Making the Rounds at the Munch

“What does one do in Oslo in March?” I asked Shiho, a 34 year-old doctoral student far, far from home. Home, it turns out, is the same place I now hail from, so in the unfolding scheme of things, it turned out that Shiho and I have a number of people and places in common. A lot to talk about, we remark. And although it provides a starting point, it quickly transforms into disingenuousness, as we mutually utter breathy “I can’t believe the luck” sentiments each time the conversation wanes.

The truth of the matter is that in this global age, the “gee wiz, it’s-a-small-world” angle has been worn nearly to the nub. With each passing day, as the networks accrete and the opportunities amass, all those degrees of separation are winnowing.

That said, it is somewhat of a coincidence worthy of comment that Shiho has selected to leave our mutual hometown and come all the way to Oslo to work on an area of research that I also dabble in — gender in sports. It is probably an irony worthy of observation that we’ve never bumped into one another pursuing this common passion before.

Now, in a bustling restaurant in Oslo, where the beers go for 8 bucks a pop, we have.

Being Japanese, and my junior, Shiho takes the matter of solving my riddle seriously. And I thought it was just a conversation re-starter. Still, you can see all of her energies suddenly shift into attending to my needs.

“Well,” her thick, chocolate-colored eyes searching the floor, “it’s too early to take the boat cruise through the fjords. So . . . museums? Do you like museums?”

Well, sure I do. Anyone who’s read this blog knows that I do museums. The Metropolitan, The Getty, The Pompideau are all represented on these (well the old, past) pages. But I’m kind of picky. “That means,” I explain to Shiho through bites of my $25 Tex-Mex burger sided by doughy onion rings and soggy French fries, “that I only like good art.”

Well, duh. Who doesn’t? Like: “Oh yeah, I make it a policy to go take in all the bad art I can lay my eyes on.”

But Shiho is polite. So she asks through lips that only perceptibly move: “Well, what is good art?” And now I knew that she has a brain to go along with her unusual resume, because that’s the 64,000 dollar question.

I don’t tell Shiho what immediately comes to mind, because we are still complete strangers (and I would like this conversation to last); but what I had been tempted to say was a paraphrase of the quote from the U.S. Supreme Court Justice about porn: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” But my reluctance is also due to the fact that this isn’t completely so. Because for me, good art tends to fall into specific periods – like the Impressionists. But that is also not completely so, since I don’t care for all impressionists equally. Monet works for me, but Manet doesn’t; and Degas leaves me feeling out of focus and oddly detached. Cezanne, for me, is simply cold. Besides, I don’t get it. I look at his schtick and can’t quite see what he was trying to say. A bowl, a pear, maybe an orange. Hey get this: in a swatch of orange, to boot. Maybe I am just not clever enough. Vincent, of course, had his own vision too, but it was so arresting – his canvases really can grab you by the lapels and refuse to let go. How can you not love that thing that won’t leave you alone? So, I consume it madly, without surcease. And Gaugin? Well, there is something in his strokes, coloration, and subject matter that keeps drawing me back to wherever his frames are hanging.

So, it’s more than a period. It is style, composition, topic. And – okay – maybe that Je ne c’est quoi quality of “I know it” because it has crept inside my nervous system and started tickling it, or clawing at it, or whispering sweet words into it until it rolls over in supplication and/or wholesale satisfaction — whichever comes first.

That is art.

And this is what I try to say to Shiho. To which she says: “well, then you probably should try the Munk.”

Shiho pronounces it like “moonk” (or at the very least “monk”) but when I write it down, she leans over, plucks up my pen and spells it out in a way that should have sounded like “lunch”. Not the last time I will make a mistake in life.

When I get there the following morning, the first thing I see is the cafeteria. So maybe the Munch does have some association with meal-times. A few couples are partaking: supping cappacino and cutting into pastry. Right next to that is the reprint shop – where I’m sure in two hours I will get suckered into purchasing a mouse pad or daily planner or coffee mug with reproductions of Munch nudes or self-portraits or death vigils etched on them.

Alongside the shop is an x-ray station manned by three guards – one presumes because “The Scream” keeps getting stolen and they’ve finally decided to get tough on crime. The painting is back now, but apparently it was retrieved in poor condition, so it is not currently on display. That’s okay, there are mugs and tote bags with its likeness on it, so I won’t leave empty-handed.

A couple of hours later I certainly don’t leave unsatisfied. But I do feel a bit incomplete. Maybe I will explain that the next time, because there was, indeed, enough at the Munch to justify one more entry. Don’t be disappointed, though, if what you hear about is absence, emptiness, sadness, inveterate insularity.

You know, the tradition stuff of the life of an artist.