I didn’t expect this, not at all.
It is my last day in Los Angeles and I want an adventure, but a quiet one. I’ve been walking the streets, reading, thinking. The biggest thing I needed from this trip was just the opportunity to be anonymous, to be lost in a sea of people. I didn’t need dancing and adrenaline, fancy food or beaches. I needed fresh air and a sea full of people to quiet my brain and balance my spirit. I have been walking streets and following the directions of my heart strings for a few days. My feet are blistered and my shoulders knotted, but I feel wonderful and quiet and at peace. And now I have one day left.
And so I considered my options and chose the Getty. After a long bus ride (well over an hour to go just 10 miles or so), I rode a long shuttle up to the top of a hill and a collection of ornate white buildings and gardens form the J. Paul Getty Museum, an art gallery that is free to the public. Set up in 1954, it has houses variable galleries for people to walk through.
I step away from the crowd’s direction off the shuttle, wanting to be alone with my thoughts. I walk over a cactus garden, look at outdoor sculptures, and get a cup of coffee and a sandwich at an outdoor vending station. It is a picture perfect April day in California, with hills rolling in every direction, dotted with large and opulent homes, and the busy cluster of Los Angeles far in the distance.
After a time, I make my way inside. There are people everywhere. I see college students, families with young children, mothers and daughters, grandparents, gay couples, straight couples, lesbian couples, people from varying ethnicities many not speaking English. They move through the Getty at varying speeds, some stopping to talk in the center of rooms, some staring for ten minutes at one painting, some taking a photo of everything they pass, some speeding through and never looking up from their phones, some asking the staff detailed questions about the works of art.
I spend a long time in a series of galleries devoted to art work from the 1400s through the 1600s, most of it dedicated to the life of Christ. Many of the paintings are extremely explicit. The virgin Mary holds the Christ child with one hand and squirts milk out of her exposed breast into his mouth with the other hand. The devil stands over a group of humans who are engaged in a full on orgy, complete with exposed genetalia. A man slides a hand under a woman’s robe as it falls off of her, baby cherubs flying in the sky. Christ lies on the cross with open wounds, blood draining from his hands and side and head and feet as a group of women sob beneath him.
I spend two hours in this first gallery, contemplating history, and wondering on the impact of Christianity on the lives and societies of humans, forming churches, pressing morals, setting trends, and influencing governments. I look at this detailed art, its rich and beautiful history, the textures and talents of it all, and feel overwhelmed.
I move into the next bustling gallery, full of photographs in black and white. It’s a startling shift. The images are beautiful. A powerful black male in profile. A stunning naked woman, arms stretched to the sky. A close-up on a drifting sheen of smoke. The photographs hang in every direction, and I wonder about their origins.
I find a sign that tells me all about the photographers/artists, Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff. It tells of their origins, their art and photography, their careers. They were lovers in New York City, it says, until Wagstaff died of AIDS in 1987 at the age of 65, and then Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 42.
My mind was spinning. I turned back around and saw the gallery with new eyes, the black and white stills framed in every direction. The same people buzzed through every which way. Couples, straight and gay. Grandparents, adults, children. They gave the gallery every bit the attention that the did the Christian arts and the gardens. My ears perked up, trained to be ready for people muttering about a gay couple getting their own gallery, about the immorality of it all. I wait for someone to be disgusted. And no one is.
What has Utah done to me, I wonder. I remember seeing a ballet just a few weeks ago with two women kissing in the number, and many in the audience turning away, scoffing in disgust, refusing to clap. I remember walking around town holding hands with a guy I was dating and people averting their eyes or giving looks of shock and disgust.
And then I stand here in this spot, in between the arts of Christianity and still photographs. Both galleries have nudity. Both are considered art. Both tell the stories of their painters. These two worlds that Utah tries to balance, art and art, Christianity with homosexuality, and yet here families and children walk through comfortably without notice.
I breathe in deeply, my heart full, and feel a few small tears in my eyes. This is what I needed, a chance to see life here, like this.
It is a feeling I will carry with me when I return.