I have no idea which old rap song gave birth to the title of this post, all I know is that I have always liked the image it suggests. We tend to think of culture as something high and mighty that holds our (or others’, or even Others’) values and ideals. Yet culture is not only capable of simultaneously embracing both the low and the high, but of devouring the middle ground.
So my husband and I determined that our lovely Winter Solstice vacation should be used for more than holiday stress and the resultant, post-holiday cozy lethargy. The weather was lovely (thanks, Global Warming!), we for once had time on our hands, so we should make a family trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a little good ol’ fashioned dose of culture-slash-Mandatory Fun, right?
“I don’t wanna go the museum, I want to have another sleepover with Elena!”
“I hate museums, you always drag us to them and they’re so BORING!”
Of course, any parent knows that this only adds fuel to the fire of our determination. We even used some psychological strategizing to outwit the lemming-like impulse of all families residing in/visiting the Tri-State area to do this exact same thing, resulting in a Museum Madhouse that’s no fun for anybody. A couple of friends had tipped us off that they took their progeny bright and early–probably at nine, opening hour, when my kids are still sound asleep on days off–in order to “get the most out of the day,” only to encounter a museum with a line snaking out the door and the shoving, clusterfuckathon that pushes kids over the edge and tests parents’ ability to maintain Chipper, Enthusiastic Mom/Dad Voice (the evil twin of Chipper Mom/Dad Voice being, “You want something to cry about? I’ll give you something to cry about!”). We decided instead to go for a late lunch at our town’s new burger place and head into the city afterwards, arriving at about four when the majority of the tourists were departing.
The goal was not to overwhelm the kids, just head into the cool Medieval Armor exhibit and maybe enjoy a few other things on the way. But we knew we’d scored a hit when we not only smugly witnessed a giant flood of people streaming out of the museum on our way in, but The Free Spirit also started happily skipping up the steps, crying, “Cool, this is where they stayed in Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler!” (referring to The Mixed Up Files thereof). The hits just kept coming as we passed through the collection of ancient jewelry. Since I was a little girl wandering through the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, exhibits featuring ancient jewelry have always been my favorite because of the intimacy of the objects. Sure, I got my professor on yesterday being able to explain to the girls about the Celts who had made those gorgeous bracelets and rings; the Visigoths who had ranged far and wide leaving those intricately wrought necklaces and daggers; to tell them the basics of the Byzantium empire behind those heartbreakingly beautiful, gold earrings with the cascading precious stones.
But I could hear in their caught breath and see it in their wondering eyes that they got it on a much deeper level: those gorgeous earrings that mommy and all three sisters want right now were owned, actually worn, by a woman in a drastically different place and time, a woman who must have loved them as much as we would. The Byzantine earrings initiated an experience that was part time-travel and part metempsychosis; looking through the glass at such intimate objects from the past while seeing ourselves reflected in their beauty was a powerful lesson in how very little people have changed in the past 2,000 years.
Meanwhile, behind us, my husband tapped his foot impatiently. Reluctantly, the girls and I left the jewelry and we all headed into Medieval Armor, which was awesome and fascinating in its own right…although that was the place where our lofty cultural meditations began their downward swoop.
It started innocently enough, noticing that while most suits of armor seemed to be for men who would be relatively small today–when 6th graders loom over their parents and slam-dunk basketballs–there was one huge one that must have been worn by a six-foot-plus, barrel-chested monster. The girls joked about the Terminator, while Husband and I were certain we were looking at “The Mountain,” Gregor Clegane from A Game of Thrones. But that wasn’t what did it. It was this dude, much smaller and shinier than The Mountain, and much more, shall we say, arresting:
To show you what I mean, allow me to insert (wink wink, nudge nudge) a closeup of his somewhat unusual, um, codpiece:
I really wish I had thought to bust out my phone and take a picture at this point (this is from the official website, my zoom/crop job), because the side-view was even more unbelievable. Needless to say, the girls’ jaws dropped while my husband and I tried to rally with theories about symbolic potency, as this was the armor of an Emperor…but I can’t be sure we were coming through over the titters and giggles. Suddenly, the museum wasn’t nearly as boring as they thought!
Moving on into the Italian Renaissance room, we were halted dead in our tracks by this statue called The Siren, so amazing that she merits both a front and a back view:
Note the pose and expression on the face of the woman viewing the statue in the right-hand picture.
Of course I had to explain the mythology of the siren, how she lured sailors to their deaths with her sweet…um…song.
“Why?!” demanded The Diva, eyes fixed on the mermaid. “Why would she do that?”
At a loss for an explanation, I had to just admit there really was only one reason. “Because she can.”
Emperor Ferdinand’s “potent-potentate” armor, coupled with The Siren’s obvious charms, led to some interesting discussion on bodies and gender ideals as we wandered through the ancient Greek and Roman rooms full of statues of naked people.
“She’s kinda fat,” The Lawyer noted as we paused in front of a love-goddess statue. “Actually, they’re all a little….chunky. That guy,” gesturing to a male statue identified as a famous warrior, “Doesn’t even have any abs!” So we walked on, talking about the reasons why different cultures idealized different body forms, comparing and contrasting these ancient Greek and Roman marble bodies to today’s celebrities and models. By the time we realized that the bigger-deal mythological heroes definitely seemed to have proportionally bigger booties than their less heroic counterparts the girls were having the time of their lives, skipping through the exhibition singing “Baby Got Back” (to which they, unfortunately, know all the words). Case in point is this statue depicting Hercules,
who has so much junk in his trunk he needs an extra marble plinth to hold it all up.
As it was getting late and energy was finally beginning to wane, at least in the younger two girls, we decided to swing through the African/Oceanic roomand then call it a night. Of course, by that point, eldest daughter was really into the cultural comparison thing and was delivering some pretty in-depth analyses of the warrior gear from the deep Pacific island cultures and the insanely heavy, elaborately wrought armor from Europe. For instance, she and I were captivated by this mask-helmet from Papa New Guinea:
Again, the frontal view doesn’t quite convey that the top figure is not only riding astride the bottom one, (which comprises the helmet part), but his weirdly long penis is resting atop the bottom figure’s head (which reminds me of a Ricky Gervais routine about dolphins, possibly one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen). We both agreed that it would be far more horrifying to face someone wearing this into battle than face someone wearing a full suit fifty pounds of armor.
Finally, as if to illustrate Buckaroo Bonzai’s insight that “Wherever you go, there you are,” we found ourselves facing this amazing sculpture, also from the area around Papa New Guinea:
Look familiar? No? Scroll back up to the frontal view of the Italian Renaissance Siren above. Yep. Separated by a globe and several centuries, two artists managed to come up with almost exactly the same concept (I’m pretty certain that the Italian Siren is not famous enough to have inspired the [then] largely illiterate Papa New Guineans). I guess you could consider that another feather in the Cultural Vulture’s wing: no matter how drastic the temporal or spatial differences between cultures, we’re not so different (or is it original?) as we like to think.