Today, I Became a Member

Today, I put my money where my mouth is, or I bit the bullet, or I took the plunge, or I [insert over-worn idiom]: I bought a year-long membership to Nashville’s high-profile, post-office-turned-gallery Frist Center for the Visual Arts. And it feels right. Of all the things I could support, this is a thing that makes sense–for me, I mean. This is something, culturally-speaking, worth investing in. The time was right. Of course, getting the student discount didn’t hurt. But I want to believe that I’ll continue my support beyond grad school, beyond the student discount.

After purchase of said membership, I spent two-and-a-half hours wandering through the current headlining show, Treasures from the House of Alba: 500 Years of Art and Collecting. Here are some notes scrawled with a gallery pencil:

–“Being in the presence of old paintings by old masters takes me out of myself. It doesn’t matter how unmodern the work may be–when I lean in to see the gradations of fleshy pink used to describe a man’s cheekbone or the fragility of his fatigued eyes, I am transported. It happened in front of a routine portrait (the third Duke of Alba, 1628), no doubt cranked out tediously and for a healthy sum, by Peter Paul Rubens. What is it about paint that transcends the usual? Cameras may master natural color, but paint transforms the natural into the spiritual.”

–“I rounded a corner and was awestruck by a painting that had to be at least ten feet tall, positioned for maximum effect, of a man on horseback. I got lost in it, sketching it very hastily. In my sketch, the rider appears to wear a mask, and the horse has a kangaroo’s head–Guy Fawkes in the Australian outback.”

–“The feeling of standing before something 2,400 years old–the two busts: “Head of Bacchus” and “Head of a Female Divinity.””

–“Statues that seem to breathe.”

–“A first edition of Don Quixote (1605).”

I recorded these impressions in the order that I had them. The three short ones seem random, but I wanted to stay true to my format. Think of them as an ongoing narrative, often broken but always meaningful. Most of the work in the show was from the 16th century-forward, so you can imagine my surprise at suddenly standing before two ancient Roman sculptures and all the eerie feelings of passing-time that such a position stirs, staring at the head of the god of wine and revelry and knowing that not only did ancient hands form this piece but that people probably worshiped it–real breathing, bleeding human beings, like you and me! Eerie, indeed. And certain statues were so lifelike that I would be remiss to spend an evening alone with them–too many horror movies, I suppose. But then there’s the other side of that: amazement at the craftsmanship of the sculptor, to imbue a hunk of marble with such life.

As I drove away, I began to wonder why these guardians of aristocratic “treasures” saw fit to send their art collection around the world, traveling from palaces in Spain to humble Nashville, Tennessee. Was it a desperate effort to shore up revenue for a dying, or dead, social class? Life support for an outmoded hierarchical system? As skillful and admirable as the work is, it is mostly made up of portraits of aristocracy, having little relevance for the common person. Did I benefit from seeing this work? I hope so, but I’m not sure. At my most pessimistic, I see the collection as one large reminder that I am not “to the manner born,” wandering among their gaudy, gold-gilt furniture, upholstered with French tapestry fabric. But the optimistic side of myself sees history and the artistic effort of hardworking, industrious painters and sculptors. My feelings about this show are conflicted even now: there is spectacle, but is there substance?

Note: the Frist allows no photography, not even cellphone shots without flash–even the Met allows flash-free photography! I don’t like this but I abide by it. So that’s why there are no photos of the actual show. Only my crude sketch and a couple of shots of the printed program.

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