I grew up in New York City. Well, that’s technically true, but really I grew up in Brooklyn and Staten Island, two of the five boroughs of the city of New York. As strange as it might sound to someone raised outside of the Big Apple, when we said we were “going into the city,” it meant we were taking an adventurous trip to the island of Manhattan, a place like none other in the world. In practicality, if you were going into the city, it meant you were going to be there all day. Unlike Boston—the city in which I now live where you can work all day, go home to the suburbs, and then come back at night for dinner—once “in the city,” you stayed until it was time to go home. Sitting in traffic or fighting the tribulations of mass transit to make a 12– or 13–mile trip last 2 ½ hours is not most people’s idea of well spent time.
On the occasions that my family or school would take a trip into The City (yes, I am going to pretentiously refer to it in this manner, despite having lived in others), it would be to see a show or visit a museum. Interestingly, it was not until I got married and entertained my new in-laws from rural Louisiana that I first visited the Statue of Liberty or went to the Empire State Building. It’s funny how that happens.
As a kid, I loved the Museum of Natural History. Staring at the models of prehistoric man, robed in fur skins, making fire, I wondered what it would be like to live like that. It was such a stark contrast to the concrete, brick and steel that I called home. Though not quite as big a favorite, going to The Met (ie, Metropolitan Museum of Art) was cool enough. How can one not be impressed with how a human being created a depiction of life so vivid and real on a canvas or in stone with his or her hands? Only now, after years of training in anatomy and orthopedic surgery, can I further appreciate the anatomical detail and accuracy of the ancient Roman sculptures, and how difficult and painstaking it must have been to recreate the soft turns of the inside of the elbow or the sharpness of the veins over the dorsum of the hand. Having learned a bit about the ancient and neo-classical artists, this was not the product of simple genius. They rigorously studied anatomy. They dissected cadavers. They were both artists and scientists.
My least favorite destinations were MoMa (The Museum of Modern Art) and the Guggenheim. Let me amend that. I liked visiting the Guggenheim’s structure—it’s a very cool building, bigger on top than the bottom, with a spiral walkway design. It’s the stuff hanging on the walls and the objects sitting on pedestals that drive me a bit crazy. I am sure I’m just an uncultured and insensitive barbarian, but I don’t “get” Jackson Pollack’s paint splatter work. I don’t understand Barnett Newman’s “The Voice” (look it up on the web—it’s a blank, off-white painting). I chuckle a bit to peer at a single red dot in the center of a huge canvas and think about how much the artist sold it for.
While I don’t “get” it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value. It’s art. It doesn’t have to make sense. It was created as an expression of what the artist was feeling at the time, and intended to invoke feelings when viewed. But consider this excerpt from a commentary on Robert Motherwell’s “The Little Spanish Prison” from the MoMa website:
Somehow, the painting’s yellow and white stripes with one accentuated pink vertical block on the bottom reminded me of a prison cell. After checking the title, I was very happy. It wasn’t simply because I made the correct guess; but, I was able to connect my thoughts with the artist and communicate with him through his painting.
The correct guess? Really? What if there was no title on the painting? What if the artist called it a prison, but he was really thinking of it in a figurative sense? Unless we asked him, what does it even mean to guess correctly? More importantly, does it matter if we do or not?
Again, apologies to the modern art lovers out there, but I just find it disingenuous to think that one can view an abstract painting and authoritatively proclaim what the artist meant by placing a red dot in the middle of a white background, or a single pink vertical line amidst horizontal white lines. In contrast, I would argue, the viewer sees and understands precisely what Michelangelo's vision was in his “David” or Rembrandt’s introspection in his self-portraits.
*This is an excerpt from Dr. Bono's column that originially appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of SpineLine. Click here to read the full column.