The Metropolitan Museum of Art just recently closed its exhibition Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman & Designer. For four months, huge crowds flocked to the museum to see the exhibit, which was hailed as one of the most comprehensive collections of the artist’s drawings ever assembled. On a rainy Wednesday at the end of its run at the Met, I went to check out the exhibit for myself—despite the weather and the fact that it was a weekday in the off-season, the place was still packed with people hoping to catch a glimpse of the master’s work while they still had the chance.
I always want to love exhibits of this size and significance, want to be able to say I love them. But in this case I just can’t. Yes, I was impressed with the sheer volume of material collected in one place. There were some individual works I found myself drawn to: a sketch of a staircase that never got built, a doodle of a dragon with its head turned in on itself, a drawing of the death of Cleopatra. I felt educated by the detailed descriptions of the plans for the Sistine Chapel, and I was amused at the peek the exhibit afforded of Michelangelo as teacher—seems even the greatest among us sometimes feel frustration at trying to teach their craft to others.
But, at the risk of sounding like a complete philistine, I admit, I was underwhelmed. Maybe it was the inclusion of so many works by Michelangelo’s teachers, students and contemporaries. Maybe it was the visual overload from just too much red chalk. Maybe it was a function of quantity over quality, the sheer volume demanding the viewer look at everything, when the percentage of true standout pieces was relatively small. Maybe it was because I was damp and being jostled by a lot of tourists. Whatever it was, I didn’t love it.
And then in the final gallery, I got some possible insight into my nagging disappointment. At the very end of the exhibit, there was a panel that explained that, after his death, Michelangelo wanted all his drawings destroyed so that they would never be exhibited publically—he only wanted audiences to see the final perfection of his work. Pardon me? So then why exactly had the Met just led me through a half-dozen galleries looking at exactly the kinds of works Michelangelo never wanted seen?! I felt implicated somehow, unwittingly complicit in the exposure of the master’s imperfection. And I wasn’t happy about it. Has the man not earned the right to decide how he wants to be represented?
But of course, it got me thinking about my own field, and how we deal with process, with imperfection, with incompletion. How Chaucer left works unfinished to avoid giving his readers the benefit of closure. How I give students copies of my own works in progress to compare with the final published version to provide insight into the process of academic writing. How we sometimes look to authors’ letters or diaries that were never meant to be read to help understand their literary works. And how in today’s multi-media world, so much of what once was private can be exposed to millions with a click or a swipe.
I’m not sure what this means for our craft. In the case of Michelangelo, nothing in that exhibit diminished his greatness for me, but it made me uncomfortable on his behalf. Do we not have a responsibility to honor the wishes of the greats among us? Or is it okay to exploit them, for our own edification, entertainment, economic gain? Should what is private be fair game if its creator isn’t around to protest? What is our responsibility to the wishes of the dead when we know them? And when we don’t? I have no answers to these questions, except to say that they are questions that we, as students and producers of writing in an increasingly exposed world, need to consider.