New York Summer Visit 2012 – Part 1

by Jonathan Blaustein

“Wait a second,” I said. “I know that building.”

“Yes, it does look familiar,” Iván replied.

“Right. From Central Park West.”

“Central Park West?” His eyebrows shot up, quickly. “Ah, I see.”

The humidity clung to our damp shirts, formerly respectable. Our moods tumbled. Quickly. We just realized we’d gotten lost in Central Park, and had walked South for fifteen minutes, rather than East. Which meant thirty more minutes of schlepping in the heat over rocks and towers and ponds and asphalt.

I suppose it was understandable. We hadn’t seen each other in four years. We were excited. Gregarious. Gesticulating.
And we’d chosen to walk from the bus stop on 86th St, rather than take the bus that awaited. (A mistake I ought never have made. You always take the air-conditioned route in Sweat Season.)

I was raring to chat, because I’d seen something shocking, yet ordinary the night before, and couldn’t wait to hear what Iván thought about it. My uncle had showed me some videos on the computer. A distant relative’s girlfriend, a self-styled vocalist, had made a series of singing videos.

I admit, she’s very attractive, in a conventional way. Using her webcam, in low-cut underwear, she’d sway as she sang, staring right into the camera in her bedroom. Unfortunately, she was really bad at singing. (And not the good kind of bad.) Off key, pitchy, call it what you will. I laughed so hard I fell off the couch. For real. All the while, I felt very bad about myself. Ashamed.

In one song, I can’t remember which, she even similated sex, hopping up and down on an imaginary lover. My first thought was, this has to be a joke, right? But my Uncle swore no. Second thought: poor thing. She has no idea.

It was all just so…personal. Stuff like that should be for your friends. No cameras. Just messing around while you’re hanging out. Having a laugh. It’s not meant for strangers. How have we all gotten so mixed up about reality?

The whole thing just seemed so perfectly symbolic of these difficult-to-quantify times. There she was, using the web to overshare, horribly, all the while thinking it was the ticket to stardom. Not ironically. (Too bad. That might have caught on. Though I suppose nobody remembers William Hung.)

We hear that the unemployment numbers for Generation Y, (or the Millenials,) are off the charts. 50% higher the the national average. And how many of these 20-somethings have moved back in with their parents? An astonishing amount, by any reasonable measure. To top it off, these kids now owe so much money for their student loans, that they’ll be working it off until they’re 50. But there are no jobs to work off the debt. It’s criminal.

They think that Flickr or Youtube or Twitter or Instagram will make them wealthy and famous, so they can continue to live in the lifestyle to which their parents have made them accustomed. (Formerly known as the American Dream.) Which is to say, this is likely to be the first generation of Americans who have a “lesser” lifestyle than the one before. (Or did Generation X beat them to that distinction, as my wife pointed out?) Furthermore, is that such a bad thing? The concept of infinite wealth is seriously outmoded.

And that’s where I left off, when I realized we were going the wrong way.

It took forever to traverse the park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but eventually we succeeded. After swiping the plastic in the lobby, (you can pay what you choose,) we darted to the bathroom, where I had to use three paper towels to get the sweat off, and then still dunked my whole head in the sink. Classy. (Sir, we’ll have to ask you to leave now.)

Thank goodness we had to use the bathroom. Had we not, I’d never have seen the oldest painted portraits I’ve encountered. They were encaustic, wax on limewood, from Egypt. Mummy portraits, from 130-150AD. Men peaked out under coal ringlets of hair, with big haunting eyes, and razor cut cheekbones. Wow. So Old. So beautiful. (As we photographers know, it’s always about the expression in the eyes.)

Iván and I were there for a reason, though: to visit the newly redone Islamic Galleries. I’d read that they were brilliant, (Peter Schjeldahl claimed himself a different person upon departure,) and wanted to see for myself.

Tucked through the Mesopotamian wing, we walked in, thinking at the outset that it lacked bombast. No book store, no lady offering you headsets. And so far in the back. But nothing in this Museum is ordinary, so my expectations were high. (Alas, I was not. Work is work.)

It’s built like one long, rectangular loop. We entered to the right, which I’d recommend, but only if you want to have the experience thusly. There were many beautiful objects to be seen, carved wood and sculpted clay jumping out, and color as well. Beautiful blues.

I was drawn, immediately, to a wine glass. So ordinary a concept. Here, it was a 1200 year old, blue-green piece of glory from Syria or Iraq. I had a daydream. I was a bearded, black-haired merchant. It was warm out. I munched dates, and slurped cool wine from this beautiful, blue-green waterglass. Sounds nice.

We continued through, and of course I had my favorites. But soon I found myself saying, “What’s with the hype? It’s nice and all, but not worth dying over.” Then, not 10 seconds later, we walked into a room to our right, the Koç Gallery. Boom.

The ceiling was wood, sculpted and dominant. I wrote in my notes that it was “somewhat indescribable.” (And yet I try.) Spanish, from the 16th Century. (They don’t scrimp at the Met.) Under its eye, the walls were covered with huge carpets. 20, 30 feet high. One seemed to be 40 feet for sure.

We sat. And stared. And, as much as we both like to talk, we were quiet. It felt like five minutes. Who’s to say?

There were other treasures, yes, but this was the room to see. We passed some Chinese-Style porcelain plates, blue on white. Lovely. But not from China. They were Persian, from the 16th Century.

That’s when it hit me. Globalization is not new. Idea transmission, global commerce, interconnectedness, these are not new happenings, and their attendant problems not new either. Empires rise and Fall, but power endures. Our predilection to violence remains, as does our desire to trade things we have too much of for things we crave. Or, as Iván put it, “What we call Globalization is really when Globalization was completed. Nothing left to Globalize anymore.”

And looking at the Art, one could never believe the Iranians as savage as our Talking Heads might have us believe. Not slightly. They laugh at Chumps like Saddam Hussein and George W. (Though nobody messed with Saddam as badly as the South Park guys. Beyond twisted.)

And that’s why I go to museums. And why I love to write about it afterwards. (Remembering memories make the memories stronger, I recently read.) I go, because I never know what new thoughts I’ll have, what colors I’ll see, what gods will be there to worship. I go, because I want to improve as an artist, and the only way to get better is to see new things, made by better artists than I am.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2, in which I go look at some actual photographs.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 6 Comments On This Article.

  1. I think your wife is right — about Generation X beating out Generation Y (or the Millennials) for the dubious distinction of being “…the first generation of Americans who have a ‘lesser’ lifestyle than the one before.”

    Some Gen Xers will do better than their parents, sure…but on a grand scale things like employer/employee loyalty, job security, accumulating wealth and retirement benefits, the likelihood of being able to buy a home in the place where you reside, and the very notion that going to college and getting a degree (or even just working hard) will necessarily translate into tangible career opportunities had already gone by the wayside when the Millenials were in diapers — or not yet born.

    As for your observation about reality, and how mixed up our relationship to it has become (on the whole, as a society): spot on.

    I look forward to reading Part 2.

  2. It is nice to turn a corner and find a thoughtful piece written well amongst the greater collective of rubbish strewn about. I do appreciate it though I am sure you hear most from those who do not. I still go to the internet hoping to find little treasures that make me think.

  3. “…the first generation of Americans who have a ‘lesser’ lifestyle than the one before.”

    Wouldn’t the people who came of age in the 1870, 1890, and 1930s Depression welcome this news?

    • MacCruiskeen

      The people who lived through those earlier depressions didn’t think it was the end of progress and growth forever, however bad it may have been economically. Particularly since those decades were years of great technological change, political and social upheavals, mass migrations, etc. We have those things now, but with more feeling for the smallness of our planet and the limits of available resources.

      • Oh I’m sure they knew the rocket planes and helio cars were just around the corner in 1933.