Today my husband and I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for the first time in years. They offer free admission on Wednesday nights after 4pm, and I had been let out of school early for snow, so our timing was perfect. For two people who LOVE critiquing and debating the nuances and implications of films, books, plays, music, and articles, we have a borderline embarrassing lack of cool when it comes to 3-D art in physical spaces like museums or exhibit halls. It’s not our comfort zone, and we have essentially no experience with it. But, as a teacher of reading and writing who believes in her core in the value of multimodal composition and who teaches visual rhetoric, this seemed like an untenable position, so off to the MFA we went.
As we ambled awkwardly into a nearby gallery room (we started with American art from the 1800s which was a questionable choice) and faced the first floor-to-ceiling oil painting looming in its gilded frame, I had a very odd, but also faintly familiar experience. I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. As I squinted at the complicated brush strokes and imposing oil-painting figures, I was at a bit of a loss. What does one do with paintings? Was I supposed to say how it made me feel? Was it supposed to mean something? How could I even tell if I LIKED it or not?
Immediately, and with a faint smile, I recognized the questions running through my mind. They’re the same questions my students ask when I show them something new. They’re the same questions I hear from and see in them when we tackle an unusual composition, an unfamiliar genre, or a whole new mode. When I ask students to rhetorically analyze sound compositions, their faces look like I felt as the larger-than-life oil painting version of George Washington stared down at me imposingly. I had to laugh.
I had forgotten how disorienting and daunting it can be to attempt to read a composition in a mode outside our comfort zone. As my husband and I slowly moved from impressionist paintings to cubist paintings to sculptures and so on, I recalled how squaring off with an unfamiliar genre or mode can feel a little like getting pushed into the deep end of a swimming pool unexpectedly. But I also inhabited the importance of having flexible, complex reading skills that apply to any mode in any scenario.
And so, under oil painting George Washington’s watchful eye, I went back to what I know, because I DO know how to read. I read the paintings. I read each painting multiple times, like I would a poem. Once to understand, again to notice, again to analyze, and then again to reflect. I paid attention to my own responses, both emotional and intellectual. I carefully read accompanying plaques to construct small rhetorical analyses with which to understand authorial goals and contextual influences. I noticed features: colors, lines, framing, repetition, symbols etc. I compared them to other works they reminded me of. I considered different theoretical lenses. I asked myself questions, and then I discussed my answers with my husband, who was doing the same thing in his own mind. We READ the paintings.
And, guys, reading is TRULY magnificent! Paintings and sculptures that initially intimidated me or struck me as dull became rich, emotional works when I really read them and shared those readings with another person. I poked around in my own heart and mind with depth and dimension, feeling emotional responses and thoughtfully noticing them. As we wandered the museum, reading carefully, we were deeply and profoundly human. We sifted through the truths of existence that hang just below the surface of our conscious days. We felt and observed our differences as individuals, and we soaked ourselves in beauty and creation.
Ultimately, my husband and I spent upwards of 3 hours engrossed in the different galleries, floors, and exhibits. But we wouldn’t have been able to have that experience as individuals or together if we hadn’t leaned into the discomfort of reading in new genres and drawn from our tried and true strategies for reading texts. As an educator, this experience was an important reminder for me. I walked away renewed in my conviction that:
- For reading to be real, living, and impactful in my students’ lives, it has to be multimodal, flexible, and diverse.
- Reading, REALLY reading, new things is vulnerable, intimidating, and uncomfortable. But it’s the stuff truth and life are made of, and my students need to have the tools to do it bravely and well.
So, if you find yourself at the MFA on a Wednesday night, look around. There’s a good chance we’ll be there too.