What's she thinking? The real question should be, "What are you thinking?"

What's she thinking? The real question should be, "What are you thinking?"

Standing quietly in front of artwork does not confer intimacy between you, dear museum-goer, and the people who made those objects. That you may come to understand some measure of an artist's motivations is one thing, but a deep understanding of what made Vincent van Gogh, Denise Levertov, or Lou Reed smile contentedly is a separate, elusive matter. Material evidence that artists leave behind may provide clues, but they are only that: clues. Like any good mystery, deep understanding of motives requires substantially more than a few pieces of evidence.

Generally speaking, when artists are dead there will be no further information available as to what they were thinking or feeling, and why. Sure, sure, there may be academic papers seeking to illuminate long forgotten insights into a person's character or motivations, and letters may occasionally fill in blanks. Someone alive might have known the artist, and direct interviews with these associates can often reveal enormous insights. But does it matter? It's possible to listen to Gustav Mahler's 9th symphony and never know what he was thinking. It's possible to feel deeply moved standing before Monet's Water Lilies without appreciating the sense of worthlessness the great painter struggled to contain near the end of his life.

If you haven't been inside a museum in a while, by all means, plan a trip. If visiting museums is a regular part of your life, stop and consider your motivations. Museums are tombs, perhaps, but tombs where the dead walk and talk. The act of placing yourself in spaces designed expressly to present non-literal ideas, through time, be they in paint or metal or performance, demands a clarification of our own lives, even if just for a few moments. We're forced to focus our minds when we visit an exhibition space, and in so doing we allow ourselves to focus on someone else's thoughts. The Mona Lisa may be smiling in that reproduction you've seen a million times, but standing before the Lady herself in her special Louvre gallery, the genius of the work finally resonates: we're smiling at the image of ourselves reflected in humanity's great shared need to create.


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