Things That Cannot be Bought

On Saturday I took the train to Toronto, to renew my membership at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and to see their most recent exhibit: Great Upheavals: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection (1910-1918). The show traced a number of important themes using a stellar constellation of artists from this pregnant era. A couple of things struck me as I wandered through this exhibit.

My first wonderment was that being in the presence of some of these famous pieces of art is an experience without parallel. I regularly use art in my classroom via a variety of electronic platforms, but to stand face to face with the very canvas that Matisse, that Picasso, that Kandinsky labored over is an altogether different experience. In some fashion, the object that Chagall once held and I now behold, mediates a different kind of aesthetic experience. In some analogical way, I feel as if in the presence of the masters, which brings me to my second point.

At the end of the show, the patron is ushered into the requisite souvenir tunnel. You cannot exit the exhibit without the opportunity to buy. People seem to be especially vulnerable to sales at this point in the game. Museums the world over do this, and I can understand why. It is a great marketing opportunity. I generally rush through this bit of the show, although most don’t. People pause in the store, and buy everything from Picasso cups to Gauguin umbrellas to coffee table books illustrated with pieces just seen. I suspect that most people buy because they have had a good experience and want to take it along. So, in our commercially inclined culture, if you want something you buy it. We want to buy a memory, and cash hungry museums are happy to help us out.

These two observations point to a contradiction of sorts. An exhibit is powerful because it brings us face to face with the actual object that hosts the traces of master-hands. Yet we want to take this experience of the original home with us by buying some kind of a replica. So, while the gift of the experience is in the encounter with the original, many still walk away with two credit card hits. The replicas they acquire, however, are a dime a dozen. Any internet search will turn up thousands of Dix, or Matisse, or Mondrian images. But still we buy. We buy because we want to concretize what has moved us even while wonder cannot be bought and surprise cannot be orchestrated. They are grace-filled: unbidden and to be received with open hands, hearts and minds. And while we await them, we live with the expectation that the Holy One will hold forth what we need precisely when we need it and in fitting manner: abundantly, surprisingly and evocatively. As soon as we try to put such an experience in the bank, we rob it of its power. It rots like so much manna, like so many Kandinksy coffee cups, chipped and dusty and forgotten in our cupboards.

11 thoughts on “Things That Cannot be Bought

  1. Marie Taylor says:

    Yes, this is a true insight that you’ve shared. Perhaps it is the acquisitive mind/ego that wants to hold on to what it perceives as good, and in the holding destroys it. The ineffable cannot be held.

    • agjorgenson says:

      Yes, that is my thought. I recall a professor recounting a visit to Rome, and speaking of the tourists whose experience of the city was wholly mediated by a camera. They wanted to “capture” everything and failed to “enter” anything.

  2. shoreacres says:

    I both agree and disagree. Figuring out how to articulate my disagreement is the sticking point.

    It’s true that mass produced coffee cups bearing the likeness of a Van Gogh are a dime a dozen. It’s absolutely true that we can’t buy memories. It’s even more true that drinking coffee from my Van Gogh coffee cup or sticking my pencils in it has about as much in common with the original and my experience of it as a can of Spaghetti-Os has with a wonderful, authentic Italian meal eaten on a hillside in Sicily.

    Still – I think the impulse to bring that coffee cup home can be more than craven acquisitiveness or insensitivity. If we take the whole idea of incarnation seriously, not only as a faith statement about a particular event but as a way of talking about the way grace comes to us in the world, it makes perfect sense to me that any grace-filled experience can continue to be mediated to us through physical objects.

    To remember an encounter in a museum solely by mental recollection is one thing. But to pick up a coffee cup, or tuck a grocery list under a refrigerator magnet, or to re-hear music that was part of an experience is to re-member that experience in a different way. When I see my postcard of Mary Cassat’s “Girl in a Straw Hat” propped up on my desk, I don’t just see the image. I am taken back in time to “that” moment, when I walked into a gallery and was stopped in my tracks by the original. I see the faces of the gallery-goers around me, I feel the same emotion, I can describe perfectly where and how the painting was hung.

    Creation mediates the creator, we say. Perhaps that’s as true for a van Gogh or Cassatt reproduction as it is for bread and wine. The tangible objects give body and form to intangible experience.

    At least, that’s what I think this afternoon. 😉

    • agjorgenson says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment that reminds me how rich this blogging business can be. I too agree and disagree with my post (as is often the case), and for some of the same reasons. It is interesting how Christology pops up, and properly so. I myself have more than a few aides de memoir… in fact so many that I put my head down and push past the temptations! Putting aside the Dali pencil sharpeners, some of the items (especially the books) are actually quite lovely, and in these cash strapped times these souvenir shops makes perfect sense from a business side as well (which I do not dismiss). Those are some of my disagreements with my post, which I also pondered while writing it. On the agree side, another thought that didn’t make it into my post is my observation that a number of people prefer reproductions (posters etc) to original art. These latter can in fact be quite affordable and delightful. Moreover these kinds of purchases also support those who may never (or not yet) be famous. Or, to riff on the wit of a clever blogger I know, that’s what I think this evening.

  3. jannatwrites says:

    Interesting thoughts. I agree that we are definitely a consumer society. I have purchased trinkets at places we’ve visited, mostly because of the memories the object evokes. I take photos for the same reason (and they sometimes spark a blog post.)

    Then I see the truth in your comment “As soon as we try to put such an experience in the bank, we rob it of its power.” This gives me something to think about!

    • agjorgenson says:

      Always glad to hear from you. I too have my share of trinkets, and photos. Some are quite dear to me, but mostly for their power to help me remember dear people and delightful sites. As I get older, however, I am more and more aware of the amount of “stuff” I accumulate and so become more circumspect/

  4. rickpryce says:

    Hey Alan.

    This reminds me of Peter at the Transfiguration of Jesus. “Hey, how about if we make some booths so we can come back any time and bask in the glory of this transient experience?”

    I, too, thought of communion, shoreacres, and I don’t disagree that creation is capable of mediating the eternal. In fact, I celebrate that this is the case every Sunday! (And yes, the rest of the week, too! 🙂 )

    But (you knew that was coming!), I would submit that, to make the analogy work, we would need to refrain from eating the bread of communion and take it home to put on the shelf to remind us of when we were in church! Or perhaps take a selfie at the moment the priest/pastor says, “The body of Christ,” and thereby miss the “Given for you” part, which gives communion its power.

    As Alan said, wanting to capture the event, we fail to enter it.

    Thanks Alan!

    • agjorgenson says:

      Thanks Rick. I agree that living with the transient character of life is what faith is, and unfaith is that propensity to nail down what I want so it is ready at hand at my convenience. Living into the promise, paradoxically, is only possible in accepting the impossibility of accepting that intransience. The good news is that God thrusts it upon us whether we like it or not!

  5. This is a great, thought-provoking piece, Allen. As you say, it’s the best part of blogging, like a good conversation. I wonder about the role of being a witness, and being seen to be a witness, at a certain place or event. As in, not “I loved Woodstock” but “I was at Woodstock”. I was struck this past summer, by how many people at the Louvre didn’t seem to care a bit about seeing the actual Mona Lisa so much as taking a photo that proved they were there, then leaving. There is something in this ritual action of our society as well, Matthew

    • agjorgenson says:

      Hi, yes and I guess I don’t want to dismiss that need for the ritual actions that are a part of travel etc. Having a souvenir is not a sin against the original (to coin a phrase?). I think the loss comes in failing to experience Woodstock, for instance. But it does take a kind of twist in mind-set to abandon the “must see in Italy” list in order to experience the Italy before me. It does take a kind of repentance to abandon the god I know to fall into the God who cannot be known in that way..

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