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Can literature be a gateway to lifelong curiosity?

After a return trip to the Museum of Modern Art 18 years on, Sarah Simons discovers a new found appreciation of art

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After a return trip to the Museum of Modern Art 18 years on, Sarah Simons discovers a new found appreciation of art

As we get older various bits of us are tested to see how they’re holding up. What about the stuff which age may alter but which can’t be measured, or at least not on the NHS?

Curiosity. A sense of wonder. Open-mindedness. How do we know if they’re still going strong?

After Nottingham, my home of 21 years, New York is my favourite place. Strolling round those streets with no names gives me a feeling of calmness in direct contrast to the city’s dizzying rush.

My first visit was in November 2000. My husband and I whipped round as much as we could during our five days: Central Park, Times Square, the observation deck of the World Trade Centre. We also looked at some art.

'Now that's what I call art'

My husband has always been open-minded to the creative world in all its forms. He has the knack of consuming art without scepticism. Historically, I do not. Back on that trip I traipsed after him round the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) grimacing at the sight of weirdos cooing over a shovel dangling from the ceiling, and tutting as others practically widdled with glee while scrutinising huge rectangles of splodged mess. After repeatedly muttering "nah mate, bollocks" I bailed, trotting off to FAO Schwarz to bounce about on the floor piano from the film Big. Now that’s what I call art.

I’ve changed in the 18 years following that trip. I’ve become a teacher and a student. I’ve learned so much and would like to think I'm more interested in being interested. I’ve visited New York a few times since then – but haven’t risked an afternoon at MoMA, until last week.

I went in having decided to make a conscious effort to absorb the art without questioning it. 

How does it make me feel? I would try and rid myself of the instinct to judge it from a position of what I think art is, and solely embrace my own reaction to the colours, forms and perception of meaning. I know…"nah mate, bollocks". 

I wandered through Warhols and lingered at Lichtensteins. I didn't feel much apart from hungry but that didn't seem like an art-based reaction. It’s hard to know how to feel about the really famous ones – Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Monet’s Water Lilies – as they seem more at home on a fridge magnet or bargain-bin calendar than as actual pieces of work.

'Had pretentiousness become airborne?'

I continued wandering and I stared and I stared. A painting took my fancy. I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie, an oil on canvas from 1914 by Francis Picabia. No, I’d never heard of him either. I saw swirls of marigold-coloured shapes and light-filled peachy petals among a grey sharp background.

I felt like I could walk into the fantastical painted place, but I’d definitely have to keep my eyes peeled for danger. This connection threw me off. Had pretentiousness become airborne or would a massive bun sort me out?

I carried on, trying to stop telling myself off for feeling a feeling because someone painted a shape in a colour I liked. In yet another off-white room, yet another of the famous ones loomed large. Very large in fact. At nearly 18 feet long, Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950 is an imposing wall-ful.

I was attracted to the bench in front of it, never missing the opportunity for a nice sit down. I looked at the frantic tangle of black splatters and creamy drips.

Hang on. I was feeling a feeling again. A big one.

Literature and learning

The painting seemed to vibrate, almost like it was breathing. It took on a life of its own as I became more and more deeply mesmerised. It looked simultaneously like a secret vast universe of stars and the inside of a living being, at the smallest, cellular level, radiating with light around it.

Unexpectedly tears ran down my face and I was overwhelmed. The woman next to me seeing my reaction whispered, "so much energy". I don't know if that was polite talk for "pack it in you daft cow" or if she was on about the painting. Either way, I nodded.

I sat there for half an hour finding it hard to tear myself away from the feeling of intense wonderment that the work was giving me. I've never had such a spiritual feeling towards any piece of art, whether that’s film, literature or theatre. Even Bruce Springsteen concerts don’t feel as powerful as this – and The Boss live is an indisputable force of nature.

I left the museum confused, but invigorated. I had a massive bun, but felt just the same sense of completeness as I had before, so ruled out my previous baked goods theory.

With my recent English Literature course at the Open University, I’m falling in love with words in a way that I had previously thought was reserved only for those cleverer than me. Has literature been my gateway course to lifelong learning curiosity in other areas? I was happy that I could measure my change in approach to MoMA compared to the me of 18 years ago.

Maybe curiosity is a skill that should be worked at, challenged, and actively nurtured to develop. I'm going to seek other stuff that I've previously thought of as boring, or too hard and have a go. I'm hoping to get Pollocked again.

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