All is right with the world. I have proof.
I'm at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see the Matisse/Diebenkorn exhibition. I arrive early with Rob, my trooper of a husband. He’s agreed to be my companion through the permanent collection galleries before our afternoon ticket time.
What I witness restores my faith in humanity.
Here’s how it goes down.
Is It Art?
As a former museum educator, I know that it’s wise to avoid school tours in the galleries. If I had thought about that, I might have visited later in the day. But then I wouldn’t have been fortunate enough to have had this experience.
There is at least one group in each of the galleries. Most students have assignments and a docent.
One docent teaches native Spanish speakers how to say Marcel Duchamp.
She stands in front of Duchamp’s Fountain and asks: Is it art? They are pretty certain it isn’t. It’s a urinal, for Pete’s sake.
I don't stick around to hear more of their reasoning. I already feel like I'm an intruder.
I’m less interested in the art history lecture than in the way these kids are fully engaged with the art. They are hanging on every word she says.
My husband finds me and asks what I’m up to. “This docent is awesome,” I say.
Then I catch a glimpse of another heartwarming scene.
Big Floaty Shapes
A man with glasses is sitting on a bench – flanked by two other gentlemen. They’re worshipping at the altar that is Mark Rothko’s No. 14 from 1960.
At first they seem like buddies hanging out on their lunch break. But then I notice that the man in the middle is doing all of the talking and pointing. The other two are nodding. Their heads follow his every direction.
The man in the center, the docent, brings a Joan Mitchell into the conversation with Rothko. Compare. Contrast.
His audience eventually moves on, but he’s quickly in the spotlight again with an even larger group.
He’s a human magnet.
I'm hanging in the wings – amazed by his knowledge and desire to share what he knows. He is turning these visitors into raving fans. I’m immediately a fan of him.
My husband circles back around to find me once again absorbing the scene. “Man, this guy is really good!”
I still feel like a voyeur, but I can’t stop listening.
Dirt and Mirrors
We’re on to sculpture and the docent who had the kids at Duchamp now stands them in front of Robert Smithson’s Nonsite (Essen Soil and Mirrors). It consists of mirrors and (as the title states) soil.
Once again, high school kids, who are usually some of the biggest skeptics, are completely present and curious.
They’re having a serious conversation about dirt and mirrors! They understand there is something more to it and decide that it’s worth investigating.
They might not have a solid grasp of English, but they grasp the language of art.
This is when I lose it.
Tears begin to well up in my eyes. I can't contain them.
I am overcome with emotion and look for a place to sit down because I’m compelled to capture this experience before it leaves me. I scribble …
“This is where all is right in the world.”
“Engaged in humanity.”
“Best of humanity.”
I continue crying. I am so freakin’ moved. Life is beautiful.
My husband wanders in (again) and is concerned. “What's wrong?” He wonders. I can't talk about it. Not just yet.
It's hard to explain what’s happening to the mathematician-physicist I married.
I am overcome not by art, though that has happened on other occasions.
In this moment, I am overcome with love. Love of all that is right with the world.
Art has the power to bring people together, discover, and discuss their common humanity.
All I can think is Damn! I’m so lucky to get this! And blessed to witness others whose lives might be shaped – for the better – in that moment.
Before we left for our quick trip, my husband had an interesting conversation with his hair stylist.
After she heard he was going to see an art exhibit in San Francisco, she shook her head and said with a scowl, “Art! I just don’t get it.”
I hope one day she is fortunate enough to happen upon a docent as knowledgeable as the ones we encountered. She doesn’t have to get it. But I hope that she is open to new experiences and has a growth mindset.
Because if you happen upon the right people with the right words and a keen amount of patience, you might be taken on a journey you’ll never forget.
One final note: the Matisse/Diebenkorn show was also well worth the trip.
Please leave a comment to tell me the art experiences you’ve had that reaffirm that life is, indeed, beautiful.