Asking For It

There were so many rooms in Chicago, and I was desperate to see all of them– the modern wing, the Grant Wood, all of it.  I had been to the Art Institute ten years prior– I just didn’t remember anything but a room tinted blue and taking off one boot to touch my winter virgin foot to the March lawn.  Only for a minute.  Like touching a chicken at a petting zoo when you are a grown-up and you know you should have no lust for touching a chicken.  I wanted live, plump blades of grass on the sole of my foot.  The lawn was new and intimidating, and my foot loved it.

Back in Chicago, a decade hence, I was with a teacher friend instead of an artist friend.  I loved drinking with him.  I loved sharing stories.  He is one of the tenderest, most amicable people in my life.  But he is not a person who would plan an entire vacation around the paintings he would see.  He would not view a trip to MoMA as the erotic height of a week in New York, feeling the heat off the paintings from blocks away.  He’s more like, you know, a normal person.

We stood in front of a particularly energetic canvas, a violently splashy mess of tangy colors.  No scribbling– I don’t like scribbing– but blotches and streaks that were even and uneven at the same time, carrot gratings and Nancy Drew flashlight streaks, a rambling that held together quite well.  I lapped it and lapped it up until I had drunk up the whole thing.

“I mean, like this,” my friend said.  My friend, keeper of my most vulnerable questions, sharer of a hundred bottles of wine and many an intimidating task.  “What is the point of this?”

“Okay, okay.”  I began.  “See how thoughtful the color is? Green down here, and then up here, for tension.  See the shape of it?  Like a cartoon cloud?  See how the lines go up here, then over there, and pull your eye around so you want everything?  And the crowdedness here versus the lightness up here?  This up here keeps it together, the common length and rhythm of lines, and this movement pulls it around to keep it interesting.  See?”

I’ve been to a lot of museums, and spend a lot of time in the 20th century section.  I’ve heard a lot of people sneer at the Pollocks and the Rothkos.  I enjoy people mocking those kinds of paintings.  For one thing, I know the paintings can take it.  It’s like how I’m never defensive when people joke about Jesus.  If you think Jesus was one of the coolest people ever, then surely he could take a damn joke.  Pollock and Rothko and Jesus don’t need defending.  People who aren’t into them don’t need master’s degrees or talking-tos or evangelists.  They’re not asking for anything.  Often, they’re honest, and sometimes, they’re funny.  Both honesty and humor are essentially good.

I thought my friend was asking for something, though.  What did I see?  Why did I love it?

“Really?” he said.

I grinned.  He shrugged.  We kept moving, me with my eyes, he just with the feet.


For all we know, the soul of Perneb is wandering around, flustered, like a smoker without a Quik Trip at 3 am.  Perneb believed, or at least some of his friends and family believed, that he needed a tomb with a false door to keep his soul nourished.  Unfortunately, Mr. Edward S. Harkness gave Perneb’s tomb to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1913, and they hauled it over to New York City, stone by stone.

What if someone bought your dad’s grave and took it apart and sent it far away, so you couldn’t leave flowers?  What if we moved the Jews out of Jerusalem and told them Beijing is just as good?  What if we turned the Lincoln Memorial into a casino?  How close in time or space do people have to be to earn our respect?  How long dead is dead enough to be disregarded?

In Chicago, at the Field Museum, visitors circulate past at least a dozen dead bodies.  The ancient Egyptians felt like bodies were important.  So important that they carefully preserved them.  Their religious beliefs don’t matter to us, though.  For us, their religion is foolish and primitive, and their execution of religious ritual is only something to be studied and gawked at.  Mummies of men, women, and children are on display.  Some people say, “Ooh, gross, spooky.”  Some people look soberly at death.

I wouldn’t have such a problem with this if I weren’t well aware that many people find my religion foolish and primitive.  Our main story is about a guy coming back from the dead, a motif so common in the ancient world as to be wholly unremarkable.  In fact, the ancient Egyptians used that story too, it’s just that their guy was named “Osiris,” and he appears bandaged up, returning to his beloved wife, in a tender alternate version of the Jesus story.  Death can’t beat us.  Human love is powerful.  That’s what they believed.  That’s what I believe.

The mummies in Chicago are residents of a Natural History Museum, and they certainly are history.  Many places, though, including Kansas City, mummies are in art museums.  What makes a mummy art?  It wasn’t intended for display.  It was intended for burial.  I don’t understand how it could be art any more than a corpse straight from Newcomer’s Funeral Home.  There is an art to caring for and decorating the dead.  My great-grandfather was that sort of artist.  I’m just not sure it’s an art that belongs in a museum.

I suspect that the preservation of the body is not necessary for the health of the soul.  It does say something about us, though, that we have rather recently come to show some meager respect to Native American religious beliefs, and continue to show absolutely none to people whose cultures have died or morphed beyond recognition.  Separating who you respect from who you don’t is a dangerous game.

Perneb’s name means “my Lord has come forth to me.”  He worked in the court, robing and crowning the king.  We don’t know a lot else about him.  It’s possible he’d even be pleased about his change of eternal address.  I hope that, like me, he loves being in New York.