When I was a small boy in New York during the 1950s, I took the bus every day from our apartment in Harlem to Hunter College elementary school downtown. On the way back, I would sometimes stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 82nd Street to wander through its vast, high-ceilinged galleries.
Everything about the place was monumental to my young eyes, particularly the Greek and Roman galleries. Naturally I was intensely curious about all those unclothed marble figures. Only later did I discover that the nude is a form, rather than a subject of art, and that while nakedness is shameful, the nude symbolizes the body transformed and perfected. The Greeks were probably the first to make that distinction.
Yet I don't recall anything on the wall labels then that discussed such issues. In those days, museum labels were grudgingly informative -- a name, a date, and after that, you were pretty much on your own.
How refreshing it was, therefore, to visit the Met's newly renovated Greek and Roman exhibit during a trip to New York last week. It was a reminder of how visitor-friendly museums have become over the past generation, and how much more accessible the vast storehouse of objects in their collections can be.
The Met houses one of the most important collections of Greek and Roman art in the world. But the old exhibits always seemed just that -- old and stuffy. By contrast, the renovated galleries have a wonderful feeling of spaciousness about them, and their physical expansiveness is matched by an intellectual presentation that is as fresh as it is informative.
The exhibit is divided into seven large galleries that offer a chronological progression of works in all media, from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C. One can walk through them in an hour or so and get a fairly comprehensive picture of the period.
The Greeks were the inventors of what we call Western civilization. They were the first to accord rational inquiry a leading role in guiding human affairs, and to it they coupled a joyful appreciation of the animal vitality of life -- a spirit reflected in every aspect of Greek art and culture.
Some of the New York critics complained that the renovated galleries make the Greeks seem too familiar, that the links it draws between their world and our own tend to obscure the differences between the two.
The Greeks invented democracy, for example, but they also considered slavery both natural and inevitable to the social order. It's easy to forget that our own so-called enlightenment about such matters dates back less than 150 years.
Or take the Greek cult of nakedness. Young Athenian men took enormous pride in their bodies, found nothing shameful in homosexual love affairs and competed completely naked in athletic events mainly to impress their male lovers.
In Sparta, even women competed in athletic games clad only in light garments that revealed their arms and legs. The Romans were scandalized by such displays some 2,000 years ago.
The new Met exhibit is a bridge to that earlier era rather than an explanation for it. The past is always strange, no matter how much of it survives into the present day. The Greek achievement was magnificent, and that is above all what the Met has presented in a fascinating exhibition that will inspire and delight for many years to come.