A couple visits the interactive exhibition dedicated to the longest love poem in the world, written by Andrej Sladkovic in 1844 - Marina, in Banska Stiavnica on Feb. 3, 2018. VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP/Getty Images
A couple visits the interactive exhibition dedicated to the longest love poem in the world, written by Andrej Sladkovic in 1844 - Marina, in Banska Stiavnica on Feb. 3, 2018. (VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP/Getty Images)

How Art Cracks a Heart Wide Open

How Art Cracks a Heart Wide Open

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 4 years old.

It's Valentine's Day, and today more than any other, we wonder, “How do two people fall in love?”

The eternal question, and one unanswerable, because if we could answer it, then we wouldn't have the mystery of love to keep us entranced. Nor, I suppose, would we have pop songs and self-help books and dating apps and entire industries dedicated to helping two strangers fall under each other's spell.

You might have seen a list going around a couple years ago called “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love,” a step-by-step guide to falling in love with anybody. The idea, expedient and alluring, was that if you sit down with someone to openly and honestly discuss 36 specific, probing inquiries about life and how it works, your hearts will magically crack open in a mutual state of empathy, vulnerability and stimulation. In short, you'll fall in love.

But look. Are you really going to ask someone you've dated for a week to sit at a table and check off a list of prepared questions so they can quickly fall in love with you? Even if they agreed, a prepared exercise of question-answering isn't exactly the stuff of romance novels.

Thank goodness, then, that there's a better way to tackle the big questions in life with someone else. It's a method that'll bring up not just 36 questions, but hundreds of them, all deep-rooted meditations on life and how it works, resulting in new ways of understanding the world and each other. It can crack even the coldest heart, and the most jaded lovelorn cynic. It's a sure-fire route to that same mix of empathy, vulnerability, and stimulation.


Ready? I know, because it worked for me: Get out and see art together.

McCoy Tyner.
McCoy Tyner. (Gisle Hannemyr)

In the early stage of our relationship, I don't even think Liz and I ever once uttered the term “the arts.” For us, it was just about doing cool stuff: going to museums, seeing plays, watching live music, reading books or seeing films together. It wasn't the life we were raised with — neither of us "came from money," and we both worked retail — but it didn't seem high-minded, or even steeped in some weighty idea of cultural importance. It was just fun.

Yet the more we saw art, the more we saw how each other reacted to it, and the more we talked about why. And that's how I learned that a) art is a lens through which to understand life in thousands of new ways, and b) I had somehow managed to attract, against all odds, a girl who was intensely smart, funny, passionate, and beautiful.

Seeing a production of Angels in America at Actors Theatre and talking afterward about religion and sexual repression. Dancing at the Ivy Room for hours to DJs playing funk 45s, songs that still feel like “our song.” Watching big films like The Ring, or small films like Jump Tomorrow, and making jokes and references to them for weeks. Seeing The Marriage of Figaro at SF Opera, or watching Pharaoh Sanders and McCoy Tyner from the front row at Yoshi's, awash together in transcendence.

Art reminded us, also, that we didn't have to take everything seriously. I'll never forget walking through the SFMOMA's permanent collection and hearing Liz's loud, confused laugh when we came upon Jeff Koons' sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet monkey, Bubbles. I didn't get it either, and we made fun of it, probably more obviously than the security guard might have liked, for several minutes. (Remember, as nice as it is to like the same things, there's a special bond in hating all the same things, too.)

Art helped us process tragedy before we were old enough to realize it was possible. Two days after 9-11, we sat in Davies Symphony Hall; Michael Tilson Thomas gave a talk acknowledging what the country had been through, and then he led the San Francisco Symphony in Mahler's Sixth Symphony, the “Tragic” Symphony, with its finale inspired by death and loss. We walked out onto Van Ness afterward with the rest of the audience as changed souls.

Then came a trip to New York: the Met, the Guggenheim, the MoMA, Film Forum. Seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman in Long Day's Journey Into Night on Broadway. Sonic Youth in Central Park, Bernadette Peters in Schubert Alley, the Bad Plus in Bryant Park.

How are you gonna top off a trip like that? For me, it meant whisking this beautiful girl I'd fallen for to the top of the Empire State Building and giving her a diamond ring. We got married a year later at San Francisco City Hall. True to form, we caught an Art Deco show at the Legion of Honor and Sonny Rollins at the SFJAZZ festival as part of our honeymoon.

Jean Goulden (1878-1946), Clock, 1928. Silvered bronze with enamel.
Jean Goulden (1878-1946), Clock, 1928. Silvered bronze with enamel. (Legion of Honor, c. 2004)

There's still not a week that goes by that Liz and I don't talk about a movie, an album, a book or an art exhibit -- and grow closer because of it. We've learned about each other's limits through the stuff we've disagreed on (Salvador Dalí in general; The Goat (Or, Who is Sylvia?) at ACT) and we've had several-hours-long debates over the very meaning of love and why we each process it differently (The Time Traveler's Wife, the Spike Jonze film Her). We've split in two over Matthew Barney, and come back together through Beyoncé. We still think Jeff Koons is a schmuck.

But as the years go on, life gets in the way, and we don't get out as much as we used to. Part of that is because I've got a new girl to take out now. She's 8, she's in the third grade, and she's clearly got the same genes as her mom and dad. She's seen a ton of live music, from the San Francisco Symphony to Nicki Minaj. She's been to the de Young, and BAMPFA, and the Grand Lake Theater. She's met some of her favorite authors at bookstore appearances, and can easily spend an hour digging through photocopied mini-zines at comic fairs.

And wouldn't you know it, she and I were at the SFMOMA the other week, looking at the permanent collection, when we turned the corner and beheld in all its garish glory: Michael Jackson and Bubbles. I waited for her response, and sure enough, there came the laugh: a younger, higher-pitched version of the same loud, confused laugh my wife let out 15 years ago.

“What in the heck,” my daughter asked, pointing at the sculpture, “is the purpose of this being here?!”

It's a different kind of love, this one. But I think it's gonna last just as long.


Gabe Meline is KQED Arts' Senior Editor.