I work a stone's throw from a nice, fairly typical midwestern art museum. Today I had an unexpected opportunity to go into the bowels
of the building and see where they put the stuff that isn't on display. We entered
through giant doors suitable for wheeling in large art objects into a clean
white humidity-controlled space about the size of a typical McDonald's restaurant.
The first, and most wonderful thing I noticed was the smell of age in the room.
The second was the orderly clutter, as pieces of art from most periods and cultures
were pushing the limits of the available space. 19th century busts of prominent
citizens sat next to African tribal art and Chinese ceramics. A romanesque stele was stored
in a wooden frame upside down against the wall to protect a joined crack. A
cast of part of a statue by Paul Manship was on a shelf just below
a beautiful Egyptian
bas-relief and an Etruscan terracotta head. Behind me were
century-old Native American pots from the four corners region.
I was present by the suffrance of the museum direction so I couldn't poke around
much, but on a lower shelf, carefully stored on its back, was a small marble
bust of the emperor Augustus. I was so content I could hardly contain myself.
For some reason, objects always seem more real when they're not mediated through a display
case and a didactic writeup--it's like direct access to the "real thing".
Why should people be so affected by stuff, especially old stuff? A
constant refrain is that it's the ideas latent in art, the pattern of evolution
of style and iconography that's important, not the physical objects in themselves.
To be transported by mere things is a sign of rank materialism, of connoisseurship,
or of an antiquarian disposition, none of which can easily be portrayed as achievements
these days. And yet, there's something about being in the presence of honest-to-god
artifacts that can't be found (by me, at any rate) in any number of clever books
about art history. I have no great insights about the interaction between art and people, but I do know that I feel recharged
about a great many things I love after that visit.