Slow Down and Go to The Art Museum

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This article is part of a series called Art Month. We'll highlight more on the intersection of faith and art during December.

Summers in my childhood household were probably similar to most. My parent’s primary task was to make sure my sister and I kept busy. We had the math books that needed to be completed before we entered the next grade. We had the assigned readings that were hand-picked to grow our reading skills. But we also went on trips. My mom, an interior designer and art major in college, was quick to always encourage a yearly trip to the local art museum, and it was never met with great opposition.

After years of art museum pilgrimages and visits to the world’s top galleries and museums, I am not an art appreciation expert. But it is clear how constant art appreciation has shaped and formed aspects of my life.

A Hurry-less Task

The environment of an art museum is slow, and intentionally so. There is no “fast lane” in an art museum. As you enter, you are required to shed the busyness that is embedded in our culture. We have sped up a plethora of avenues to conform to our culture of efficiency. But a visit to the art museum is an untouched, un-sped-up task. As we are shaped and formed by our busy culture, we can look to the art museum and other slowed down tasks as cultural counter-formations.

There is no “fast lane” in an art museum.

Appreciation as Formation

If a stranger came up to me and asked who my favorite artist was, I could give them an answer immediately: Georges Seurat. On one of my earliest trips to the art museum, my mom told me about many of the artists whose works adorned the gallery’s walls. Seurat struck a chord. He popularized the technique of pointillism. His artwork isn’t the broad strokes of paint that one might expect through museums, but tiny spots of colors that in itself could be reproduced by anyone but all the spots together create a beautiful work. As a child, my mom nicknamed him “Seurat the Dot” so I could never forget his technique. His most notable artwork uses this technique to create a massive scene with dozens of people in A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (or the massive painting in the art museum scene of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). From a distance, you’d never see the individual dots, but you would see the whole painting. Not only is he telling a story in the painting (all economic classes coming together to enjoy a beautiful day), but he is also telling a story through his technique. If we approached this artwork and others like it with the hurried life we typically live, we would miss the beauty. But we would also miss how this can shape us as humans.

This formative experience isn’t exclusive to visual artwork. Art in various forms can draw on our emotions and bring us face-to-face with genuine beauty. This process forms us. As we appreciate artifacts like movies, music, and sculptures, we are constantly being shaped. Our affections are changing and maturing. The result is a maturity of the person. We need not dwell in the superficial. These formative experiences and moments are changing us as people. In a way, we should seek these moments to be formed ultimately to become more mature followers of Christ.

Getting the Stuff You Just Don’t “Get”

The classic line from my dad while visiting modern art museums was “I just don’t get modern art.” To some extent, I think sometimes this is the point. Not all art can be understood, but it can still be appreciated. It’s the hurry-less patience that allows you to consider the beauty in what is not easily understood. While appreciating art is not a sped-up task, it is also not always an easy task. Similar to most of culture, our entertainment can be entrenched in the desire for immediate gratification. This is not the way of modern art. In fact, most formative tasks do not follow the immediate gratification template. How we are being formed as humans may be elusive to us, but rest assured, our formation is occurring. Let us sit in the mystery of not “getting it.”

Experiencing Beauty is a Family Task

Looking back on those summers when I visited the art museum, my fondest memories were not merely the specific pieces or artists. I loved learning and appreciating the art with my mom and sister. I distinctly remember the works of Elijah Pierce, a wood carver from Columbus, Ohio. Wood pieces carved to depict scenes from Scripture, from the slave-ridden South, and from political events throughout the 1900s were the sources of so many questions during my early visits. The pieces were both beautiful and terrifying. I asked my mom so many questions of what happened in these pictures. “Is that supposed to be Jesus?” “Yes.” “Who is that being shot?” “Martin Luther King Jr.” “What event is this?” “The Kent State Shooting.” Without my mom, my questions would’ve gone unanswered. Without my mom, I would’ve never known about “Seurat the Dot.” My family coming to the art museum with me was pivotal to my understanding. Yet, it was also pivotal to my enjoyment of the beauty of the artwork.

As I write this article, it’s Christmas time. And with Christmas time comes Christmas music. A certain Christmas song captures what we are doing as we enjoy and appreciate this art, “O, Come Let Us Adore Him.” Our appreciation of the beauty of Christ and His creation is not in the individual but in the collective. We, as a people, come to adore Him and the beauty of His creation. As we come together as a family in Christ, may we slow down, ponder, and adore the beauty of the God who is with us.

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Gabe Magan

Dancer Fellow

Gabe Magan is the Dancer Fellow of the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. Gabe also works for the N.C. Baptist State Convention as Executive Assistant for Convention Relations. He and his wife are members and serve at the Summit Church in Raleigh, NC. He enjoys reading good books, drinking great coffee and being mediocre at golf.

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