Metropolitan, Life

     |    Wednesday March 7th, 2012

I stopped using pop music lyrics to guide my life long ago, but boy, I should at least have figured that Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” would have some wisdom in it. Yes, folks, it stops at 59th St. going uptown and the next stop is Harlem: 125th St.


That’s what I was thinking as I slogged through the station and went back to the downtown side, on my way to revisit my old workplace, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, last week in New York. My plan was to take the subway to 86th St and walk through Central Park, only to watch that station whiz by on my way to Harlem. No problem, though: it was a sunny, if chilly, day and it’s a nice park these days, and my schedule was only set back by fifteen or so minutes. And soon enough, there I was, climbing the stairs as I had every day in the fall of 1966, only I wouldn’t be hitting the employees’ cloakroom. Oh, and another thing: I’d be paying admission. I’d carefully budgeted $20 for it, unlike the last time I’d visited.


Paying the nice lady at the booth, I mentioned that I’d worked there before she’d even been born, and she said “Are you okay with this? After all, it’s only a suggestion.” But no, I’d budgeted it, so I was spending it. Well, I was spending $25. The price had gone up. In my day — and for a great deal longer before and after — it had been free. The enlightened one-percenters who’d endowed, built, and filled the museum had considered access to the priceless art treasures within a right for everyone. Somewhere along the line, Gilded Age altruism got mugged by 20th century reality, and suddenly everyone was wearing those little metal pins with the M on them to show they’d paid.


And the old friends were there. Knowing it was of the least interest to me, I headed straight to the Egyptians, which I’d heard had had a major overhaul. Back when I was there, the Egyptian collection had also featured the secret door to the employees’ cafeteria, where I sometimes had lunch. Working in an art museum is odd: brushing past the Goyas to hit the john, navigating a corridor of Archaic Greek statues of boys (kouroi) to get to the paymaster’s window, riding the freight elevator with a guard spooked by having to transport four mummies in crates. “I don’t care if they’re dead,” said Dominic, my favorite guard. “I heard there’s a curse on ’em.” Dominic was the same guy who’d see me with a cart full of boxes of Christmas cards and whisper “Hey, Ed, you got any nudes in there?” “Jeez, Dominic, they’re Christmas cards. What, you wanna see the Virgin’s tits?”

I have no idea who this guy is, a bull with a moon between his horns, but he was the first of the old friends I saw, and I was really happy to see him among the cleaned-up, brightly-lit Egyptian collection. The new Metropolitan was looking good.


I did have a couple of goals. The American Wing, a whole new construction (much like the Temple of Dendur, a gigantic building added on to the Egyptian wing), had just opened, to much fanfare, and I was glad: the American collection in my day was spread here and there, not recognized as American per se, and pretty much a disappointing way to view our country’s artistic heritage. And a lot of what the museum owned wasn’t on display because there wasn’t room. Back when I worked there, I was told that 75% of the holdings were in storage at any given time. But the new wing not only has the “decorative arts” taken care of (for those of you interested in American interior decorating history), but a fine selection of paintings. Much has been made of the way everything focuses down a hallway on Emanuel Leutze’s famed Washington Crossing the Delaware, but for me the news was that the curators have taken so-called “primitive” or “folk” painting into consideration, and there’s a healthy hunk of that on display, which both reaches back into the past and predicts the flattening of perspective, bright colors, and non-realistic composition of modern art. The whole thing ends, as it should, around 1900, as people like Sargent (whose famous “Madame X” is given fine company in one gallery) and Winslow Homer and John White Alexander began presaging the new era of impressionism and abstraction which would sweep Europe in the next couple of decades. America would pick up the story again after World War II.


Somehow I found another piece of American art as I stumbled upon every boy’s favorite gallery, the procession of mounted knights on armored horses in the Arms and Armaments gallery.


In a way, this is all too potent an American symbol, but the reality is, although it’s a functioning Colt pistol, the intricate gold inlay is enough to keep it from getting used for its ostensible purpose, and it’s almost modern in its balance of deadly utility and finely-crafted beauty.


I wandered more, I had lunch (hot tip for museum visitors: there are a bunch of expensive cafes scattered through the museum, but the basement cafeteria is excellent value for money, widely diverse, kid-friendly, and altogether a fine place to take a break), I went to the Renaissance portraits special exhibition, I accidentally detoured through the Oceania and North America gallery with the bizarre South Pacific totems collected by David Rockefeller, and I found the modest collection of modern art. Although I wasn’t picking up a paycheck, I also found the Greeks and Romans, and another old friend who saw me going to get paid back in the day.


Fortunately for my sanity, I found myself by the front door again and staggered out into the afternoon, walked back through the park, found a different subway station, and eventually landed in my hotel. I had a serious, but enjoyable, case of art-burn, and my brain was still sorting through all I’d seen.


Definitely worth the $25, but something else was going through my head as well. I was staying in the New Yorker Hotel, an artifact of the end of the Roaring 20s, and one of the things which greeted me when the elevator opened on my floor was a pair of prints based on some of the hotel’s extravagant exterior decoration, a shirtless, muscled man looking right and leaning on a hammer, and a shirtless, overall-clad man looking left and holding a scythe and standing by a bunch of wheat. These depictions brought me back to an era in America that was different from today, but in many ways more admirable. Things were tough (and when the New Yorker opened for business in 1929, about to get way tougher), but society at least entertained the fiction that these two gentlemen were the bedrock on which the nation rested. They and their children had opportunity, and when the bottom fell out, the Federal government (eventually) came to their rescue.


I’d ridden the Long Island Railroad in from JFK when I’d landed, and I’d been riding the subways in the city, and still had my kidneys, but just. Compared to European standards, the rails and coaches were in shameful condition. And while getting into New York from the airport was still fairly easy, train travel of any duration in the U.S. is laughable. I remembered my father’s tales of business trips to Chicago, the neat sleeper compartment, the good meals, the helpful staff, the long but comfortable journey. It’s certainly not headline news that American infrastructure, American transportation, is broken. And it’s not news that nobody’s going to fix it, either.


There was a day, and both the shirtless dudes and the Metropolitan Museum reminded me of this, when the concept of unlimited possibility was open to, if not all (certainly not to minorities, for the most part), at least a large segment of the nation’s people. But even minorities could go to the Metropolitan, walk in the door, and look at what was there if they were so inclined — and many of them were, and saw a place for themselves, perhaps, in the galleries there, or else they were inspired to think thoughts that could take them to a better place, and, perhaps act upon them. So did many other more privileged people. And even nasty 1%ers like the Rockefellers saw it as their duty to make this wealth of cultural treasure available to all.


Now, true, $25 isn’t a lot of money for a lot of people, but it is a barrier, including for me much of the time. When I think of what the admission to the European museums which are on the same level as the Metropolitan is, it gives me pause. Some are free, others are modestly priced. Most are state-supported to some extent or another, but such largesse has long been gone from the public educational plan for Americans. Things I took for granted (and sometimes hated) as a kid have all been stripped from our schools — music education, art education, after-school activities, intramural sports, much language education — in short, anything that doesn’t cleave to pre-packaged testing and standardized ideas of what kids should learn.


The halls of the Metropolitan were filled with the people who give the guided tours, all well-scrubbed Ivy League-looking folks. The hills of Central Park are walked by the professional dog-walkers and nannies who work for those who are too busy to bring up kids or even pets, but know they have to have them. This, I’m sorry to tell the privileged and well-to-do, is very likely to change, and, with luck, the underemployed and less fortunate may once again have a chance to wield those hammers and earn some dollars. That their kids can again visit cultural institutions like the Metropolitan and begin to dream again — as I certainly did all those decades ago — remains a fervent hope of mine. Let’s hope it happens. You don’t want to consider the alternative.