My battery had died.
Stagnating in a cab that was gridlocked on Pont Royal in the after-sunset hours of Paris, I wondered why I had opted out of taking the metro. A political demonstration had jammed the city unexpectedly as it primed for a weekend of roped off streets and exasperated drivers, and my first instinct had been to instant message a friend back home. Staring down at the black screen of my smartphone with nowhere to plug in, I settled down to a night of radio silence. In the distance on the Right Bank, Le Musée du Louvre rose up imposingly against a Seine River beribboned with lamplight. After a breakfast of brioche mousseline earlier in the day, I’d visited the Italian Renaissance collection and spent a meager five minutes studying the Mona Lisa before being elbowed out by a woman wanting to film Da Vinci’s 16th century masterpiece with an iPad. I’d moved aside in an environment I could only wish were hushed, and sat down to observe the observers instead. With roughly 30,000 visitors daily from every continent, Babylon had come to the Denon Wing. They’d saved up, taken vacation from work, booked a flight to see La Joconde; and the majority of them were looking at her through an eight-megapixel screen for an average of 15 seconds. A roomful of sightseers pushed and shoved to the front of the crowd to get their personal share of live footage in a nebula of green and red autofocus blinking against Gamma-ray bursts of digital flash. Some of them would upload it later for a longer look; most would select and delete on the bus ride home. No one seemed to care whether the lights —or dust—would damage the art (a debate for another day).
An onslaught of tiny cameras and tablets are storming museums worldwide, and Paris is not exempt from the attack. The pith and core of it seems to be whether we’re consuming art the way we zap through the 350 television channels we never watch, or flip through a fashion magazine for the latest trend without stopping to notice the model, the designer, or the thought behind the collection. Art becomes something we consume, something to add to a list of achievements; it is the prey of a hunting trophy.
I felt the sudden urge to cover the Mona Lisa with a cloak.
On the opposite side of the Tuileries Gardens nests Le Musée de l’Orangerie, an intimate boutique impressionist museum that maintains a no-photo policy unintentionally underpinned by an all-white antechamber. The room is quiet, and serves to cleanse the mind prior to entering a larger elliptical room with a cycle of Monet’s celebrated water-lily paintings, the Nymphéas. Guards stand sentinel against ego shots, and talking is discouraged. In the middle of the naturally-lit room, benches face outward toward the paintings to encourage contemplation over consumption, silence over the clamor of visual place-making. Here we’re invited to enjoy the art rather than take a poor version of it home with us.
I paid the driver and left the cab mid-ride to walk the remaining distance to the partly gothic Church of St Germain Auxerrois. Inside heavy doors, some 200 candles illuminated an intimate performance of baroque music, which somehow had escaped the massive tech-siege, and brought a 16th century Flemish retable to life. I saw not a single flash, and didn’t miss my smartphone for an instant.
Article by Allison Zurfluh