Michael Kimmelman asks why we bother lining up to look at art, and concludes the following:
So tourists now wander through museums, seeking to fulfill their lifetime’s art history requirement in a day, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of material they pass by rather than the quality of concentration they bring to what few things they choose to focus upon that determines whether they have “done” the Louvre. It’s self-improvement on the fly.According to Kimmelman, The Culture is in bad shape because we rush through museums. He relates this complaint to that of the Slow Food movement - as with all negative responses to modern times, it all comes down to Things Today Just Move So Fast Not Like In My Day. First the railroads, and for the slow-pace nostalgic, it's been downhill ever since. And as with all arguments about the failings of Young People Today (or in this case, People Today), we are provided with a Golden Age against which we may contrast our own:
Travelers who took the Grand Tour across Europe during the 18th century spent months and years learning languages, meeting politicians, philosophers and artists and bore sketchbooks in which to draw and paint — to record their memories and help them see better. Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look.He's right that technology comes into play, but it seems that the main difference isn't so much the camera (or the camera-phone) as the airplane, particularly cheap air travel. Going to Europe is no longer restricted to the cultural elite. Nor, for that matter, is going to America for a Western European - if that were the case, the hordes around every lower Broadway shoe store would not be quite so impressive. Crossing the Atlantic is hardly free, but it's now available to those for whom "meeting politicians" is not an option.
So, why do people - tourists and locals alike - go to museums? The easy answer is, because it's expected. With tourists, it's embarrassing to return from a European trip and, when asked what you did while you were away, to say, "Rome Pub Crawl 2009!!! Woohooo!" So museums thus attract a fair number of visitors who would really rather be enjoying a lower drinking age, or shopping for shoes. And with locals, it's a sign of a deprived background to have, say, grown up in NY and not seen the Met, which partly explains why schoolchildren are so often shuttled there against their will.
Kimmelman writes, dare I say sneeringly, of a trip to the Louvre, "A few game tourists glanced vainly in guidebooks or hopefully at wall labels, as if learning that one or another of these sculptures came from Papua New Guinea or Hawaii or the Archipelago of Santa Cruz, or that a work was three centuries old or maybe four might help them see what was, plain as day, just before them." He goes on to explain, "If you have ever gone to a museum with a good artist you probably discovered that they don’t worry so much about what art history books or wall labels tell them is right or wrong, because they’re selfish consumers, freed to look by their own interests."
Asking visitors not to look at wall labels isn't a way of liberating them to 'just look', but is instead ordering them to have blind faith in The Curator, to believe that just because an object is in a museum, it is Important, and is thus worth more than a minute of your time. The labels, if done right, tell you why the sculpture of a dog you're supposed to ponder with such intensity is of more interest than the actual dogs outside, the painting of a socialite more special than the real-life ones lunching around the Met. If we did not know why certain objects were supposed to be of more significance than others, most museum visitors would find as many compelling things to look at on the block surrounding a given museum as within the museum itself. If we are to accept that some objects matter more than others, and that experts are within their rights to determine which, it's only fair that we, the ignoramuses to whom this is not immediately apparent upon glancing, context-free, at a given work, should be in on what led these experts to make their decisions.
Unless there's a particular museum I've been wanting to see - and for whatever reason, these museums, or the parts of the permanent collections I've been looking forward to, are always closed whenever I visit a place. Brussels, Antwerp, and Amsterdam, why must you keep 'refurbishing' your late medieval paintings whenever I'm nearby? - I prefer just walking around either tourist or residential areas to lining up, getting the ticket, proving to the security team that I am in fact not there to blow the place up, and then, when the payment ('see, I'm a student, look at this weird purple card you've never seen before, I promise that's what it means') and metal detection is over, catching all kinds of new colds from all over the First World, what with being so tightly packed before each work. Wandering around gives you a better sense of a city than does finding out which works from around the world that city's museum managed, for whatever reasons, to acquire. Entering a major European art museum, much like going into an H&M, you all of a sudden feel you could be anywhere. Whereas getting yelled at for not having exact change at a Parisian patisserie, but then finding that the pastry well makes up for it, that you need to go to Paris for.
What I do appreciate about museums is sometimes but not always the art. Often, it's just fun to look at all the people from around the world who've congregated, to see how they dress and wear their hair, to listen to the various languages they speak and attempt to guess what countries they're from, to attempt to figure out whether harem pants are on their way out or, rather, about to gain a following across the Atlantic, and so forth. This activity also works just fine in non-museum settings, but on rainy days, a museum can't be beat.