Why The Metropolitan Museum of Art is Cool

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I had some free time on Saturday, so I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I got there around 5, the museum closed at 9, so that gave me 4 hours to kill.

I paid the full $25 admission fee, although the guy who took the money told me that a lot of people don’t pay that much, since it’s a pay-what-you-want kind of deal. “Some people pay a penny,” he said. I didn’t feel like I overpaid. In fact, I thought I underpaid.

Change in New York is rapid. One building goes up, another three get knocked down. Transplants move in, residents move out. Streets are widened, blocks are bulldozed and neighborhoods change. Everything is temporary.

The Met’s been around since 1870, and in its 5th avenue location since 1880, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I woke up one day and heard the museum was moving elsewhere. It happens. And yet the fact that the Met is still here makes me feel good.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to get to museums more, visiting as often as I can, in as varied locations as I can. I still don’t do a great job at this, but I’ve been to a few off-beat ones around the country, and others abroad. How people treat history says a lot about them.

What I wanted to see at the Met — which I’d been to last year around this time — I wasn’t sure. I figured I’d wander around, let my eyes guide me, my feet move me in whatever direction my heart told me to go. Nothing is more boring than having an exact destination.

So I walked in and somehow found myself in an area called “Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia.” From there, I ventured to another part dubbed “Asian Art.” This is something I saw there:

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Rama Releases the Demon Spies Shuka and Sarana: Folio from a Ramayana ‘Siege of Lanka’ Series (ca. 1725) — Manaku

Each of these areas has sub-sections, all particularly specific, and I easily spent two hours there, listening to the audio guide, reading descriptions. It was all very educational, although I can’t possibly remember any of it, because information about so many different things at once has the complete opposite effect — it’s impossible to retain anything.

But I noticed this part of the museum was empty, almost desolate. No tourists, no traffic. In the sub-section with Indian art, Art of the Mughals Before 1600, there was only a smattering of people.

One was a woman, possibly Indian or Pakistani. She had young children in tow, and was trying to get them interested, but they didn’t seem to care. Instead, they were captivated by an iPhone.

“Technology. It will teach my children everything, yet nothing at all,” I imagined her thinking. She sighed and shook her head. I moved on.

I landed in “European Paintings, 1250–1800,” where works by van Gogh, Cezanne, Goya, Gauguin and many other giants reside. This part of the museum was very crowded, for obvious reasons. But in one of the smaller sub-sections, I found this gem.

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“Wanderer in the Storm” (1835)— Julius von Leypold

For some time, I just stood there and stared at this. I did the same at many others. Some of these paintings are so beautiful that it is hard not to get swept up in their majesty. You look at them and think, Jesus, what am I doing with myself? Is anything I’m doing going to compare to this? Will it last this long?

I’d get up close to them, look at the paint as it was painted, however many years ago. I’d spot little cracks in the canvas, the past muscling its way into the present. I’d think: there was this person with this vision, toiling away, perhaps by candlelight since there was no electricity, and here it is now. A hundred, two hundred, three hundred years later — it’s still here, it’s still here.

Before long, I’d find myself with tears in my eyes. Moved by the art, but also by the fact that in a world of constant change, where the future comes knocking before the present even gets its shoes off, here is a thing that is permanent. Maybe not forever, but in this museum, at least for right now.

After that section, I began trying to locate “American Art,” but on my way there I got sidetracked by “Arms and Armor.” That’s exactly what it sounds like — swords, shields, armor, guns, ammo and other assorted doodads historically used to harm others and/or protect oneself.

This is where all the bros were. Men in button down shirts, talking loudly, as if the Met was a college bar in Murray Hill. I didn’t mind. But it was interesting — here were all hyper-masculine men. I was there too, so I couldn’t hate. Things you kill people with are exciting!

The weapons were beautiful, decorated with religious flourishes, embellishments typical of the time period they were created in. They made me think about how something so devastating, so capable of taking life, can also have a life of its own. I started asking myself questions like:

Who used this weapon? Who was he? What kind of family did he have? How did he feel about being a knight? How many battles did he fight? How many people did he kill with this weapon? Those people, what were they like? What were they fighting for? Were they all standing around thinking: What is my purpose here? Like, why me? Ughh, the Mongol Invasion. I’m so over it. I can’t even deal.

Humor aside, I recognize that a lot of these questions are terribly naive, the kind of stuff a 6-year-old thinks about, but then, I also think that part of being a happy, content adult involves retaining a child-like sense of wonder about things. When you think you’ve got everything figured out and stop asking questions — even the silly ones — that’s when you’re lost.

Anyway, I eventually made it to the American wing, where I came face-to-face with this:

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“Washington Crossing the Delaware” (1851) — Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

Of course, I’d seen “Washington Crossing the Delaware” before, because who hasn’t? It’s one of the most famous paintings in American history.

What I didn’t know was how much of it was fabricated. Things like: Washington is sailing in the wrong direction; there were no horses on the boats; the ice was much smaller than it appears. Heck, nobody could cross a river like that.

By the time I’d finished looking at it, time was winding down and the museum was getting ready to close. I quickly glanced at a few other paintings, then resigned myself to the fact that to take it all in, I’d need to return on another day.

That was okay. The Metropolitan Museum wasn’t going anywhere. For now.

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Wrote for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Vice, Fader, Vibe, XXL, MTV News, many other places.

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