It was a summer city tour, when I was in my first year in college and hadn’t spent much time in art museums yet. I went with a group of friends, and we decided to take refuge from the afternoon heat at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Among our little gang was a kid who grew up in New York City, knew the Met well and spoke well when it came to appearing omniscient about art history.
“What will we see? He asked.
– All that, I say.
When they finished laughing at me, we tried to narrow down our options. Ancient art? Byzantine? 19th century? European or Asian? The options seemed endless, so our leader came up with a game. We would each walk around the museum as much as possible, then choose one thing we were interested in and report back to the group about our discovery in as much detail as possible. It was the art history equivalent of the old Supermarket Sweep game show, in which contestants walked through a store trying to load their carts with as much valuable food as possible.
It was a game, but it had serious consequences. None of us wanted to appear ignorant before the others. I had a vague understanding of what a serious conversation about art looked like, but I wasn’t used to having one. This was before the internet gave everyone instant access to almost everything in a large museum, so not only did we have to find something that we liked, but we had to keep it in our heads with enough clarity for it. describe to others. And then we had to say something interesting about it and defend it against an avalanche of questions and challenges.
Fortunately, it was a summer afternoon in the middle of the week, and the Met wasn’t particularly full – so running around the galleries wasn’t as disruptive as it could be today. I walked past hundreds, if not thousands of paintings – breathless, at a run – before finally returning to one of the first I saw. Jacques Louis David’s “Death of Socrates”, a prized possession of the French Met collection, won me over with its clarity, its simple geometry and the dark architecture of its prison setting. (David’s works, along with paintings by artists who worked in a similar neoclassical style, are highlights of one of the best exhibitions opened in the district this summer, “America collects French painting from the ten -eighth century ‘from the National Gallery.)
I had read Plato enough to recognize the scene in David’s canvas: The moment depicted in the “Phaedo” when Socrates, condemned to death and preparing for his execution, sent his wife and children away for the last time, and reaches out to grab the cup of hemlock. He and his followers talked, perhaps for hours, about soul and body, and Socrates said something that any teenager – any boy with an ounce of self-knowledge – would understand: “The body fills us with love and desires and fears and all kinds of fantasies and a lot of nonsense, with the result that we literally never get a chance to think about anything. . . “
After our frantic search for something memorable, we gathered outside the Met and chatted about it while walking through Central Park. We were hungry before we finished, so we continued to chat over dinner at a cheap Greek restaurant. And we were still talking while waiting on the smelly, stuffy subway platform for a return train.
I don’t remember what I said in defense of David’s painting, although I’m sure we practiced about the Law and suicide and our duty to the state. But I remember that run through the Met and the long walk that followed. We must have been an obnoxious, sweaty, noisy bunch, talking ostentatiously about art as we walked through the park.
Looking back, I sense something about the painting that must have increased its appeal. Socrates is a vigorous man, indifferent and even contemptuous of his body. Death is a mystical liberation in knowledge and transcendence. I don’t believe it now, but it was an attractive idea back then, an idea that could only grab hold of you if you were young enough to run past the Metropolitan Museum and still have the energy to walk for hours. hours and going to bed felt like the day wasn’t quite over because no one had come to a consensus on anything.