In June 2008, a few days after author Patrick Bringley turned 25, his brilliant, slightly older brother, Tom (who pursued a PhD in biomathematics), died following a nearly three-year battle with cancer. That his beloved brother’s funeral took place on what should have been his own wedding day is the kind of terrible, almost metaphorical conjunction of love and death we might anticipate from art, though never expect to experience in life itself. But maybe we should. In his debut memoir, All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me, Bringley revisits again and again the many ways that art meets life, and life art, and how death is often the bridge between them.
Before his brother died, Bringley had the kind of seemingly hip white-collar job for which young humanities types in the big city yearn. He worked in the New Yorker’s public events department (hoping to write for the magazine, naturally), with proximity to a certain kind of literary fame that included encounters with Stephen King and Michael Chabon. Cool cool. But also, for him, a little hollow. With his brother’s death, Bringley experienced a quiet reckoning, away from striving and into silence. “My heart is full, my heart is breaking, and I badly want to stand still awhile,” he writes. By the fall of 2008, he left his New Yorker gig to stand alongside other museum guards in uniform at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He would stay for 10 years.
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I confess that I was initially interested in Bringley’s memoir for the Met job part. Like him, I’d been a young person with aspirations to write, and I worked at the Met myself for a few years after grad school as an administrative assistant (read: secretary) in a non-curatorial department. I saw firsthand how nepotism, cronyism, the “right school,” and some income outside of a just-above-minimum-wage Met paycheck meant, if not everything, then a hell of a lot. At the same time, it was pretty awesome to pass mummies on the way to the staff cafeteria or to experience one day a week when you could be alone with great art (it’s a day that no longer exists now that the Met is open to the public seven days a week). Those moments were often magical, but it’s also nice when you can afford to buy lunch. Given the many recent stories, in Hyperallergic and elsewhere, about strikes and unionization efforts at museums, and climate activists using art to publicize a global crisis, I figured a guard’s memoir set in the Met might touch on all of the above. But Bringley’s memoir is not at all that kind of book. And by the time I read it, I wasn’t the same person as the one who anticipated it.
Bringley, it seems, has felt an affinity for visual art since childhood. He describes his first visit to the Met, at age 11, and seeing Pieter Bruegel’s “The Harvesters” (1565): “What was beautiful in the painting was not like words, it was like paint — silent, direct, and concrete, resisting translations even into thought. As such my response to the picture was trapped inside me, a bird fluttering in my chest.” Much of the power, and some of the pitfalls, in All the Beauty in the World is Bringley’s attempt to express just such an internal fluttering of art in words.
He shares his profound experience of art with his family. For example, his brother Tom, a scientist and mathematician, has a reproduction of Raphael’s “Madonna of the Goldfinch” hung above his hospital bed. Bringley doesn’t mention that it’s a painting of a mother with two young boys, and maybe that’s not the point. The point is that his brother finds a Raphael reproduction meaningful and wants to have it nearby while in the hospital. Over and over Bringley conveys that finding such meaning in historical art is the opposite of preciousness, and how much even High Renaissance art can inform the present. He describes one early morning in Tom’s hospital room with their mother, “She looked at her sleeping son. Looked at me. Saw the light, and the body, and the horror, and the grace. ‘Look at us,’ she told me, ‘Look. We’re a fucking old master painting.’” Later, not long after Tom’s death, Bringley visits the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his mother, where he finds her weeping before a Lamentation of Christ. It’s a stirring, even brutal, scene of seeing a parent in such pain, and also an appreciation of how art still meets her across time.
Though he occasionally reaches too far for the poetic (“There is a special clarity of light that seems to fall from a star of wonder, the same clarity seen in old master paintings.”), Bringley is more often pithy and precise, as when he describes a painting as “a kind of machine to aid in necessary reflection.” Being able to stand eight to twelve hours a day amid such machines for reflection was the whole reason he took the job as a museum guard.
That it is more valuable to learn from art than about art history is a refreshing, even moving, notion. As someone who has spent most of her adult life teaching and researching and writing about art history, point taken. I read this book under very different circumstances than I had expected. I couldn’t have known that by the time I picked it up, my own beloved brother would suffer an unexpected cancer setback, or that my elderly mother would finally get COVID, then pneumonia, her health suddenly failing after a long and vigorous life. I expected to encounter Bringley’s memoir from an entirely different perspective, that of a young person who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a mostly invisible position, with its attendant financial and personal affronts, but instead found a story that met my life now, as a middle-aged sister and daughter sitting in softly lit sick rooms, waiting. They’re scary but sometimes beautiful spaces that will be experienced by most of us, sooner or later.
In the Musical Instruments galleries at the Met, Bringley describes one “playful and deadly serious” Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) snapping turtle rattle as a kind of momento mori. That Latin phrase — once helpfully translated to me by a grad student when I was an undergraduate as: remember you’re gonna die — might serve as an apt descriptor for Bringley’s book project as a whole. The Metropolitan Museum of Art as momento mori. All the beauty in the world, and it will not save us. But along the way, art can help.
All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley is published by Simon & Schuster and is available online and in bookstores.