When my wife and son and I were last in Minnesota, we spent a great deal of time in the nursing home in which her grandmother is currently living. While my wife visited with her family, I chased my 21 month-old son through every square foot of Valley Eldercare. (He brought a ton of joy, I believe, into the lives of at least a few dozen residents.) As he dashed madly past private rooms and recreation areas, he would periodically come to a complete stop and ask me to lift him up so he could look at one of the pictures hanging every ten feet or so down the hallway. They didn’t hold his attention for long — nothing did, save for the big friendly dog that was also roaming the hallways — but they did start to get me increasingly interested. Not because they were any good, mind you, but because they were largely terrible.
This may not surprise you, and perhaps it shouldn’t. Health care centers aren’t generally known for the artfulness of their decor. (Though my own primary care physician’s office features a modest collection of original work that, though not at all to my taste, re-assures me every time I note its presence; I trust a doctor who despises mass-produced landscapes and abstract blurs.) For my own part, the art all just seemed so intolerably miserable and mediocre that I just couldn’t believe anyone would subject another human being to it.
And then my son happened to stop in front of one piece in particular that caught my eye: a watercolor rendering of what was purportedly a small side-street in Rome. Like so many of the others, it was almost impossibly bland; this could have been any street in any corner of any city not only in Italy, but anywhere in Europe (and even a few other parts of the world as well). The image centered on a narrow, cobblestone street, stone steps, a pair of stone houses, and some greenery: nothing more. The only thing “Italian” about the painting was its title: “Roma.”
I visited the piece often as I followed by son up and down the hallway, each time only for a brief second or two, and every time I did, I found myself thinking more and more about my honeymoon in Italy: three weeks in Rome, Tuscany, Florence, and Venice that were among the happiest of my entire life. Could that street actually be in Rome, I asked myself? Might my wife and I have even walked on it? We walked on several very much like it, at least. And several like it, too, at some of our other stops. And then the daydreaming began, and for the next half-hour, while I wasn’t stopping my son from running headlong into the nurse’s station, I went right back to Italy in my mind and had my honeymoon all over again.
And then it hit me: I was re-living one of the best times of my life! That bland painting I’d so quickly dismissed had done it to me! And it probably did exactly the same thing to countless residents of Valley Eldercare as well! Which is exactly what it was intended to do! It actually worked! I felt like giving the artist a serious high-five.
Art has immense, unlimited power to work its way inside us and move us and change us, and we should never forget that. It’s mightier than we realize. Even if we don’t love it, it still does its thing. And sometimes — maybe not always, but at least now and then — it’s important to just stop judging art by its quality and let it function as it’s supposed to function… because you might, like my son in his passion for exploration, just get carried away.