July 20, 2024

Beauty Arts

The Arts Authority

Patrick Bringley interview: A Met guard tells all

Patrick Bringley interview: A Met guard tells all

After Patrick Bringley lost his older brother in 2008, he decided to take the most straightforward job he could think of in the most beautiful place he knew. He left his job at the New Yorker’s events department and spent the next 10 years as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bringley’s new memoir, All the Beauty in the World, tells the story of his time at the Met. It’s full of satisfyingly inside-baseball facts: the secret routines of the guards, the basement galleries where the Met’s earliest collections linger, the backstories of stolen art. It’s also a story of art appreciation. Bringley makes a strong case that nothing teaches you to understand a work of art better than standing in a room with it for eight hours at a time, with little to occupy you but the art and your own responses to it.

Perhaps most importantly, though, All the Beauty in the World is a story about grief and about beauty, and about how inextricably the two are linked.

When I lost my father last spring, I was surprised to find that grief made me crave beauty. Movies had taught me that when faced with real grief, beautiful things become pale and petty and pointless, but that wasn’t how it was for me. It was May then, and the week after my father died, my mother and I went to an arboretum to breathe air that wasn’t from a hospital. The lilacs and viburnums were in bloom; the roses were beginning to bud; the trees were lush and green. We were still in shock, I think, and it was a profound solace to stand in the middle of a garden, looking at nothing but lovely things. “I think beauty is going to be an important part of all this,” my mother said.

I wanted to understand more about why beauty was so important to grief. So at the beginning of February, I met Bringley at the family entrance of the Met on 81st Street to walk the galleries. We couldn’t come close to covering all 2.2 million square feet of the massive building, but we would talk about art, beauty, and the secrets of the Met, and try to figure out beauty and grief together.

A statue in a gallery of a nude man holding a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other.

A statue in the Greek and Roman section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

“These floors are not so good,” Bringley says, stamping one foot on the mosaic tiles of the Greek and Roman wing. Floors feature heavily in All the Beauty in the World: When you’re working eight- to 12-hour shifts standing upright, the material matters. Any kind of stone floor will leave you feeling it in your legs and back; soft, forgiving wood is better.

There’s still plenty to look at, though, he adds. “What’s brilliant about what a guard gets to do in a place like this is you just have eight hours or 12 hours to not be busy, not be advancing some project, but just to have your head up and observe the life swirling around this place.”

When he worked as a guard, some days he would spend an afternoon studying the labels and trying to learn about ancient Rome, he says. “But then other times you want to just admire beauty, kind of irrespective of its context. So, you know, just look at this and marvel.” He gestures to an elegant statue of Aphrodite, arms amputated at the shoulder, head turned in profile.

“You know, the ancients, especially the Greeks, thought that the most beautiful thing in the world was themselves, was us,” he says. “They conceived of the gods as having our form. So maybe you’re looking at a statue like this, and then you’re looking at other people in the galleries like, ‘Wow, how mysterious is it that we have all these different beautiful people wandering around with their own worlds trapped inside their mind.’ You get to think about that kind of thing.”

You also, he admits, have to look out for people damaging the art or trying to steal it. Nothing’s been stolen from the Met within his lifetime, but the 1970s were a rough era for art museums.

Around the corner from the Aphrodite, tucked into a side gallery, is a marble head of a herm from the 5th century BCE. Herms were pillars placed at the sides of roadways, dedicated to Hermes, god of roads and doorways and thieves. The Greeks would carve his head into the top of the pillar and his erect phallus into the center. This one is just the head, though, and it was stolen in 1979, Bringley says.

That was the year the Met was exhibiting its King Tut show, which drew the biggest crowds the museum ever saw. In the midst of the confusion, Bringley says, a guard turned around and found himself facing an empty plinth. There was immediate outcry and scandal: an ancient statue stolen from the Metropolitan Museum of Art!

Just a few days later, on Valentine’s Day, an anonymous tipster told police to look for the herm in a locker at Grand Central Station, and the statue was recovered. “The crazy part,” says Bringley, “is that there used to be a heart-shaped carving above his left eye. And when they recovered it, it had a matching freshly carved heart above his right eye.”

(I look in vain for the hearts, but they have long since been restored away.)

“And remember, this was Valentine’s Day,” says Bringley. “So one theory of the case is that somebody was wandering through. He saw the heart. He’s like, ‘I don’t have a gift for my girl.’ He swipes the thing as sort of a grand gesture. He creates the other heart. She opens the box, says, ‘What in the hell are you doing?’ and they call the tip in themselves.”

When you’re in love, sometimes nothing can say it like art can.

The Lamentation of Christ, Colijn de Coter, c. 1510 – c. 1515.
Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In All the Beauty in the World, Bringley writes about going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his mother shortly after his brother’s death. They each gravitated toward a single painting. Bringley found himself before a medieval Adoration of the Christ, depicting Mary tender and peaceful with her newborn son. His mother, meanwhile, went to an early Renaissance Lamentation, in which Mary cradles her son’s tormented corpse. They each stood before their paintings, the way I had stood in the lovely May garden with my mother, and they wept.

Why is it, I ask Bringley now, that we find ourselves to be so in need of beauty when we grieve?

He leads me around another corner to a Greek grave marker from the third century BCE. In the center, the dead man appeared in relief carving, sitting on a handsome chair and clasping hands with his father. His mother and brother stood watchfully in the background.

“It’s a leave-taking with the dead,” Bringley says. “I think anyone who’s sat by the bedside of a sick person, which most of us have — there’s this sort of heart brimming up at the same time as your heart is breaking. There’s something very profound going on, but it’s also very simple. You’re with your family. You’re with loved ones. There’s nothing on your mind except this event, and that makes it beautiful. Art captures the silent poetry of it.”

He leads me out of the Greek and Roman galleries and up the great staircase to the Old Masters, where Ludovico Carracci’s Lamentation of Christ sprawls 5 feet long across the wall. Through a trick of perspective, Christ’s dead body, bleeding and mangled and very nearly life-sized, seems to be held unsteadily by the frame; any second now, it might tumble out of the painting and onto the floor of the gallery.

“When this was painted, it would have seemed astonishingly naturalistic,” Bringley says. “Clearly that young man is a real young man, maybe an assistant or something in his workshop. You have this sense that Carracci’s wanting you to bear witness to something.”

The religious art of the West — which was for many centuries the most celebrated and well-funded art of the West — is full of these images of Christ’s tortured body, as much as it is full of images of Christ as a newborn. It’s all adoration and lamentation.

“It makes good sense, right?” says Bringley. “The humanities all have to do with how we only live a short span on this earth. What I felt privileged to be able to do as a guard is to bear witness to these scenes in the way that I think they would have intended us to.”

My father died very quickly, in a way. He’d had his disease for a long time, but it didn’t seem to affect his day-to-day life all that much; the treatment often seemed more inconvenient to him than the disease itself. Then for about a week before he died he was listless and tired, and then on the last day of his life, my mother called me and my sister and told us we should come to the hospital and see him.

That endless, endless day at the hospital, I frequently thought, “This is the worst day of my life.” I also thought, “This is the most beautiful day of my life.” It was terrible; it was appalling; I could hardly stand to be there; but I was there, and so were my mother and my sister, and all three of us were there because we loved him, and because we could not let him die without us. That bare fact was, in a horrible way, beautiful.

“When we adore, we apprehend beauty,” Bringley writes in All the Beauty in the World. “When we lament, we see the wisdom of the ancient adage ‘Life is suffering.’ A great painting can look like a slab of sheer bedrock, a piece of reality too stark and direct and poignant for words.”

Two ornate candlesticks in a glass display case, observed by two museum-goers.

Viewers observing the Met’s “Medieval Traesures from Hildesheim” exhibit, September 16, 2023.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

Outside the Old Masters gallery, at the head of the staircase down into the Great Hall, Bringley shows me a patch of stone wall about six feet off the ground that’s notably darker than its surroundings. That’s a guard smudge, he says: the result of over a century of guards standing at the head of the stairs, leaning their heads against the wall, for day after day of eight-hour shifts.

“This post right here is such a wonderful post,” he says, gazing out over the crowds in the Great Hall. “As a guard, everyone else is rushing about. They have some office they need to be in. You’re almost like an aristocrat of old who has nothing to do. It’s like you’re in a Jane Austen novel where people just take turns about the garden like that’s their entire existence.”

Bringley once asked an older co-worker how he ended up becoming a guard at the Met. “The only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is an independently wealthy patron of the arts,” the man said. “This comes closest.”

The Met laid off a lot of guards during Covid, didn’t they?” I ask.

“The whole experience was tough,” Bringley acknowledges.

Down we go again, down the staircase and into the medieval wing, where everything is covered in faded gilding. I think, as I always do in this gallery, that it would be interesting to live among the objects. Then, as I always do, I think of the children’s book classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, about two kids who run away from home to live at the Met. I read it in the fourth grade, and it became at once my introduction to the idea of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the beginning of a lifelong dream of running away to live at a museum.

I ask Bringley if he knows the book. “It sort of seems like you lived the Frankweiler dream,” I say. “You ran away to the museum and never came back.”

“I’m reading that to my kids!” he says. “They’re probably a little too young for it. But there’s some truth to that, for sure. One of the reasons that that book appeals to people is this idea of escaping into some place that’s just beautiful and full of fascinating things, and escaping the world outside. There was an element of that to my story for sure. I think over the course of my whole journey, I also began to realize the virtues of also being out in the world that’s full of complications and mess. I hope that I carry things from this world out into that world.”

He stops us in front of a gold and crystal reliquary, shining and ornate, with fanciful filigree work done along the gold. Embedded in the crystal is what appears to be a single human tooth. A molar, maybe.

“So this is Mary Magdalene’s tooth in there,” Bringley says. “If you’re predisposed to believe it. It is a real tooth. A dentist confirmed that in the ’70s.”

“Oh,” I say. “Cool.”

The reliquary itself is from 15th-century Florence, Bringley explains, but the crystal it houses was a North African perfume bottle 500 years before that.

“I also like to point this out, because, you know, this is a reliquary,” he says. “Pilgrims would have come to visit such a thing. The point of coming to visit a reliquary is to have an experience with it, to be in its presence and feel its power and feel its sanctity. I don’t know if you get that from a tooth, but that’s what the Met still is. It’s still where people come and want to face something and experience something that by dint of its beauty has something to it, a sort of vibration in it that makes us feel something that maybe we can’t quite put into words. I think people feel like they’re sitting in a great mosque or a great temple or a great church.”

View looking down on the main entry and the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, August 2, 1962.
Frederick Kelly/New York Historical Society/Getty Images

Back up the stairs and into Asian art, where Bringley walks me over to a 13th-century Japanese Buddha, 3 feet tall and leafed in gold.

“I just find this so beautiful,” he says. “I can stand in front of that and feel a glimmering of enlightenment from it, you know? Just a little taste. But then also, don’t kid yourself. You begin to dig a little deeper and learn about this stuff, and you realize that this is not the Buddha that we know, Siddhartha. This is different. His name is Amida, he’s the Buddha of Infinite Light.”

Spending time in the Met, Bringley says, makes him realize how many different branches of knowledge there are and that it would take a lifetime to learn even one of them fully. “It imbues you with incredible humility when you realize that none of us can be an expert on almost anything. We only have one life to live, and we follow one little path. But at the same time, you can still borrow from it. You can get a taste of it.”

A Mongolian visitor, Bringley says, once approached him to ask for help as he walked through the museum. With limited English, the visitor had trouble making himself clear, but he gradually put across the idea that he wanted to know what exactly he should visit in order to “piece it all together.”

“It became clear to me in that moment that this guy had his one visit here,” Bringley says, “and his ambition was not to say, ‘Hey, I saw some cool things at the Met.’ He wanted to walk away with his theory of the world.”

That’s one of the most productive ways, Bringley thinks, of approaching a museum this big and overwhelming: Use it to try to figure out how you think about the world.

“All of this art is mostly concerned with things that we still have in our lives,” he says. “We still live in a universe where all those stars are twinkling overhead and God is strange and wondrous. A lot of this art has great ambitions to think through that mystery and splendor. We’ve only got one life to live. We might as well be thinking about those big things, too.”

My father took me to art museums throughout my childhood. He was a hedonist when it came to art; for him, looking at a painting was a physical pleasure. In one of the poems he left behind, he compares the taste of the first cigarette after a long time away from smoking to “seeing a Cézanne with new glasses.” They are both so good that “the pleasure is startling.”

When I was a child, this attitude bewildered me. I wanted to know what a painting meant, but that wasn’t something he was interested in telling me. He did not come to museums to think. He came to museums to feel the art.

Now I think that art makes us think by making us feel, by acting on our emotions in a way that nothing else quite can. My father loved that about art. He was a man devoted to aesthetic pleasure, and that’s how he chose to live his one life.

As we start to make our way out of the museum, Bringley mentions that he recently paid a recreational visit himself, to see the Met’s temporary Tudor exhibit. It was bittersweet, he said.

“Back in the day, if I did that, I would have been like, ‘Oh well, this is my first time seeing this show. I’ll be posted here 12 additional times. Today I can just get the lay of the land and find a couple of favorites. Then I’ll dig in.’” But those days are gone: “Now I’m a normal person.”