The author describes some experiences as a blind visitor to The Prado in Madrid, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and elsewhere.
One night many many years ago I went out and lay down in a thicket of yellow roses. The roses were in the garden of the Prado museum in Madrid. I lay among the flowers on an ordinary day, a day of overcast sun and businessmen hurrying and tall balcony windows shuttered and the streets with creeping taxi cabs.
I had gone alone to the museum because my Spanish friend could not come with me. I was too blind to see the paintings very easily. How do I explain this? Why would a person with an occluding disability undertake a solo hunt to the world of paintings? Here are some answers, offered in no particular order of importance:
- I wanted to see paintings—up close I might have an experience of Goya.
- I thought there might be some kind of tour guide who could describe things.
- I imagined that my passion for life would be equalled by the world: a utopian position that all persons with disabilities must maintain.
The more I think about it it's answer number three that motivated me. I thought that my desire for an inclusive life would in turn open the world before me. And I still get up every day imagining this.
The Prado museum didn't have any special accommodations for visually impaired people. So I began walking around. How simple that sentence is! I began walking.
But there were thick ropes in front of the famous canvases. And sinister guards. And I walked from one gallery to another seeing nothing of the art. I saw beautiful mud colored walls and little high intensity lights and then I found myself trailing a group of American tourists who were being led by a woman tour guide. Frankly I felt like a man who had been walking down a mountain on a dirt road. And after great solitude I'd found my people. The tour guide was explaining something about Velasquez. How he used perspective—I don't remember any more.
What I do remember is the overt cruelty of the woman tour guide who, seeing me trailing her group, chose to confront me by saying, in effect, that I was not part of her group and I should immediately get lost.
I ran from the museum and found my way to the circle of yellow roses and I wept. I cried because I was tired; because I had a disability for which I had only the most apologetic language; cried because I had no allies—my host in Spain had no time for my disability, he was tightly wound and fighting his own battles. And this is what I'm getting at: disability is always and I mean always a problem of imagination. How will I live? How will I belong? What will I do? Who will accompany me? Who will wait on the slope and cheer me on?
At the Museum of Modern Art in New York City the guards watch me with deep concern as I amble from gallery to gallery with my guide dog. It's as if they think the dog will bite Jackson Pollock. Guide dogs are not trained to attack Abstract Expressionists but you never know. I reckon if I was an alert, highly intelligent animal, I would likely be interested in eating a painting by Cezanne. I recall Hemingway saying his hunger was always intensified by Cezanne's peaches. Meanwhile, don't you believe the old canard that dogs don't see color. We now know they see most of the colors that we see, with the possible exception of some shades of blue. Cezannne would indeed make any sensible dog hungry.
The guards can't imagine why a blind person would go to the museum with only a dog for a companion. I know that's what they're thinking.
Some days I go to the museum with sighted friends. My pal X a poet, describes the paintings of Cindy Sherman to me.
Her work is aggressively homely. Her oeuvre, stylized, tricked out self portraits feels like grand guignol meets the city of the Etruscans. Every version of Cindy is overly determined, too much makeup, fright wigs, haute couture gone to seed, Miss Havisham shopping on the upper East side and Lordy, the daylight that illuminates her, unmerciful.
So affecting was Cindy Sherman that she colonized everything we subsequently looked at. Leaving MOMA we noticed massive window advertisements at the children's GAP and Lo! The "tween" girls presented there, dressed for spring, looked starved and looted, just like Sherman's steroidal, late Capitalist self-portraits. All day Cindy Sherman was with us, casting a pall.
I go to events and exhibits where I have no expectation of seeing anything for the arts are participatory. The Surrealist poet Andre Breton advised young writers to stand in a long cue at the cinema. When you finally arrive before the cashier Breton said you should not buy a ticket—just walk away. He also recommended attending lectures in languages one doesn't know. In sum: boredom, anticipation, denial, unresolved curiosity, all are parts of poetry.
I listen when I'm alone in the museum with my dog. Democratic responses to visual art are astonishing. A woman says to her companion: "Look how tiny their heads were in those days."
Another companion describes for me the exquisite, soulful, miniature drawings by Daumier. She tells me of a little dog, a dog made of curlicues. He's jumping in the wholly invisible wind. And I love him, though I've never seen him at all.