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Ditch the Xanax: Why the Metropolitan Museum Is a Better Cure for American Grumpiness

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On January 16, 2012, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will open new painting galleries in the American Wing. The opening is happening just in time. I think we all need a bit of a breather.

I am neither an art connoisseur nor historian but I find the Museum therapeutic and its American Wing particularly so. It is an interesting type of therapy -- the type that can remind us to put our frustrations about our current peccadilloes in perspective.

For instance, when Newt Gingrich says something dotty (and dangerous) about detaining federal judges whose decisions he finds objectionable, remnants of the lives of earlier generations of Americans remind me that we are descended from a people who have survived all manner of threats to the republic. In Gallery 739 of the American Wing sits a striking mid-nineteenth century tête-à-tête (a chair for two that allows sitters to face one another -- the design is attributed to John Belter) that might have provided a comfortable platform from which two worried Americans might have pondered the uncomfortable and escalating domestic crisis that eventually resulted in disunion and war. Compared to that American catastrophe, Newt's menacing ruminations seem little more than the disappointed rantings of a spoiled child.

Frankly, I don't think that either the Belter tête-à-tête or the nation would have gone to the trouble of surviving that fracas if at the end of the day their lot would be to witness our devolution from republican democracy to banana republic -- an inevitable result if certain ill-considered rhetoric threatening our independent judiciary were to carry the day. (Of course, that independent judiciary may give rise to certain well-warranted disappointments from time to time, but I'll take Antonin Scalia over the Supreme Court of Libya any day of the week.)

Then there is the $335 million Bank of America recently paid to settle claims arising from Countrywide's alleged practice of discriminating against qualified African-American and Latino mortgage borrowers. A nice chunk of money, to be sure, but not so nice as to remedy the disappointment over the fact that our "post-racial" country just never quite seems to be. A visit to the parlor from the Marmion Plantation in Virginia (located in the Met's Gallery 720), however, might provide a bit of encouraging perspective; some of the descendants of the slaves who likely tended the parlor's guests may have been lured into subprime mortgages while their White counterparts were given better deals, but you'd have to be dottier than a guy who wants to arrest judges not to realize that we are all better off than we were during the "good old days" for which certain social luddites yearn.

"Culture warriors" who bemoan our alleged descent into valueless amorality -- an amorality allegedly precipitated by giving too many rights to too many people -- might enjoy a quick visit to the Verplanck Room, also in the museum's American Wing (in Gallery 718). Samuel Verplanck, a patriot who left Manhattan when the British occupied it in 1776, likely had his own views about values and morality when his royalist wife, Judith, stayed behind, allegedly developing her own "special relationship" with Sir William Howe, commander-in-chief of the occupying British forces. (Two of Sir William's love tokens to Judith -- paintings depicting the love god Eros -- are on display in the room too). While many among the current crop of the professionally angry may decry the state of moral decay in which we supposedly linger, it may provide some small comfort to know that it was not the loosening of restrictive social rules in the 1960's that gave rise to the phenomenon of infidelity either to family or to country -- nor is there any record of God having punished Judith or her descendants with their own, specially-crafted, natural disaster.

When, in 1825, a group of New York businessmen presented to Governor DeWitt Clinton a pair of Thomas Fletcher vases -- a token of thanks for the Governor's efforts in promoting the building of the Erie Canal -- I imagine they embraced a more sophisticated rhetoric about the role of government and the assumption of public expenditures than do many of those purporting to speak for "Real American" business interests today. (The vases are now on view as part of the Museum's exhibition of New York cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe's work.) Those who benefited from construction of the canal -- that is to say, the entire country -- should be grateful for what was likely a more nuanced perspective. Perhaps it's not too late for some of it to rub off.

(Of course, that doesn't mean that certain of today's more seasoned government-haters don't often find their own way of expressing appreciation to public officials who gift them with subsidies and other publicly-funded goodies at taxpayer expense. And to be fair, the fact that Thomas Jefferson described the Erie project as "a little short of madness" and that the state of New York ultimately was required to take up the charge is indicative of the fact that we all may need to think more creatively about how to address our crumbling infrastructure and other domestic challenges. Creative thinking is not just for lobbyists, either.)

I am not so naïve as to think that wandering the galleries of one of the finest art museums in the country necessarily will give rise to a calm and deliberate examination of public policy, social norms, or the manner in which we process either. The Met may be a repository of various transformative moments in world history, but to suggest that a mere museum visit could itself transform our dialogue -- especially in an election year -- would perhaps be indicative of an altogether different type of dottiness. Some time in the new American Wing galleries, however, might make us all a little less grumpy. Given the antics that lie in store in 2012, that may be just the salve that the doctor ordered.

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