “Right, of course!”
One minute the hooded half-hidden figure is depressed, the next he is simply deep in prayer, one minute I feel pain, the next, envy. This continued for about thirty minutes, a small miracle for my attention span, and it forever changed my approach to museums.
It’s no longer about seeing everything, it’s about spending time with something. Sitting with emotions, and using the artwork as a vessel for further reflection.
So, today I was feeling down and decided to walk to the museum. I cleaned my glasses, packed up all my emotions, put my phone on Do Not Disturb and off I went.
A few pleasantries and a cool breeze made my purposeful stroll an enjoyable one. As I approached the steps, my eager cadence slowed as I had a deflating realization, it’s Monday.
Defeated, I turned away from the closed doors and headed to the park across the street. I figured it would be a waste to go directly home, so I might as well walk a bit in the park and enjoy the weather.
Ten minutes later, this happened:
Now, this shot certainly won’t make it to the Edwynn Houk Gallery and probably won’t get more than ten likes on Instagram but, for me, it was a beautiful moment.
Standing in awe of these half barren trees allowed me to better process my emotions and even brought a brief smile to my face.
In many ways, I’m still too dumb for art. I often times find myself at a loss when faced with certain exhibitions and most of it, I cannot comprehend. I like to pretend that I do, and even think I am creative, but what I’ve realized is that none of this matters.
All that matters is how I approach the art all around me.
Will I take the time to appreciate what is in front of me, or will I rush off to the next one?
Am I open to the experience or have I already made up my mind?
Am I willing to sit in awe or am I too busy standing in judgement?
The art is there, even on a Monday.