Art Museum's "Art After Five': How to look at it

Looking at people looking at art: Friday nights at the Art Museum

Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase': Where art and humanity meet.
Duchamp's 'Nude Descending a Staircase': Where art and humanity meet.

How to look at it? People come from all over to "Art After Five" on Friday nights at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They come look at art. They come to look at each other. And they come to look at each other looking at art. It's a nifty meta-experience.

Philadelphia's Art Museum is America's third-largest— faint praise, in the eyes of some street artists, who regard all museums as mausoleums for dead art. But they're only half-right. Because when you enter the Art Museum you sense an afterlife of greatness— a wafting spirit of genius that gently moves the aptly titled Ghost mobile by Calder that hangs from the ceiling of The Great Hall. (Movement that's abetted, to be sure, by sound waves in the ether.)

Accessible jazz

If you're interested in looking at art without the date-night pageant, the Art Museum is open every day but Monday. But if you're interested in the meta-experience, Friday night is best. You can reconcile your own life's "art" as an acutely unique individual and an ordinary member of the human race. You can see your reflection in a van Gogh or a Rembrandt suffering for their singular genius.

Then you can take a communal sound bath in the music: top quality jazz, but never so abstract or rarefied that you need a docent to explain it, as you might with modern art. It's just sufficiently accessible.

The Museum also conducts Friday night tours, like "Introduction to the Collection." "Impressionism and Post-Impressionism" and "American Delights." A promotional spindle, like a Sacred Tree, changes its leaflets daily but always remains the same. Here we witness the metaphysics of maintaining a core brand while branching out to variable tastes and glands.

The tour guides are walking encyclopedias, with one difference: They're also charming. In painter's terms, they reconcile rational line with plump and bosomy curve. They restore life to the term nice.

Good week, bad week

Obviously, the Art Museum's Friday night experience differs, depending on your orientation. On a bad night, after a harsh week, you may want to be deliciously petty and lash out against the barbarians who seem to be debasing this world-class institution. On a good night, after a week of triumphs, you may want to seize the moment to raise the bar—to take your measure against warrior-saints like Constantine or magnanimous benefactors like Clara Bloomfield-Moore. You can even want to take your measure against the numerous divinities who reside inside frames, tapestries and sculptures.

Friday night is a great time to look at art and at people looking at art. At that hour a creative spirit circulates through the Art Museum. It's not a graveyard for dead art. Rather it's a sacred precinct where art and its human audience revive each other simultaneously.

As for myself, I always follow the crowd to the far ends of the Modern and Contemporary Art wing. I'm mystified by the perfect compatibility between the permanent Duchamp and Brancusi exhibits. Here these two antithetical abstract artists— one an urban cosmopolitan dandy abstracted with a dry scientific wit, the other a rustic recluse abstracted with a religious fervor— reside side by side in inexplicable harmony. What they couldn't reconcile in ideology, they reconciled in friendship.

That's a gut lesson that lifts my spirit. It's something I get, and keep getting, at the far reaches of the museum, especially at a certain time of the week.

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