One reason — but by no means the only reason — why I travel is to see what the world has to offer. Museums would seem, at a glance, to be ideal places for this. After all, many, many people have already spent an awful amount of time, effort, and money to go out and find cool stuff, and then brought all that cool stuff back into a convenient location. Sometimes this works beautifully.
And sometimes it doesn’t. The Louvre is a case in point. It’s a frustrating place.
There are other tourist destinations I’ve been horribly disappointed with and for the same reasons (it’s the crowds), but with an art museum, it’s more pathetic. When the art inside is of enormous cultural significance, or was explicitly created to spur contemplation, it’s far worse still. (When there’s an important historical context involved — the Anne Frank House comes to mind — it’s about as bad as it gets).
This is a simplification, but in short, the reason the museum exists is to make you think, and you can’t think when a billion people are stumbling around, gawking, pointing, farting, posing for cliched photographs, or scheming to pick your pocket.
Here we have a problem. The stuff in these museums is generally important; the world needs to see things of beauty, things of historic and cultural value. It just doesn’t need to see them this way.
If one thinks of a museum as a torchbearer of civilization, as a didactic institution with a mission to enlighten, educate, and elevate society, then the Louvre is, on balance, largely a failure. If one thinks of it as a business whose mission is to collect revenue, it’s a smashing success.
Thousands upon thousands shell out their €12 every day to file in through the doors and stand cheek-by-jowl as they are herded from one damn thing they don’t understand to another. Large gangs are led about on prepackaged tours, where the guides — some gamely, some resignedly — try to explain this or that to their charges, but they rarely get through. How could they? The tourists are more interested in taking a picture of themselves in front of a famous work of art, the children are bored and fidgety, the noise level is at a constant roar. Many tour operators, even if they had good intentions in the first place, have just given up and shuttle their customers to what are euphemistically called ‘the highlights’, then it’s off to the cafe for a €10 croissant.
I’m sorry, but it bothers me that in this day and age thousands of people daily pay for the privilege of slugging it out gladiator-style to get a front-and-center photograph of the Mona Lisa. This is idiotic for several reasons. For starters, the Mona Lisa has been photographed endlessly; there isn’t a single hamlet in the deepest rainforest where the image isn’t available. There is no need to take a picture of the damned thing. None.
And it’s a silly, mediocre throwaway portrait. Not only is it not Da Vinci’s best, it’s not his best by a long shot, and it’s not all that great in general. It’s technically competent, yes, but so are 10,000 other unassuming portraits in the same damn collection. Everyone goes to see the Mona Lisa because they’re told to go see the Mona Lisa, and when they go to the Louvre, they’re buying a product and they expect to get what they paid for, and goddamnit, they’re gonna push their way to the front and click the shutter.
Some artwork is best seen in the flesh, so to speak — the Louvre has some colossal Davides, some outsized Caravaggios, the winged Nike — but a bland, muted portrait the size of an album cover just doesn’t need to be. But the relentless ka-ching of the cash register means the masses will continue to file past for the conceivable future.
It doesn’t have to be this way, does it? Could we not collectively put our heads together and come up with a better way to present such work to the public? Is this really the best we can do?