As a lifelong resident of New York City’s northern suburbs, I’ve always felt that I carried a de-facto exemption from the “tourist” designation in Manhattan. For some, it’s a place to live; for me it’s a place to work or shop or dine, and maybe see a show now and then. And as such, like so many New Yorkers, I have a tendency to roll my eyes at the upward-gazing visitor set and make every effort to avoid their usual stomping grounds.
While it’s no secret that in New York, tourists aren’t always welcome, in theory or practice, that doesn’t stop them from coming. Thanks to her partnership with the city’s tourism board, NYCGO, Taylor Swift is doing her part to lure ‘em in. Hotels are cashing in with ungodly rates. And there’s no shortage of attractions and tours and parks and vistas for a visitor to take in.
Dialling down this hostile rhetoric for a moment, it’s important to acknowledge that the 55 million or so tourists who descended on New York last year came to see the city for the same reasons New Yorkers live here. We all share awe for this place.
My guide for the three-hour Italian Masters of the Met tour (US$85), which dives deep into the museum’s permanent collection, was Monica Valley, a charismatic expert of both art history and the Met. Her knowledge of art, and its place in culture and history, seemed infinite.
Context is known for providing some of the most in-depth tours by some of the most knowledgeable guides around, and Valley was no exception. True to the tour operator’s name, she started us at Ancient Greece and led us through history — Ancient Rome, the Byzantine period, the Middle Ages and so on, so that when we arrived at the Italian Masters in the Renaissance, we had the appropriate … context (sorry).
I will not spill here the piece-by-piece, period-by-period details of the Italian Masters tour, but I will say that I walked away with a profoundly deeper understanding of 2,000 years of art history. I also walked away with that familiar feeling that one gets as a tourist in an art museum: The reminder that art teaches us about history and humanity, politics and people, and the incredible continuity of it all.
Take the sculpted head of Constantine, replicated and distributed around the squares of the Roman Empire and designed to project to its people qualities of youth, virility and a long, enduring rule, which is not so far off from the image crafting of today’s political campaigns (Barack Obama’s Hope poster comes to mind). Or that with The Adoration of the Magi, Giotto’s radical departure from convention to show biblical figures in earthly scenes may not be so different from the shockwave caused by Lena Dunham, when she eschewed Sex and The City-style romance and fantasy to tackle a generation’s cynicism and shortcomings.
And so there I was, neurons firing, learning something new. And I wondered who was the fool in this scenario: the wide-eyed tourist or the New Yorker who lives mere miles away and hasn’t been to the Met since the early 2000s? These tourists are onto something …