Did you know you could learn more from a museum than just how to appreciate art and stay 18 inches away from priceless objects? Museums are full of life lessons just aching to be told; all you need to do is peel back the surface.
Metaphorically, of course. Stay 18 effing inches away from the art!
Lesson #1: Believe in Yourself
Or, Even If You Suck, You Can Still Be a Success
Henri Rousseau was a French artist who was known to be a little, shall we say “naïve.”
Completely self-taught and more than a bit gullible, Rousseau painted vast jungle landscapes without ever stepping foot in or near a jungle, and portraits of people without knowing what feet are or look like. (Seriously, check out his paintings of feet. Dude must’ve never taken off his own socks).
Despite Rousseau’s rather amateur ways, he caught the eye of a young Pablo Picasso when the budding master bought one of Rousseau’s paintings to use as a canvas. Picasso was literally shocked by how bad Rousseau’s art was, while also envious of the way Rousseau could “paint like a child. Picasso decided to throw a party for Rousseau that for many seemed to be more a “Dinner for Schmucks” than a celebration of the man, and critics were quick to critique, calling Rousseau’s work “grotesque” and unseemly.
But some artists applauded Rousseau’s self-taught techniques and even likened them to the surrealist movement, which was news to Rousseau, who painted until the day his leg (possibly as revenge for the fact that Rousseau couldn’t paint feet) got infected with gangrene and took his life.
Today, Rousseau’s work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a reminder that, even if you really, really suck at something, someone may eventually see you as a master.
Lesson #2: Be Kind to Your Family and Friends
Or, Don’t Be a Dick to Your Sister
Suspension hooks were often used by different tribes in Papua New Guinea to keep food and other items off the ground and away from pests. In some cases, the suspension hook was designed in a female shape, legs splayed, ready to party. These feminine suspension hooks were believed to have the power to protect women from men who were assholes. One such suspension hook was carved to resemble a woman name Dilukai.
In Dilukai’s village, it was extremely taboo to see your brother or sisters genitals. An idea I think we can all agree with and respect. Now Dilukai had this douche of a brother named Atmatuyuk who caused trouble all over the village. One day Atmatuyuk left town and to prevent his return, the townspeople hung a suspension hook modeled after Dilukai, lady parts and all, to hang at the entrance of the village. Atmatuyuk was gone for good and Dilukai’s suspension hook protected the village from douchebags forever.
Lesson #3: Be Resilient
Or, Make the Best out of a Crappy Situation
Chiura Obata was a Japanese-American artist and teacher. The youngest of a large family and raised by his brother, Obata left Japan for the Bay Area in California at a young age to pursue his passion for art. He quickly became a respected and admired teacher who liked to blend American and Japanese artistic styles.
In 1906 Obata’s life was rocked by an earthquake, yet he aided firefighters in clearing the damage and even was able to retrieve some of his art supplies and paint the wreckage. Though shaken from this experience, Obata regrouped and stayed strong as an artist and educator, falling deeper in love with California’s epic landscapes.
A few decades later came Pearl Harbor, and the rampant anti-Japanese sentiment of the time got Obata and his wife sent to internment camps. Obata made the best out of his situation thereby setting up art schools which eventually taught over 3,000 students. After being interned, Obata returned to the Bay Area where he continued to teach and foster pro-America/Japanese relations until his death in 1975.
If that ain’t making peaceful lemonade out of racist lemons, then nothing is.
Lesson #4: Don’t Give Up
Or, Do What You Love, Even If It’s Hard
If you think bigger is better, you’ll love artist and sculptor Viola Frey.
Much like Obata’s “work through adversity” attitude, much of Frey’s work was born from her struggles, and flourished even after her age made her physically limited. Frey viewed her artistic process as similar to the process of an oyster making a pearl. A pearl is created because of a piece of sand, an irritation, and ends up something beautiful.
Similarly, much of Frey’s art represented the “large and in charge” figures around her as a child that were her “irritations,” like the power-posing men in their business suits and dressed-up housewives. Frey took her oppressors and blew them up even bigger and more demanding than IRL, taking back her own power and highlighting their absurdity and vulnerability with bright colors and shiny ceramics.
Up until her death in 2004, Frey worked with her team creating new work, teaching, and traveling to showcases. If Viola Frey can make a 10-foot tall sculpture at 70 years old, you can (insert thing you want to do but are too lazy to do here).
Lesson #5: Take Care of Yourself
Or, Go to the F***ing Doctor
The life and death of Andy Warhol can teach us a lot of things. Like how stealing ideas and quotes can totally make you famous as long as you’re popular and eccentric, or that there’s a fine line between “hoarding” and “collecting” and that line is made of power and money.
But the most important lesson we can learn from Warhol is to take care of ourselves physically and mentally.
In 1968, Andy Warhol was shot by radical feminist Valerie Solanas over a script she wanted back but Warhol “misplaced.” Warhol survived the shooting, but had to have his heart massaged back to life. Already not in the best health after having suffered numerous illnesses as a child and keeping up a steady diet of speed and air, Warhol never fully recovered from getting shot.
Warhol was terrified of doctors and hospitals, worried he would “catch” cancer or AIDS. In 1987 when he went in for a “routine” gallbladder surgery, he died soon after the procedure. Doctors and experts claim Warhol might have survived if he had come in sooner since his gallbladder was in such bad shape by the time he came in that it was gangrenous and fell apart in the doctor’s hands like chunky black Campbells soup. So trade in your 15 minutes of fame for 15 minutes of time spent making a doctors appointment, and you could save your own life.
Lesson #6: Always Keep Your Word
Or, If You Break a Promise, Ghosts Will Kill Your Family
The Kongo people from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa are very serious about their promises. So much so that they employ figures called Nkisi Nkondi as “Oath Keepers” within their villages.
These figures were placed on the edges of villages or near graveyards so that a spirit could hop in a container placed in either the belly or head of the Nkondi. Once the Nkondi is “charged” with a spirit, people would use it to ask to help, revenge, or to act as an intermediary between two parties. The user would ask their question or make their promise, take a nail or peg, lick it to give it some umph, and drive it into the Nkondi, solidifying the request or pact. If one of the pact members does not come through with their end of the bargain, the spirit within the Nkondi is released and haunts the wrongdoer and their family for the rest of their days in this life and the next.
So the next time you think of going back on a promise, use that sixth sense and think twice.
You Really Can Learn Anything in a Museum
Whether you’re looking for advice, direction, or just want an escape from the grind, museums will always be there for you like the wise old grandmother you put in a home and only visit on holidays.