Boys think art rocks

Posted: Nov 12, 2002 12:00 AM
Stand agape if you will, but we've done it: We took our three sons, ages 11, 9 and 6, to an art museum yesterday. First, of course, we had to endure the pre-game commentary: "I don't like art museums, they're boring." ("You've never been to one.") "Can I bring my Game Boy?" ("Only for the car ride.") "When's dinner?" ("At dinnertime.") In the car, David, Benjamin and Jonathan alternate amusing and infuriating one another. The sight of a yellow Volkswagen sets in motion a chant: "Blue punch bunny no punch back black out! Banana car banana car banana car banana car . . ." this goes on until the victim can find something yellow to touch. Sometimes they merrily entertain themselves this way. But suddenly, someone having had his fill, he will shout, "STOP!" and as sure as God made little boy tempers, the offender will not stop, thus necessitating a parental warning. But for long periods of time, as the silliness needle goes off the meter, they have a rollicking good time. "The lad's gone mad," David merrily announces about his little brother Benjamin, as Ben turns to Jon and declaims, "Bonjour, Monsieur Omelet de fromage." (Hello, Mr. Cheese Omelet.) David, 9, was most skeptical about the outing. "Why do people think canvasses splattered with paint are beautiful?" I explain about Jackson Pollock and add that we'll be focusing more on representational art. Benjamin, 6, who has already been introduced to Pollock by his friend and my assistant, Jeanne Massey, nevertheless spots one of his works soon after we enter the National Gallery and charges off to inspect it. He is delighted and asks if this is
the canvas Pollock painted or a copy. When I tell him it's the real thing, he is impressed. He says nothing but throws back his little shoulders a bit to mark the presence of greatness. One of the marvelous things about living in the Washington, D.C., area is the ready availability of the Smithsonian museums -- treasure houses on subjects as varied as space, natural history and art -- and all available year-round for free. We're old veterans of most of the museums, but this was the boys' first trip to the National Gallery. What they found (and two of three admitted to loving the place) was that the building itself is a work of art, with a central atrium featuring gorgeous marble columns circling a fountain. David recognized Hermes in the center, and all tossed coins. We began with sculpture, thinking it would be the most accessible art form to boys, but Jon got giggly about the naked bodies, and David couldn't see what was so great about severed body parts. We explained about Greeks and ruins, and he understood, but we pressed on to American art anyway. There, amid the Hoppers and Sargents, our sons discovered art. They were amazed that artists could capture a reflection on water, a dewdrop on a flower and the drape of a curtain. They could not believe the intricacy of pointillist painting and wondered how long the artist must have labored to produce such a thing. We paused for snack time and listened to the soothing splash of the fountain, feeling, for all the world, as if cloistered. Beauty is not truth, but it does approach a kind of peace and a sense of wonder. Human beings, for all their obvious shortcomings and fatal flaws, are capable of sublime accomplishments, and art is one of them. After exclaiming over the giant Calder mobile and clucking at a monstrous tapestry in the modern wing, we headed home. The boys were hungry. Ben's legs were tired. And all three badly wanted to get at their paper and colored pencils.