Everybody always blabs on and on about happiness and what they assume its personal manifestations might look like. I’ll bite:
Happiness is tunneling your way through one end of this Gerhard Richter image wearing just your street clothes and emerging through the other side also wearing goose bumps.
Happiness is knowing your daughter loves him, too.
When I was in the second grade, I read E.L. Konigsburg’s Newberry Award-winning novel, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In a nutshell, it’s a fun piece of children’s lit about a sister and brother who ran away from home to live inside The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the time, I remember thinking it was a genius plan and decided the sequel should be my account of how I sneaked off to live inside the Fort Worth Japanese Gardens. Decades later, The Modern was built; the DMA was renovated; and the Japanese Gardens, as always, were still there for the taking. Stalking options open wide, I dragged my daughter, The Bell, around to inspect which would be the setting(s) for our fictional, yet non-fictional Mixed-up Files sequel.
While interviewing potentially inhabitable museums, I’ve learned some things about most tour guides: They wear loud, clickity and clackity shoes that make whatever they’re saying inaudible. Also, be prepared to sprint from piece to piece without getting much of a good look at jack squat through the blue hairs in your group. Guides get paid to rush you through art, so scratch that. If you really wanna love a museum, chat up a guard. Those folks will teach you the real deal. (Plus, it’s good to know which museums have security capable of intercepting your arrangements to move in undetected.)
During the On Kawara exhibit last year at the Dallas Museum of Art, Russell and I couldn’t stop cracking up. It WAS The Emperor’s New Clothes, for real. They deinstalled beautiful Stanley Marcus images, along with other amazing, cool stuff, in order to hang Kawara’s nine gazillion rectangular paintings of dates on solid black painted canvases. To top it off, the museum played audio of someone — possibly a hypnotized mortician — announcing the painted dates over and over and over again. Russell and I empathized with a guard as we were leaving, “Man, I’ll bet you’re sick of this.” And he shrugged off something to the effect of: “Well, working here I’ve realized you win some and you lose some, but it could always be worse.” As trite as that sounds, it had a real effect on me coming from a guy in his late teens with a neck tattoo and a possible grill inside his glove box. Although humbled, I determined that living within near proximity of what “could always be worse” wasn’t quite what I was going for. So, no thank you.
The Bell and I were gawking at the iceberg painting upstairs — again at the DMA — one afternoon when an elderly guard walked by and smiled. I could tell he was dying to give us some kind of history lesson, so I asked him about the past vandalization of the artwork. As the museum’s upper floors were mostly deserted, he walked with us through several rooms, stopping quietly at pieces he loved, and told us what made them important to him. Pausing graciously after pointing out each nuance within his discussion, the guard seemed very proud to share his knowledge of things not included in the descriptive cards by each artifact. He didn’t even have clickity-clackity shoes. Ack, I knew we’d never get past this guy, which was pretty devastating to my plan considering I often noticed him posted by the least garish bed in the building. Without a place to sleep, our sequel would never make it past the first chapter.
Sometimes you have to eavesdrop to really get into the meat of what’s interesting. When The Bell and Russell and I first viewed Amon Carter‘s entrancing collection of work by photographer Nell Dorr, I was puzzled by some of her experimental early stuff. It didn’t fit into the scheme of familial portraiture on the other walls, looked sci-fi and, well, bad. As I stood before something that looked like a Xeroxed tin can lid, one of the guards — a Marlboro Man if ever there was one — walked briskly toward me with another security guy, who was a Mexican kid more than half his age. I stepped out of their way.
“I’ve figured it out! I HAD to tell you. Alright, so look here on this side where the lighter marks are.”
The older guard brushed his fingers along the outside of the “tin can” part. “See that?”
“Well, I was reading that biography on Dorr and noticed…”
He babbled a bunch of stuff outside my plebeian understanding of most art, including photography and its various technical processes, while the Chicano kid was totally following every word. I mean, these two were captivated by the revelation. Turns out, Nell Dorr was a bit of a scientist, if you will. More importantly, I also learned I was a bit of a snooty profiler, who was intellectually one-upped by two guys I’d never think twice about in line at 7/11. These guards were worth stalking, but the rest of the museum — riddled with bronze Remingtons and other Western art — wasn’t really what I was willing to call “home.”
Last summer, Russell and I sent The Bell on a covert operation at The Modern. Her mission was to attend Art Camp and report any top secret, schematic information relevant to our plans for the sequel. Instead, The Modern turned her into a child guide-bot (still useful to the operation). On the day of her “opening,” aka The Last Day of Camp, The Modern’s staff released those of us included on The Bell’s private guest list into her custody within the regular exhibition halls. I had no idea who this child was during the entire tour.
“Now, some of you,” she addressed to my mother, Russell, myself, and our thirteen year-old neighbor, “might think this is a painting when, in fact, it is a sculpture by the artist Sean Scully.” Oh, brother, The Modern must have deflected my tactic by brainwashing my young child. The only element missing was the clickity, clackity part.
Russell asked, “What about that over there?”
Clearly annoyed, The Bell hissed through her teeth, “Russell, you KNOW that is an Andy Warhol. We have discussed it before. Ok, so moving on over here…”
This eliminated all hope for domestically relocating into The Modern (although I don’t think they’ve had a cozy place to sleep since Ron Mueck‘s “In Bed” was whisked away). Potential issues: The Bell would (a) be recognized easily now, and (b) would personally kick us out and notify the authorities as part of her guide-bot programming. Beside that, The Modern’s security personnel are the least interactive of all. They appear to be mostly students, likely underpaid, and constantly checking for five o’clock. Maybe the guards are androids, who become activated only when necessary to alert a visitor that s/he needs “to step away from the art.” I guess the assimilation is entirely appropriate…and modern. But no fun.
Part of the bottom floor was converted into a very dark theater divided into three chambers, each with its own screen. And, like the answer to many of my adolescent wishes, each one of the screens simultaneously depicted different karaoke versions of Smiths’ songs sung by excited fans from three very different geographical regions. The Bell and I saw it five billion times. We purchased a membership in order to avoid going into debt.
Bella pointed out one afternoon that we’d accidentally moved into the exhibit. After all the investigating, the spying, the detailed notations about every security guard at every museum, I realized they weren’t gonna rat us out after all. In fact, they encouraged us: “Were you here on Tuesday morning?”
“I don’t think we were here.” (Liar)
“A whole bunch of school kids came through. I just love watching their reactions. Some of them dance. Some of ’em get scared. I love this exhibit.”
I’d seen it, and, yeah, it was a treasure.
This newfound bond with mankind was home for sure. Inside my wannabe mixed-up files of Predisastered, I’d discovered, like Claudia and Jamie from Konigsburg’s novel, that I didn’t need to [euphemistically] run away to find what I wanted. It’s readily available if you pay attention to the important stuff. You know, important schtuff like The Bell and the guards and the lessons those before you might have to offer. That’s the benefit of museum-bingeing for me, for junking out, for gawking about, for watching more than what’s on the walls, for listening, for sharing, and for traveling life.
In a word, it’s Happiness.