Madrid, Comunidad de Madrid, Spain

January 24, 2016

Spanish Cobblestones and Brushstrokes

I’m writing you this week from a cafĂ© in Madrid, as I finish up a couple-day layover on my way to Rwanda.

Europe always sucker-punches me with history in the very best way, pounding up through my cobblestone-beaten feet and wearing out my retinas with art, art, and even more art.

This trip, I was caught by the Reina Sofia, Madrid's modern art museum.

It’s laid out by year, stubbornly resisting the “go here to see Picasso” narrative most museums succumb to, and ensuring each piece is shown in its natural context. Here in Spain, no art in the last century makes sense without the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War that followed, and the museum made sure I knew it.

It was a war that came here, bombs falling from German planes, even to the cafe where I’m sitting now. As the paintings and sculptures and films told the story, I was struck by the power and necessity of art - then and today.

That the news can tell us what, and science can tell us how, but only art lets us wrestle with why.

Standing in that museum, I thought about how far we can be from certain forms of art, these days.

In her book Art Objects, Jeannette Winterson nails our struggle with museums and the visual arts. How often, she notes, we'll happily spend two hours with a terrible movie or TV show. And how rarely we'll spend even one hour with a painting or a photograph.

A few years ago, inspired by her statement, I tried just that, plopping myself down in front of a still-life painting of flowers I knew nothing about, and resolving to stay there for a full hour.

The experience was astounding. Brain-cracking.

With that much time, I was able to really dig into the painting - one that had taken months to create - and notice every tiny intentional detail. Over the hour, it opened and reopened itself to me: first a pretty vase of flowers, then a strange and macabre meditation on dying, finally, a physically impossible scene designed to trick the casual viewer, and tell me story about life.

This week, I'm going to revisit that experiment, and I invite you to try it with me.

Find a piece of art that interests you and spend quality, uninterrupted time with it. Maybe it’s five minutes. Maybe it’s the full hour.

But whatever time you can carve out, give it fully to the piece. I’ll do the same. I bet we’ll both be surprised at what we find. :)

Have a wonderful week!

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I saw all week was this beautiful piece on language, writing, and a wonderful question: Are we different people in different languages?

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