Should art museums try to give their visitors spiritually uplifting, life-changing experiences in front of art? Imagine an experience -maybe you've even already had one or two like it -where you come into contact with a work of art that, through its profound beauty and/or its deeply human feeling, touches you in a life-changing way. I can remember my most profound one-on-one contact with art, and it still gives me chills to think about it.
It was a couple of years ago. I was visiting Rome by myself -a dream I'd wanted to fulfill ever since becoming obsessed in the third grade with children's books on that ancient toga-clad civilization. So this trip was exciting for me. But it was also a lonely period in my life, a time of confusion about my role in the world, and where I might find meaning in my experiences. This particular late-afternoon in Rome, my feet were tired, having trudged tourist-routs through the city for hours, so I entered a dark church on the side of a big plaza, planning to rest for a few minutes and to secretly whisper some of my worries to God, on the off chance he was somewhere nearby.
When I saw the Caravaggio painting in a side chapel, I nearly stopped breathing, so powerfully did the painting fill my consciousness. I knew the painting was a Caravaggio, even though it wasn't one I had studied, because it used his signature chiaroscuro, and seemed realer than reality. The painting shows an old, wrinkled couple, bowing down in humbly, before a statue of Mary and Jesus, giving themselves up to the mercy of God as if they don't know how else to find the hope to continue. And there before them, beautiful, assuring and holy, the holy mother and child come alive because of their faith and their prayer, and reach out to bless this destitute couple. The old couple in the painting were having the kind of moving experience true faith in God can bring, and I, looking at them, was having the kind of moving experience that a beautiful, emotional painting can bring. For a long time, kneeling in front of the Caravaggio, I cried.
This was the only time I have been so spiritually moved by a painting. I have seen ten thousand works of art, and nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine of them have had far less dramatic effects on my lungs and my tear ducts. I think it is relevant that my most spiritual experience of art happened in a church, with its dark, candle-lit aura, and not in a museum with its well-lit, more secular atmosphere. I'm sure it was key that this experience came for me while I was on a spiritual quest of sorts, unsure about my life and on a long-dreamed of trip to Rome. But the truth is, these types of life-changing connections to works of art are as rare as blue moons, and can't be forced. There are many other ways to experience art, as educational, as evocative of discussion, as beautiful -but more prosaically so, that if perhaps not quite as exciting are just as valid. An art museum can do far more to give its visitors these kinds of experiences than to try to force spiritual uplift.