Cracks In The Canvas: Encountering Art


The other day I had a chance to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Even though most of the exhibits remain the same, I like to go at least once every year to refresh my experience and my memory. As a creative and art-conscious person, there’s something pilgrim-like about it. We travel to such centers of art in order to expand our vision and our senses once again. I was thinking something along these lines as I wandered the galleries.

I was particularly struck by how galleries remind us of the “reality” of certain types of art. It seems today that more and more art is coming to us through digital means. We pick and download songs through the internet. We stream films or television shows likewise. We can even look at famous paintings or photographs via our computer screens. Granted, real flesh-and-blood artists played real instruments in a studio and created those sounds. Real actors got dirt thrown on them or played out their scenes on sets or somewhere out in the world. But that sometimes gets lost in the magical digitalization through which most of this comes to us.

But at the MFA, I was in a repository of real, immediate, touchable art. I was in the Art of the Americas wing, looking at some of my favorite paintings by the early Americans, Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley. Leaning in close, I could see the brushstrokes, still visible after several hundred years. I noticed the cracks seaming the canvas, sometimes even enhancing it. I could “see” the history in a way that is sometimes hard to notice in other art. Each single painting was an objective bridge to some distant and often hard to grasp past. But it was a sign of the reality of that past, that some creative mind took paint to canvas and created one window into his world.

The same could be said for the Greek and Romans statues I saw in another gallery. The bust of Augustus I observed went back 2000 years, to the time of Christ. It probably stood as a mark of the empire in some distant Mediterranean outpost. It’s hard for me to put myself into life back then—we all only know our own world—but there it was before me, evidence of another world.

Such encounters are a good, healthy reminder that we are not the only brilliant, creative, thoughtful beings in the history of the world.

Chris is an Associate Professor of English at Bristol Community College in Massachusetts, and is an arts and culture writer whose works have appeared in publications such as Tweetspeak Poetry, The Curator, The Molehill, and The Rabbit Room. Chris is also the author of several books of poetry, including his latest collection Winter Poems. In 2018 he helped co-found The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, visiting coffee shops, and poking through used bookstores with his wife Jen. You can read more of his writing at

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  1. JamesDWitmer

    Chris, thanks for sharing this quiet moment with us. I need those. 🙂

    There is something grounding about a physical, tactile, work of art. I don’t understand why – I’ve resisted admitting it – but, for me, it extends to a noticeable difference in how my mind and body react to reading paper books (peace) vs an e-book (mild stress).

    Your last point reminds me of CS Lewis’ concern about what he called something like Chronological Snobbery (not sure that’s exactly his phrase, but close). Saw a video recently where Fr. Barron points out the madness of believing that our current poets or playwrights are better than Hopkins, Dante, or Shakespeare – yet we do allow that assumption to creep from the practical, technological sphere into the rest of our worldviews.

    Thanks for the reminder.

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