Upon arrival at 10:15, my friend Laura, three of our children, and I launched into a three hour tour of master works in the collection. We stopped to discuss paintings by John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargeant, Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh.
I have been fortunate in my life to have seen work by these painters before. Looking at these paintings again, I found little new to say about or discover in them. But I was beyond happy to see our three children engaging with them, appreciating them.
They are high art — serious, important. Their creators studied painting for years and practiced their art over years of disciplined days. Our tour guide emphasized the fact that American painters at the beginning of the country’s history were essentially self-taught, and could not hold a candle to their European counterparts, at least at first. An interesting argument, and likely true, although Americans are nothing if not quick studies.
Meanwhile, downstairs at the museum, an exhibit of Haruki Marukami’s work is on display for a few months only. My daughter grew up on Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, My Friend Totoro — so before leaving the museum, we dashed downstairs to get a quick glimpse.
After so much seriousness, we were delighted to find bright colors and cartoon monsters displaying the entire spectrum of human expression on their faces. These fun images leaped beyond the bounds of their presumed frames to cover walls and floors.
It was there that we learned the Japanese word, asobi, meaning playfulness. “The concept is central to the country’s creation myth, in which the Sun goddess Amaterasu, incensed at her impudent brother, sought solace in a cave, thereby plunging the world into darkness. Only the performance of a bawdy dance by another goddess, and the ensuing laughter, distracted her into reemerging and bringing light again into the world.”
The whole experience of being in the museum — first to appreciate the well-established masters, second to delight in an audacious newcomer — was a reminder that a balance between seriousness and playfulness is needed, and too often in my life anyhow, neglected.
Nothing reminds me of that more effectively than simply watching young children on their way out to recess at school. At the teacher’s signal, they leap outdoors, spilling gleefully beyond the bounds of their classrooms, to the open fields and playgrounds.
They have not forgotten the balance between seriousness and fun. We hope they never will. But in failing to show the ways in which we ourselves remember, we don’t always ensure that they won’t.