Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Commentary Concerning Musuems

In the latest Gilbert! Magazine, Fr. James Schall, S.J. has an excellent article on the modern institution of the musuem. Apparently, Chesterton disliked musuems. The article left me wondering why I do like them, and whether my liking is a good thing.

But first, Gilbert's reasons for dislike.

Chesterton classifies two types of sightseers. First is the accidental sight-seer, who sees a sight while going about his daily business, and the sight surprises him with what he did not know before and was not expecting to learn. This is a good sort of sight-seer because the sight effects him in a good way by way of surprise. Second is the type of sightseer called a pilgrim, the sort of person who goes to a place of pilgrimage with the deliberate purpose of seeing what they know to be there. This sort of person is good because they become holier and/or satisfy a good human desire. But a musuem, says Chesterton/Fr. Schall, is not for either of these sorts of people. Rather, this overstuffed institution is for specialists and for people who go there to learn philosophically disconnected bits of more or less useless and unedifying information.

Frankly, I was troubled. I LOVE going to musuems. Is something wrong with me? Chesterton says that when we dislike something, we ought to investigate our reasons for the dislike; that is what he does in the essay Fr. Shcall refers to. After reading Fr. Schall's essay, however, I am wondering whether I ought to investigate the reasons I like something. Antifreeze tastes good just like sugar, you know.

One thing was quite cosoling to me. I do not go to musuems as a specialist. When I was in Dallas, I went to a musuem of Oriental art, not because I am a specialist in Oriental art (though I daresay I might know more than many other Americans), but because I like it. And I daresay that I have never gone to a musuem just to learn about something about which I already knew a great deal; I always went because I wanted to.

But neither have I gone and been philosophically disconnected. Although the musuems may not provide the connections, in a way, it is appropriate that they do not. By the very fact that the connections are not provided, one is much freer to MUSE upon those very connections or lack thereof, provided they are even aware that the notion of philosophical connectedness exists. In the very hell-heart of philosophical disconnectedness, a Modern Art musuem, the muse is at work, forcing us to ponder what we can guess about the philosophical beliefs (or again, the lack thereof) of the artist. If all else fails, one can say "Ultimately, God made that, and that, and that and that and..." and come away better than they went in. Going to a musuem to contemplate...that sounds just like a pilgrim.

But in fact, I think that my personal style of purposefully also includes the method of the surprised traveller. In no place other than a musuem (and this is brought out wonderfully in "Night in the Musuem") can you EXPECT A SURPRISE. One goes to a musuem expecting to learn an "I know not what," whether it be that Catholic Priests appear in Mideval Japanese art, or that Evolution is a good story, regardless of whether or not it is true, or that the Musuem of Modern Art in DC serves the best ice cream in the world.

Let us not lament the existence of musuems; let us lament those who use them improperly.


Bob Cook said...

Well, I can't figure out how to find your e-mail address, so I'll use this. Does your interest in music extend to Barbershhop singing? Do you plan to attend the Chesterton Conf in Seattle, this year. I trying to find some Chestertonians who might like to get together at the Conf and ring a few chords. I thought we might call any quartet formed the "Chestertones".

Ancient Greek Philosopher said...

You've tasted antifreeze before???!!??!?!

Why does it seem like Chesterton always likes surprises?

Dr. Thursday said...

A chief constituent of antifreeze is ethylene glycol - in "glycol", the root "glyc"/"gluc" is Greek for "sweet" - it appears in words like "glycerine" and "glucose" and "licorice", oddly enough, where the G got eroded. (I personally have never tasted antifreeze nor glycerine.)

Also, about music: I think you could easily get some music-types together; there's been several music "productions" at the "Traditions" after the final banquet. Like singing drinking songs, and so on. A very good time.

Old Fashioned Liberal said...

Mr. Cook,
I would love to sing Barbershop quartet at the conference in Seattle, but that means I have to go there, which is desirable but uncertain. My range goes from two G's below middle C to the E above middle c (and the F or G above, on a good day), by the way. If you want to communicate further, put your e-mail in a comment on Disciples of Diotima, one of my other blogs. Those comments are moderated. I will not publish the comment, but I (and I alone) will be able to read it, and thus we will be able to communicate that way. By the way, I'm only 18. Is that too young to be singing Barbershop quartet?

AGP, No I have not. But my dad has. And You think I'm adventerous and experimental...actualy he tasted it by accident :).