Human nature baffles and amuses me. This past weekend, we were in New York for a quick vacation. During our visit to the Metropolitan Museum, we noticed signs leading to "Michelangelo's First Work." We followed them, only to find a huge crowd gathered in front of this tiny painting like the monsters clinging to poor Saint Anthony. Now, don't get me wrong: The Tormenting of St. Anthony, attributed to a 12 or 13-year-old Michelangelo, is intriguing and historically significant. But it was interesting that the Renoirs, Vermeers, Monets, and Van Goghs were, in comparison, almost ignored by tourists intent on crowding around this small canvas.
Was it the "first"--that drew in the crowds? The novelty? The sense of seeing something that others haven't seen (despite the fact that the painting is owned by another American museum)? I've experienced the same thing myself -- I had to see the REAL David in Florence, the actual object, not a copy, despite the fact the the cast outside the Palazzo Vecchio is almost identical and is in the exact location where the original once stood. There's something incredibly moving and transformative about seeing the real thing.
And, like the typical American tourist, I, too, bought the souvenir mug. (Mine is of a work I didn't even get to see -- Hokusai's "Great Wave." The Japanese wing was closed the day we were at the Met. Nevertheless, I love this print and will enjoy drinking my coffee out of the mug.)
I also observed another phenomenon that was equally baffling but less amusing than the desire to see the real thing: Drive-by art snapping. At least half the people in the museum seemed to be trotting through the galleries with cameras glued to their faces. They raced up to paintings, especially those by famous artists, snapped a quick photo, checked the photo in the screen of the camera, then quickly moved on, spending virtually no time looking at, much less seeing the actual work of art in front of their eyes.
The drive-by photographers reminded me of a man I once saw at Cape Canaveral videotaping his wife as she bought souvenirs in the gift shop. At what point do these tourists stop framing everything through the lens of their camera and start living the actual experience? Do they need the photo to confirm they were there? Isn't the t-shirt (or mug--mea culpa) confirmation enough? That couple at Cape Canaveral actually led me to stop carrying a camera on my trips, a vow I kept until I visited Iceland and couldn't resist taking pictures of that glorious landscape. Now, too often, I find myself lapsing back into the mindset of seeing something beautiful or remarkable and instantly framing it as a photo, in my mind or in my viewfinder. I do take photos when I travel, but far fewer than I used to.
Watching and thinking about the drive-by art snappers reminded of "The Loss of the Creature," an essay by Walker Percy in which he writes about the difficulty of living an authentic experience in modern society. As summarized on Wikipedia:
"The more or less objective reality of the individual is obscured in and ultimately lost to systems of education and classification. Percy begins by discussing the Grand Canyon--he says that, whereas Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, who discovered the canyon, was amazed and awed by it, the modern-day sightseer can see it only through the lens of "the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer's mind" (47). Because of this, the sightseer does not appreciate the Grand Canyon on its own merits; he appreciates it based on how well or poorly it conforms to his preexisting image of the Grand Canyon, formed by the mythology surrounding it. What is more, instead of approaching the site directly, he approaches it by taking photographs, which, Percy says, is not approaching it at all. By these two processes--judging the site on postcards and taking his own pictures of it instead of confronting it himself--the tourist subjugates the present to the past and to the future, respectively."
That describes the drive-by art snappers to a T. And me, with my mug. If I ever do see an original print of the Great Wave, I wonder, will it live up to the expectations formed by the reproductions I've seen on calendars and coffee mugs?
(Here's an article about the Michelangelo painting.)