“Work is love made visible.” -Kahlil Gibran
Or, at least it should be. In the same poem he wrote:
And all urge is blind save when there is knowledge,
And all knowledge is vain save when there is work,
And all work is empty save when there is love…
[T]o love life through labor is to be intimate with life’s
These are the words I remembered during the past few days when I was out-of-town at the home of an avid art collector preparing an exhibition for Fall 2024. I’ve known him for decades and have helped in small ways with the building of his magnificent collection of Scandinavian folk and fine art. He collects with love and seeks to know and understand the origin and meanings of each object with an enthusiasm generally reserved for new romances. He sees the connections among his objects – ceramics, drawings, furniture, glass, metalwork, paintings, prints, sculptures, tapestries – acquiring works that converse with one another and enlarge one’s understanding of existing members of his collection. I smile each time I see a missive from him in my Inbox, always accompanied by photos, and sometimes auction catalogue entries. I can feel his heartfelt jubilation, even when his messages are succinct and descriptive.
I was not alone. My co-curator is an internationally renowned Edvard Munch expert I have known since grad school. We’ve had strangely parallel lives that facilitate communication – verbal and non-verbal – and we enjoy working and playing together. And to aid two scholars accustomed to envisioning exhibitions of two-dimensional works, we invited a designer whose knowledge and patience made my first solo curatorial experience – a Rodin exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in the mid-1980s – one of the highlights of my career. I knew the chemistry among us would be good, but how good, I couldn’t imagine.
Designer collected us at the airport, and we headed directly to the museum to do a ‘walk through’ of the galleries where ‘our’ exhibition would take place. Within the first five minutes, the vision that Co-Curator and I had internalized over the past six months began to dissipate. After an hour, it was transformed from what suddenly felt like an amateurish and impractical concept with unsolvable logistical challenges, to a viable, innovative, visually and intellectually stimulating, visitor-friendly installation. Afterwards, I felt blissfully drained of energy, as if what had just transpired was a synergistic, exothermic reaction. Relaxing in a creek-side hot tub and discovering surprising common ground in our personal lives – not finishing high school, for instance – left us happy and exhausted.
The good vibes intensified the following day when we met the collector. Rather than three experts and a collector preparing the first ever exhibition in North America of Scandinavian fine and folk art, we were four friends on a really terrific adventure. Crawling around on the floor with tape measures, sharing aesthetic and pragmatic insights, and solving problems with unanimity – or willing compromise – made a very long day of intensive work feel like play. The adult nerd version of rewarding physically and mentally exhausting recreation. This was positive work. The kind Gibran wrote about.
Too many individuals – whether well or poorly compensated – engage in work that generates anxiety- and stress-induced trauma rather than reassuring and pleasurable productivity. Whatever joy one may have woken with is routinely drained by workplace ‘worst practices’ often promoted with gaslighting zeal as ‘best practices’. When I arrived at the airport to catch a plane back to my home in Purgatory, I recognized that in the topsy turvy world in which we now live, even teaching and learning often constitute negative, loveless work. As Gibran observed: “And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms from those who work with joy.” Are you listening administrators, business owners, bureaucrats, legislators, politicians?