Last weekend, my wife and I went to a local museum, The Johnson Art Museum at Cornell University. After almost two years of COVID, going to a museum was something new and original. We were fully masked, and socially distant from other people, but not from the art. The art was not infected, although we were cautioned not to touch it, for reasons other than medical. It was so freeing to let ourselves go, and mentally and emotionally step into the painting or the prints or the photos or whatever.
A museum is not a collection of static things. Maybe someone could look at the pieces collected there and think, this is just a colorful piece of cloth or paper, an image, or a photo. But most seemed to stop and feel.
Each artwork is the result of an intensely lived moment, day, year, or lifetime. Just consider the inspiration, skill, sweat, emotions, memories ⎼ the living that goes into the art. The artist’s joy, insight, pain, and suffering. The intense focus. So, one way to experience the art is as a sharing or opportunity. A question or invitation. “Will you take this from my hands? Will you be here with me? Can you help? Can you leap into this moment?”
The possibilities in art are endless. One exhibit at the museum was called Women Making Their Mark. It included an amazing book of papercuts titled Freedom, a Fable, by Kara Walker telling of a black woman’s emancipation from slavery only to realize the oppression continues.
In the exhibit on Art and Environmental Struggle there was a painting by Abel Rodriguez called El Arbol de La Vida y Abundancia, a beautiful proclamation of the interwoven and interdependent human, plant and animal world.
There was also a piece called We Dreamt Deaf, by Nicholas Galanin. This is a taxidermed standing polar bear transmogrified into a rug, a very disturbing version of a hunter’s trophy. I don’t have accurate enough words to express how I felt. The horrors we humans can inflict on others. The pain. And the grief for our world, the tears and anger the art can invoke.
And on the top floor of the museum, there are giant windows facing north, west, and south, revealing the lake, hills, and valleys of the area. And in between those windows, a different exhibit, of Japanese, Tibetan, Chinese, Indian, and Persian art, mostly art of spiritual enlightenment. And out the windows, two hawks were gliding above the trees.
Then, outside, in the museum extension, there was The Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Garden, a Japanese garden, a place of such peace, designed by Mark Keane.
When we left, the hawks were still there above us. The artworks were still inside us.
When we pulled into the driveway to our home, two of our three cats greeted us. Maybe the art sensitized me, but I was so glad to see them. My heart opened to them. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say the sight of them rushed to meet the opening that I am.
In Buddhism, there are teachings on being a Bodhisattva, technically someone who delays their own final enlightenment until they can help all other beings be freed from suffering. A totally impossible, infinitely impossible task. It is impossible on purpose, so we don’t mistake the ideal for the real, says Norman Fischer, in his book, The World Could Be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path. It is a place we can move toward. But the only place we can arrive is here.
He says, “compassion isn’t only me benefitting you.” It isn’t me here, you over there. “It’s us together…I am not just me… My I and your you depend on each other.” “We are life taking care of life.”
Or such happens when we, with awareness and kindness reach for the impossible not to frustrate ourselves but to let go of ourselves. To enter the being of all of us.
Likewise, we can see a work of art and empathically feel the life and insight that went into it. Art then becomes a sort of Bodhisattva training. The same with our cats, the hawks, the car, the sun, and our companions. They become a window or a door that we as viewer, listener, reader, or friend step through into the opening that we are.