One of my favorite things in the world is going to the art museum. It doesn’t really matter which one. They’re all wonderful. But the one I frequent is the Harn Art Museum in Gainesville, Florida. I love the quiet atmosphere, the open spaces, the slow pace, and the cute little old women that wander around smiling and randomly explaining the gallery pieces to anyone that looks particularly interested—or particularly confused. Part of me always cringes when I arrive with my small platoon of teenage boys. They don’t know to be quiet, or that they shouldn’t be smacking each other on the back of the head, or that they shouldn’t pick up that 12th century ritual dagger from dynastic China. Without fail, we always end up being watched closely by security. I don’t blame them. I’d watch us too.
Regardless of which boys I take (the group is always different), they always end up divided into five different categories. The first is the boy that came on the field trip only because he thought he might be able to meet some girls and get some phone numbers. This type generally stands at the back of the group and attempts to look cool, a state attained by placing both hands in the pockets, but only just the fingertips, so the arms can sag and bow out and flop around. While the arms are thus engaged, the head must be tilted slightly forward so that one must raise the eyebrows to slowly look from one side to the other in a nonchalant manner, making certain never to actually look at any artwork. This boy generally does not participate in discussion and almost certainly will not be coming on the next trip to the museum. He also never meets any girls or gets any phone numbers. Not cool enough, I suspect.
The second category is the “I could paint that” kid. This kid manifests himself most clearly in the modern and contemporary galleries. This boy believes that nothing short of photorealism is art, and of that which is photorealistic, only that which depicts things blowing up, things recently blown up, or things about to be blown up are really of any merit. This boy is also strangely silent when confronted with any art that depicts the female body and is given to much snickering at that which depicts the male.
The third is the boy I call the ‘security monitor’. The security guards are going to get him and possibly us all, therefore he reports to me constantly of their whereabouts and actions. He also scopes the room for cameras, motion sensors, lasers, trip wires, ferocious watchdogs, and any skylights through which a swat team may rappel at any moment. All these things he keeps careful track of and protects us all and no amount of reassurance will persuade him that our imminent arrest may be all in his head.
The fourth is a special case that must come in pairs. You see, this sort of boy requires another of the fourth category in order to manifest himself. When a pair is united they will giggle, smack each other, play tag, and hide around each corner in an attempt to scare the other. They must be shooshed, to which they will apologize and then look at each other sideways and begin to giggle quietly. Soon the giggling leads once more to the smacking, to the tagging and hiding, and eventually comes full circle again to the shooshing. This sort of boy requires much patience and rarely comes to the museum twice.
Then the final category, that of the enlightened youth. This youth engages in discussion. He learns to look at things in new ways. He often surprises me with insight that even I had overlooked. This youth is the one that is actually cool (and the girls all know it.) This youth admonishes the others to be quiet and quit off their smacking and giggling. This youth rolls his eyes at the security monitor and assures him we will escape un-accosted. This youth is the reason that those of the other categories are tolerated. When he leaves the museum, his world is a bigger place, it looks different, it is full of possibilities. He says in his mind “I could paint that” and it is not an insult, it is an open door. This youth will return to the museum again, and again, and again, and not with me, but on his own and when he is a man he will smile at the kids there on the school field trip and the security monitors will report him as a spy. Maybe when he’s old he’ll even marry one of those cute old ladies.
I’m so often surprised at which boys fall into which categories. Sometimes those that I’m sure will be the enlightened few end up being the ‘too cool’ ones and those that I’m sure will be the ‘I could paint that’ kind end up goggle-eyed over a Monet or they tour the entire gallery with one of the cute little ladies, hanging on her every word. Of only one thing am I ever certain when I take a group: the enlightened category will be the smallest. I wish it weren’t so, but it is the one constant, and that spark of knowledge, that thirst for understanding, that hunger for something other is so precious and so fragile that its value is beyond my ability to express with words.
God bless those that are brave enough to see. They are too few and too far between.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.