Patrick Bringley sat with his mother at his brother’s bedside. The sun was rising, and she looked down at her eldest, ridden with cancer, his pale face softened by the early light. Then she glanced over at Patrick. “Look at us,” she said wryly. “We’re a fucking old master painting.”
She loved art’s history, had drummed it into both her sons. Museums were not places to gawk then head for the gift shop; they were repositories of humanity. A few months later, they visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Bringley found her sobbing uncontrollably in front of a Pieta by Niccolo di Pietro Gerini: “a young man who was very beautiful but bluntly dead, supported bodily by his mother, who hugged her son as she would if he were living.”
The loss of his brother devastated Bringley, too. He quit his exciting, “going places” job at The New Yorker because he no longer wanted to be pushing forward. He wanted to stand still. Where better than at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had an opening for a security guard?
“It’s a straightforward job, young man,” his trainer, a guard named Aada, told him briskly, “but we also must not be idiots. We keep our eyes peeled. We look around. Like scarecrows, we prevent nuisance.”
And so, in 2008, he joined the hundreds of men and women who stand guard over the Met’s treasures. He was assigned a small patch of the museum’s 2.2. million square feet and handed a blue suit, black shoes, a clip-on tie, and an $80 sock allowance. First, he learned all the art in his section by heart. He had been assigned—an irony his mom could appreciate—to the Old Masters Gallery. As Auden said of those painters, “About suffering, they were never wrong.”
Bringley read about the old masters, thought about their paintings, watched all sorts of visitors respond to them. When he was sated with art, he made people the masterpieces, guessing their lives, making up stories about them, asking himself who he would have to be to have a crush on a particular individual.
Some guards came for the peace of the job, but he liked “the rat-a-tat-tat of conversations, people asking, ‘What should I see here?” He found that if he relaxed his features, wandered into the center of the room, and made eye contact, people would realize he was approachable. He also found that if he studied up a bit on politics and baseball scores and was willing to kvetch a little, he could chat easily with the other guards, most of whom were twice his age and came from other parts of the world.
There were frequent, even daily visitors, like the guy “who looks at pictures with an ivory-handled magnifying glass and dresses a bit like a silent movie star, a long coat hanging on his shoulders.” Some regulars were hungry to soak up all the art they could; some were in love with the building or its history or its ambience; some came to socialize; some had developmental disabilities and felt safe in that big, cool, structured place. One, a savant of the subway, made it his job to alert the guards to any service advisories on the trains they were riding home.
Snooty visitors did not merely look down on the guards, they looked through them. One man—long-haired, hip, obviously rich—did not look up when Bringley said the gallery was closing, just raised his hand in the air “like a baseball player signaling time. ‘Five minutes,’ he says, just like that: a period, not a question mark.” More down-to-earth visitors shot Bringley a look if something struck them as “artsy-fartsy nonsense,” as though to say, “Everybody buys this horseshit but you and me.” Others sought his advice about what to see, or poured out their response to a particular painting.
“It’s something in the uniform,” he noted. “A shabby gentility that reads as sympathetic to fancy and working people alike. That, and we aren’t needy. I’m sure visitors would scorn us if we wore vulgar Ask Me Anything! Buttons on our lapels.”
He especially liked the visitors whose questions were bemused. “I like baffled people. I think they are right to stagger around the Met discombobulated, and more educated people are wrong when they take what they see in stride…. None of us knows much of anything about this subject—the world and all of its beauty.”
When teenagers came with homework assignments, Bringley explained “epiphany” to them. Other visitors taught him, like the mother who gave her son two coins for the fountain: “One wish for yourself, and another, just as big, for someone else.” He vowed to do the same when he and his wife had kids.
These interactions developed a rhythm, and slowly, they began to sync him with the world again. His decision to take this job had made a deeper sense than he realized: art itself “often derives from those moments when we would wish the world to stand still. We perceive something so beautiful, or true, or majestic, or sad, that we can’t simply take it in stride.” Art freezes what is otherwise transitory, extending it over many lifetimes, refusing to let its beauty die.
• • •
“Goddammit, I’m in the Jesus pictures again!” Bringley overheard a visitor grumble. And though he grinned in sympathy and offered directions back out, he could not agree. “Pacing these galleries is like paging through a family photo album of a grim but exceptionally intimate kind,” he felt. “There are the baby pictures: Adorations, Holy Familys, Virgin and Childs. There are moments of transition in a young man’s life: Baptisms, Christ in the Wildernesses. And finally, there are the episodes of the Passion, a word that originally meant ‘to suffer, bear, endure’: Agony in the Gardens, Flagellations, Crucifixions, Lamentations, Pietas. Apparently, the old masters channeled everything they had—all of their talent and energy, and all of their wonder and dread—into one story of a short, hard life.”
Broken open by sadness, he resonated with the Passion paintings. “The fourteenth century was the time of the Bubonic plague, and emotion is so close to the surface in those pictures. Over and over again, they are telling the story of the Passion, which is just another word for suffering.”
The other side of the coin was the pure hope of the “Adorations”: “How useful a name for a kind of tender worship that arises in such a moment.” In a few years, Bringley’s first child would be born, and he would laugh at the contrast to those serene paintings: “The animal squirming in my arms is lusty, rude, ridiculous. I watch him slurp greedily at a bottle of milk, chin soaked, limbs jerking, bowels active, shitting and at the same exact moment passing out in a milk-drunken bliss.”
For now, though, Bringley had time to read and think. He watched Moroccan artists design a courtyard for the Islamic wing. Heard concerts on ancient Chinese instruments. Dug into the Met’s history, learning how, back in 1880, a museum guard had washed some pieces of ancient Cypriot pottery and watched the colors run down the drain. The tempera used 700 years ago was a mixture of egg yolk and ground up vegetables, bugs, and stones; it would have stuck. But when the guard questioned the forgeries, he was fired.
Rotated to an assignment at the Temple of Dendur exhibit, Bringley read about Egyptian history. The books pushed his knowledge forward—but the art stopped him in his tracks. ‘This is an essential aspect of a work of art: you can’t empty it of its contents and patly move on,” he was learning. Wordless, silent, a work of art renders “things that are at once too large and too intimate to be summed up.”
He studied Queen Hatshepsut, radiant even under halogen lights, and now knew why she was so exquisite: “Nothing imperfect could partake of djet time. For an object to reach into the sacred realm, it had to be faultlessly excellent.”
A field trip interrupted his musing: “There’s a dead dude in there?” “Who killed him?” “Why do they wrap him like that? So he don’t smell?” “What’s he look like under it?”
Horrible, Bringley replied, “a bone-dry shriveled old corpse.” And when they left, he thought what a ludicrous failure the mummifying impulse was, “what a brazen, feeble denial of a fundamental truth. The body doesn’t make it.”
Later, among the ancient Greeks, he would think of Homer’s words: “Spirit from body fluttered to undergloom, a well of dark.” And then back to the Jesus pictures, and the various resurrections.
• • •
Five years in, grief’s paralysis had eased. Watching people gaze at art, Bringley had begun to carry a little notebook and scribble his own thoughts—about the artists, their work, and how best to take it in. At The New Yorker, he had been so intimidated that he labored over a few lines for a Briefly Noted book, his words so stiff and precious, he was not even sure he believed them. “My thoughts were cramped, and my ambitions were curiously small,” he wrote now. With the pressure and competition gone, though, the prospect of working on a book felt freeing and large.
Still, it would not be easy. A strong response to art defies words, putting itself in their place. One of his favorite paintings was Pieter Bruegel’s The Harvesters, its beauty “silent, direct, and concrete, resisting translation even into thought.” But maybe even saying that much would reassure people who had also felt that ineffable, indescribable response, felt it swelling inside them with no way to escape.
Also, he was tired of academic writing that threw dry facts at people, facts only other academics could pop into context. Art was so often raised high, made to seem like a secret whispered onto to the select few. Yet “much of the greatest art seeks to remind us of the obvious,” he jotted. “This is real, is all it says. Take the time to stop and imagine more fully the things you already know.” Crazed by their pursuit of novelty, people needed permission to take a breath, sit a spell, look.
Ten years in, healed of grief but not the memories, he quit to finish his book: All the Beauty in the World. For his last stint as a guard, he chose a side gallery of ancient pots, “earth, baked in fire, painted by some anonymous fellow who worked outdoors, kept goats, knew Socrates. Humble vessels that held a household’s oil and wine but had room enough for scenes of life, death, and the very gods.”
• • •
When I visit New York, Bringley is spending his days down at the Battery, researching a new tour (in addition to the Met tour he now offers) about the New York of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. He suggests meeting at Fraunces Tavern, the oldest standing structure in Manhattan, and he brings that place alive for me, too, showing me the Long Room, where George Washington gave a toast to “civil and religious liberty” in 1776 and his Farewell Address to his generals when the British left.
Bringley’s gift is to make the scholarly approachable—and delightful. In that decade at the Met, he developed a method. Rather than hunt for some extraordinary characteristic highlighted by the experts, he does nothing, just stares, spending those first minutes in a work of art’s presence by absorbing all he can without attaching any initial judgment, and he refuses to worry about what the art-world elite think. “If you want to know if something is funny, see if it makes you laugh. If you want to know if a painting is beautiful, see if it evokes an equivalent response, one as definite as laughter though usually quieter and shyer to emerge.”
We are all trained to think of the Met as a museum about art history, he says, “and people might not be interested in that.” They read the precise facts on an accompanying card and feel removed from the art, unable to make sense of it the way a curator could. “But this stuff is about life and death and the gods and the mysteries of existence! In ninety-nine out of one hundred cases, the artist wasn’t making something to be looked at in a museum. They were making an altar or something with a function, and they would want you to be engaging with what it is about.”
I have not been to the Met in three decades, I confess.
“When you go, first, just wander and get lost,” he advises. “Give yourself time to be awed. That’s what the Met is: vastness. Then identify something you’re drawn to. I always recommend that people pick favorites. Make sure you leave that place with something that is meaningful to you.”
So simple. And done so seldom.
All the Beauty in the World was published this spring and reviewed as “stunning,” “profound,” “moving” and “empathic.” “The Met is a place where, with your own eyes, you can see what fellow fallible humans have made of the world that you live in,” Bringley writes. “You’re qualified to weigh in on the biggest questions artworks raise. So under the cover of no one hearing your thoughts, think brave thoughts, searching thoughts, painful thoughts, and maybe foolish thoughts, not to arrive at right answers but to better understand the human mind and heart.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.