Art and Leisure

It began when the local brand-name coffeeporium closed for renovations -- they are going to make the cash box bigger, I guess -- and I decided to bike three miles for a cappuccino. In this way, I could not only continue to drink reliable brand-name espresso, but would in the bargain get some ”exercise,“ a thing I have been meaning to try for quite some time. Therefore I tucked my left trouser leg into its neighboring sock -- the poor man’s bicycle clip, though I don‘t suppose there’s any such thing as a rich man‘s bicycle clip -- and headed out into the world, past the big houses of the well-heeled, and on into more ordinary neighborhoods, down the street where my granny used to live, then skirting the mystical and perilous city of The Grove risen apparently full-grown from the earth that seemed so much nicer before, and finally to Farmers Market, where I drank my caffeine. Then I rode home. I felt quite a sense of accomplishment and an encouraging illusion of health.

So I thought I’d go a little farther the next time, and a couple of days later made the County Museum of Art my target. The thing is to have a destination: Simple exercise is both intimidating and dull; I can get it only by tricking myself into thinking I am doing something else. And now not only would I fool myself into exercise in the pursuit of culture, I would fool myself into culture in the pursuit of exercise. This is called synergy.

One of the primary reasons to live in a city, even as suburban a city as this, is the proximity to ”culture.“ Unlike his country cousin, the city mouse requires the nearness of museums and theaters (where the plays sometimes feature real TV stars) and access to the kind of movies that will never come to the Hooterville Fiveplex -- even if he does not actually patronize them. Indeed, the frequent upshot of having something close at hand is that you ignore it completely. Yet one likes to know it‘s there; one could go. One could. There is always that possibility. And one might if nothing else come into contact with other city mice who have gone to see Scoopy’s new paintings or Blooey‘s new film or Floofy’s latest performance, the one where he cut off his tail with a carving knife. Did you ever see such a sight in your life?

Of course, culture holds a special place in Our Town, and when I say ”special,“ I mean something like ”relatively unimportant“ or possibly ”suspect.“ This is the city that famously ignored Schoenberg and Stravinsky, Brecht and Mann, Huxley and Waugh, that for decades couldn‘t field a ballet or an opera company, or didn’t care to, a city that wears its philistinism with perverse pride; as a native, I know the feeling. We‘re not like New York or London, where the lively arts are woven into the fabric of the civic identity, so that the museums and theaters are not only local touchstones but tourist attractions, as well. People come here for Disneyland, for stars in the sidewalk. In spite of the fact that I think of LACMA as a second-rate museum, I have great affection for its holdings, having known them since I was but a wee thing. If I say that deciding between a trip to the museum and a trip to Farmers Market, between going to see the pretty pictures and going to see the pink-elephant cake, is a six-of-onehalf-dozen-of-the-other proposition, I think that reflects well on the museum.

So, where one day I bicycled to Farmers Market, the next I bicycled to the art museum. I went first to LACMA West, which used to be the May Co., an appropriate conversion given that a museum is after all a kind of non-retail department store -- there are even plates and cups and clothing and furniture on display -- and museum-going a rarefied form of window-shopping. I was admiring a Diego Rivera landscape when swarms of schoolchildren began to arrive, in waves, insufficiently overseen: The guards had disappeared, and their adult keepers distracted or possibly just confused -- perhaps they thought it was still the May Co. -- the kids stroked the paintings with impunity, making literal the concept of a ”hands-on“ museum. (I might have appreciated this as a revolutionary gesture, but detecting none went and told the proper authorities.) Back in the old LACMA, soon to be Rem Koolhaus--ed in pursuit of NYC-style art tourism, it was quieter. The guards, looking trapped and bored, outnumbered the patrons. I asked one whether they moved him from room to room from day to day, and he said, yes and a good thing too or he’d go crazy.

There is a sense in which museums are where art goes to die, and it is some sort of unsolvable paradox that, though it is better that great works reside where the general public can get at them, art is -- or used to be, and possibly should be again -- made to be lived with. It belongs in the home, or the agora, where you can ignore it at your leisure, study it by degrees. The stop-stare-go-stop-stare-go rhythm of moving through the galleries is really antithetical to art appreciation; it‘s as hard to get to truly know a painting in a museum as it is an elephant in the zoo. I’ve also found that it‘s nearly impossible to say anything in one that doesn’t sound pretentious or stupid -- or both. You‘re always either betraying your ignorance or looking like a showoff. Sometimes my jaw aches from the strain of clamping it shut. So I restrict myself to saying things like, ”I like it,“ or if there is an animal in the picture I might say, ”Kitty!“ or ”Puppy!“ That is stupid, too, perhaps, but stupid on my terms.

I had a nice time there, nevertheless -- I saw some things I liked, some kittens and puppies, and communed for 15 seconds with a Monet brush stroke. But it was still a relief to get out into the light and air and the world of real kittens and puppies. Art is culture; but culture is more than art. Given a day, say, in Paris -- oh please, please, somebody give me a day in Paris -- you’d find me not at the Louvre but in some ordinary cafe with a coffee drink and some bready thing, regarding le monde from behind Le Monde. On my local street of food and consumption, where I stopped on the way home, there were schoolchildren, too, and the shelves of the shops were full of things it was okay to touch (though if you break it, you buy it). I saw a grown woman in a Cub Scout shirt, and then actual Cub Scouts, one of whom sold me a candy bar with bits of ”toofy“ in it. All around me, people were using the artifacts of some future museum‘s keeping -- paper cup, early 21st century, artist unknown -- little suspecting the riches they held.


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