Luke Syson: How I learned to stop worrying and love "useless" art
October 16, 2013
Luke Syson was a curator of Renaissance art, of transcendent paintings of saints and solemn Italian ladies -- serious art. And then he changed jobs, and inherited the Met's collection of ceramics -- pretty, frilly, "useless" candlesticks and vases. He didn't like it. He didn't get it. Until one day … (Filmed at TEDxMet.)Luke Syson
As a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Luke Syson accesses the richness of European history through sculpture. Full bio
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Two years ago, I have to say there was no problem.
Two years ago, I knew exactly
what an icon looked like.
It looks like this.
Everybody's icon, but also the default position
of a curator of Italian Renaissance
paintings, which I was then.
And in a way, this is also another default selection.
Leonardo da Vinci's exquisitely soulful image
of the "Lady with an Ermine."
And I use that word, soulful, deliberately.
Or then there's this, or rather these:
the two versions of Leonardo's "Virgin of the Rocks"
that were about to come together
in London for the very first time.
In the exhibition that I was then in
the absolute throes of organizing.
I was literally up to my eyes in Leonardo,
and I had been for three years.
So, he was occupying every part of my brain.
Leonardo had taught me, during that three years,
about what a picture can do.
About taking you from your own
material world into a spiritual world.
He said, actually, that he believed
the job of the painter
was to paint everything that was visible
and invisible in the universe.
That's a huge task. And yet,
somehow he achieves it.
He shows us, I think, the human soul.
He shows us the capacity of ourselves
to move into a spiritual realm.
To see a vision of the universe that's
more perfect than our own.
To see God's own plan, in some sense.
So this, in a sense, was really
what I believed an icon was.
At about that time, I started talking to Tom Campbell,
director here of the Metropolitan Museum,
about what my next move might be.
The move, in fact, back to an earlier life,
one I'd begun at the British Museum,
back to the world of three dimensions --
of sculpture and of decorative arts --
to take over the department of European sculpture
and decorative arts, here at the Met.
But it was an incredibly busy time.
All the conversations were done
at very peculiar times of the day --
over the phone.
In the end, I accepted the job
without actually having been here.
Again, I'd been there a couple of years before,
but on that particular visit.
So, it was just before the time that
the Leonardo show was due to open
when I finally made it back to the Met, to New York,
to see my new domain.
To see what European sculpture
and decorative arts looked like,
beyond those Renaissance collections
with which I was so already familiar.
And I thought, on that very first day,
I better tour the galleries.
Fifty-seven of these galleries --
like 57 varieties of baked beans, I believe.
I walked through and I started in my comfort zone
in the Italian Renaissance.
And then I moved gradually around,
feeling a little lost sometimes.
My head, also still full of the Leonardo exhibition
that was about to open, and I came across this.
And I thought to myself: What the hell have I done?
There was absolutely no connection in my mind
at all and, in fact, if there was any emotion going on,
it was a kind of repulsion.
This object felt utterly and completely alien.
Silly at a level that I hadn't yet
understood silliness to be.
And then it was made worse --
there were two of them.
So, I started thinking about why it was, in fact,
that I disliked this object so much.
What was the anatomy of my distaste?
Well, so much gold, so vulgar.
You know, so nouveau riche, frankly.
Leonardo himself had preached
against the use of gold,
so it was absolutely anathema at that moment.
And then there's little pretty sprigs
of flowers everywhere. (Laughter)
And finally, that pink. That damned pink.
It's such an extraordinarily artificial color.
I mean, it's a color that I can't think of
anything that you actually see in nature,
that looks that shade.
The object even has its own tutu. (Laughter)
This little flouncy, spangly, bottomy bit
that sits at the bottom of the vase.
It reminded me, in an odd kind of way,
of my niece's fifth birthday party.
Where all the little girls would come
either as a princess or a fairy.
There was one who would come as a fairy princess.
You should have seen the looks.
And I realize that this object was in my mind,
born from the same mind, from the same womb,
practically, as Barbie Ballerina. (Laughter)
And then there's the elephants. (Laughter)
Those extraordinary elephants
with their little, sort of strange, sinister expressions
and Greta Garbo eyelashes, with
these golden tusks and so on.
I realized this was an elephant that had
absolutely nothing to do with a majestic
march across the Serengeti.
It was a Dumbo nightmare. (Laughter)
But something more profound
was happening as well.
These objects, it seemed to me,
were quintessentially the kind that I
and my liberal left friends in London
had always seen as summing up
something deplorable about the French aristocracy
in the 18th century.
The label had told me that these pieces were made
by the Sèvres Manufactory,
made of porcelain in the late 1750s,
and designed by a designer called
actually somebody of extraordinary distinction
as I later learned.
But for me, they summed up a kind of,
that sort of sheer uselessness of the aristocracy
in the 18th century.
I and my colleagues had always thought
that these objects, in way, summed up the idea of,
you know -- no wonder there was a revolution.
Or, indeed, thank God there was a revolution.
There was a sort of idea really, that,
if you owned a vase like this,
then there was really only one fate possible.
So, there I was -- in a sort of paroxysm of horror.
But I took the job and I went
on looking at these vases.
I sort of had to because they're
on a through route in the Met.
So, almost anywhere I went, there they were.
They had this kind of odd sort of fascination,
like a car accident.
Where I couldn't stop looking.
And as I did so, I started thinking:
Well, what are we actually looking at here?
And what I started with was understanding this
as really a supreme piece of design.
It took me a little time.
But, that tutu for example --
actually, this is a piece that
does dance in its own way.
It has an extraordinary lightness
and yet, it is also amazing balanced.
It has these kinds of sculptural ingredients.
And then the play between --
actually really quite carefully disposed
color and gilding, and the sculptural surface,
is really rather remarkable.
And then I realized that this piece went into the kiln
four times, at least four times
in order to arrive at this.
How many moments for accident can you think of
that could have happened to this piece?
And then remember, not just one, but two.
So he's having to arrive at two exactly matched
vases of this kind.
And then this question of uselessness.
Well actually, the end of the trunks
were originally candle holders.
So what you would have had
were candles on either side.
Imagine that effect of candlelight on that surface.
On the slightly uneven pink, on the beautiful gold.
It would have glittered in an interior,
a little like a little firework.
And at that point, actually,
a firework went off in my brain.
Somebody reminded me that, that word 'fancy' --
which in a sense for me, encapsulated this object --
actually comes from the same
root as the word 'fantasy.'
And that what this object was just as much in a way,
in its own way, as a Leonardo da Vinci painting,
is a portal to somewhere else.
This is an object of the imagination.
If you think about the mad 18th-century
operas of the time -- set in the Orient.
If you think about divans and perhaps even
opium-induced visions of pink elephants,
then at that point, this object starts to make sense.
This is an object which is all about escapism.
It's about an escapism that happens --
that the aristocracy in France sought
to distinguish themselves from ordinary people.
It's not an escapism that
we feel particularly happy with today, however.
And again, going on thinking about this,
I realize that in a way we're all victims
of a certain kind of tyranny
of the triumph of modernism
whereby form and function in an object
have to follow one another, or are deemed to do so.
And the extraneous ornament is seen as really,
It's a triumph, in a way, of bourgeois
values rather than aristocratic ones.
And that seems fine.
Except for the fact that it becomes a kind of
sequestration of imagination.
So just as in the 20th century, so many people
had the idea that their faith
took place on the Sabbath day,
and the rest of their lives --
their lives of washing machines and orthodontics --
took place on another day.
Then, I think we've started doing the same.
We've allowed ourselves to
lead our fantasy lives in front of screens.
In the dark of the cinema, with the
television in the corner of the room.
We've eliminated, in a sense, that constant
of the imagination that these vases
represented in people's lives.
So maybe it's time we got this back a little.
I think it's beginning to happen.
In London, for example,
with these extraordinary buildings
that have been appearing over the last few years.
Redolent, in a sense, of science fiction,
turning London into a kind of fantasy playground.
It's actually amazing to look out of
a high building nowadays there.
But even then, there's a resistance.
London has called these buildings the
Gherkin, the Shard, the Walkie Talkie --
bringing these soaring buildings down to Earth.
There's an idea that we don't want these
anxious-making, imaginative journeys
to happen in our daily lives.
I feel lucky in a way,
I've encountered this object.
I found him on the Internet when
I was looking up a reference.
And there he was.
And unlike the pink elephant vase,
this was a kind of love at first sight.
In fact, reader, I married him. I bought him.
And he now adorns my office.
He's a Staffordshire figure made
in the middle of the 19th century.
He represents the actor, Edmund Kean,
playing Shakespeare's Richard III.
And it's based, actually, on a more
elevated piece of porcelain.
So I loved, on an art historical level,
I loved that layered quality that he has.
But more than that, I love him.
In a way that I think would have been impossible
without the pink Sèvres vase in my Leonardo days.
I love his orange and pink breeches.
I love the fact that he seems to be going off to war,
having just finished the washing up. (Laughter)
He seems also to have forgotten his sword.
I love his pink little cheeks, his munchkin energy.
In a way, he's become my sort of alter ego.
He's, I hope, a little bit dignified,
but mostly rather vulgar. (Laughter)
And energetic, I hope, too.
I let him into my life because the Sèvres
pink elephant vase allowed me to do so.
And before that Leonardo,
I understood that this object could become
part of a journey for me every day,
sitting in my office.
I really hope that others, all of you,
visiting objects in the museum,
and taking them home and
finding them for yourselves,
will allow those objects to flourish
in your imaginative lives.
Thank you very much.
As a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Luke Syson accesses the richness of European history through sculpture.Why you should listen
Luke Syson joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012 as the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Curator in Charge of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. This year, he co-curated the small but innovative exhibition "Plain or Fancy? Restraint and Exuberance in the Decorative Arts." Before joining the Met Syson was Curator of Italian Painting before 1500 and Head of Research at the National Gallery, London. While at the National Gallery, he was curator of the exhibition "Renaissance Siena: Art for a City," and in 2011 he organized the groundbreaking "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan."
Syson was also one of the curators who organized the acclaimed Enlightenment Gallery at The British Museum and was part of the team that planned the new galleries for Medieval and Renaissance Art at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The original video is available on TED.com