Over the Christmas holiday, I had the fortune of spending half a day in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York City. One of my favorite museums (along with The Hakone Open-Air Museum, The Hermitage, and The Van Gogh Museum). I try to visit whenever I’m in New York.
It’s always fun to be an explorer on your home turf.
Walking through the Temple of Dandur exhibit, passing by old Rembrandt paintings, and examining the sinews of horse necks on Remington sculptures gives me a certain sense of pleasure. I am far from an art historian and could barely tell you the difference between a Braque and a Picasso, but spending time among these treasured works is insanely, insanely motivating and inspiring to me.
The idea that great men and women dedicated their entire lives to the pursuit of a certain medium, or style, or even brush-stroke, is awesome and simultaneously scary. Perhaps it’s because I feel woefully inadequate comparing myself to them. Perhaps it’s because my natural weaknesses that I need to work on (check my 360 and DISC profiles!) is my lack of attention to detail. Or perhaps it’s because I’m unsure if I have the patience and dedication to follow in their footsteps: investing in the creation of a life’s work that can outlast my own.
These artists to me in many ways are exemplars of the nebulously-defined concept of ‘success’: pursuing what you want to do, at the highest level, with the people who you want to spend time with, all while maintaining a robust degree of freedom in one’s larger life choices. This is just one definition of the the ‘s word’ and a gross over-simplification as such, I know. Every artist in their own right might claim that there are even more powerful social norms that provide insane amounts of pressure to maintain success along the lines one has already drawn for themselves. Enter here Club 27.
But on this particular trip to the Met, I was excited to see an exhibit of Michelangelo’s work. Arguably the greatest sculptor and sketch artist of all time, Michelangelo was born around 1475 and lived for a good 90 years or so (when the average life expectancy in Italy at the time was half that!). Add on to that, that Michelangelo was definitely my favorite Ninja Turtle and I was him for Halloween multiple years in a row as a kid. Cowabunga, dude!
Michelangelo’s most famous works include painting the roof of the Sistine Chapel (which he did in his 30s) and also St. Peter’s Basilica (which he completed in his 70s). The sculpture of David is likely his best known work and Michelangelo always considered himself a sculptor first, rather than an architect, painter, or sketch artist.
His commitment to his work was legendary - for example: he visited morgues and hospitals, sketching various body parts at every which angle until he thought he understood them properly. Cutting into muscles and splaying open these cuts to understand how the layers of tendons and ligaments connected joints and muscle fibers, Michelangelo was perversely committed to his craft. It was only after a year did he feel comfortable enough to begin sculpting David, one of his masterpieces.
After he finished, he famously quipped, “I saw an angel in the marble and carved it until I set him free.”
So, why am I thinking about Michelangelo so much today?
Here in Nairobi I am reconnecting with a few friends - one of whom is a dear friend from high school who lived in the room next door to me sophomore year. He previously worked in New York City as a banker, then jumped to a start-up in NYC, and how heads business development for a logistics startup in Nairobi. We talked and talked about how our lives, for better or for worse, are different than our friends at home who are still in NYC or Boston or San Francisco.
Definitely some worse things: less access to other friends themselves and seeing each other less often. Some things ‘just don’t work properly,’ whether it’s the great firewall of China restricting Facebook feeds or the spotty service in Kenya dropping calls. Sometimes it’s simply tiring living away from home - every time you speak with your landlord it’s a whole episode.
But one line he said to me really stuck. We were talking about how we both feel we should have been born in the 1920s or even the 1780s, when everyone seemed to have 5 careers in their lives. Ben Franklin was the consummate example mentioned: the businessman-publisher-inventor-author-scientist-diplomat all before breakfast.
After a pause, my friend said, “I just want to be an explorer.”
The silence nodded in agreement as we watched the sun ceremoniously set over the lush green hills outside Nairobi’s bustling downtown. The smell of burning garbage lingered in the air and the sound of honking boda-bodas racing through dimming city streets punctuated the pristine dusk. We looked at each other, smiled, and soon after gathered our wine glasses to descend from the rooftop back to his apartment.
Later that night I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of exploring - what is exploring but simply experiencing new moments on a regular and extended basis. To try to new things, venture to new territories, and relish the predictably unpredictable circumstances in which one finds themselves.
And it was then I thought of Michelangelo. When people describe him, I am quite sure the word ‘explorer’ is rarely among the top five: sculptor, painter, architect, artist, and poet I would imagine would all come earlier. Yet thinking about it deeper, I feel the idea of an explorer better encapsulates Michelangelo.
Michelangelo certainly was not an explorer in the Magellan sense of the word or even the oft-cited journeys of Darwin. But more that he constantly sought new experiences to further his skill sets and abilities on a regular basis. During his teenage years, he shunned school in favor of apprenticeships with the finest minds of the Renaissance. His sculpting of David for a small guild, completely going above and beyond the call of duty, earned him notoriety and an audience with Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli. When he was given the opportunity to complete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he agreed, even though he had no previous experience with frescoes. Throughout this life he optimized for learning and consistently took on new challenges, an explorer within the arts scene of Rome, Bologna, and Florence.
Shortly before Michelangelo died, he is reputed to utter the words now immortal among Renaissance Scholars (and more recently, the blogosphere):
Roughly translated as “Still I am learning,” Michelangelo said these words at 87 or 88 years old and died before his ninetieth birthday.
Exploration surely looks differently to everyone: to one person it might be to set up a logistics start-up across East African nations. To another it might be traveling the world with China’s top high-school debaters. To another still it might be to generate new and currently undiscovered learning and teaching pedagogies and how to implement them most effectively. To yet another it might be to watch every single episode of a certain genre of television series.
I can’t place a value judgement on what type of exploration is best. As is known through one of my favorite Chinese chengyu 各有所爱 (ge you suo ai) - “everyone has their own likes/dislikes and hobbies,” establishing that a love of traveling is necessarily superior to a love of reading, for example, is a slippery slope.
However, in every interest, or hobby, or pastime, we must continue to explore and learn. Without it, we are simply the same person this year that we were last year. And I= find that notion troubling.
So to all you explorers out there: Embrace the Adventure.