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.