April 7, 2011

Too Cool for the Louvre

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I get stares of disdain whenever I tell people that during my first trip to Paris over spring break, I didn’t go to the Louvre. I’ve received varied, but mostly negative feedback on the matter. “You’re an idiot;” “the Louvre is amazing;” “Mona Lisa is too small anyways;” “wow, I didn’t know that the Louvre was in Paris;” and “you disappoint me on average” are some of the go-to responses.

I was shy about telling people at first. “What did you for spring break?” they say.

“I went to Paris.”

“What did you do there?”


“Did you go to the Louvre?”


At least I saw the building itself, a monumental edifice with God knows what inside. It was built as a fort during the Middle Ages, became Charles V’s palace in 1546, served as a residence for artists when Louis XIV moved to Versailles (another awesome spectacle I did not visit) and became a public museum during the French Revolution. There’s clearly a lot inside. I’ll admit that I may have missed out. I like to consider myself a simple man, though, and the surface was enough to arouse my imagination. And while I had fully intended to visit the museum on the plane to France, the train to Paris, and the cab to my buddy Robespierre’s apartment, I am becoming convinced that the superficiality with which I treated the experience actually serves as a legitimate way of viewing art and life in general.

Now that’s a bold claim, and I’m not prepared to defend all aspects of it in this short space, but I’ve found some other ballers whose opinions seem to mesh with my experience. Charles Baudelaire said, “The world — and even the world of artists — is full of people who can go to the Louvre, walk rapidly, without so much as a glance, past rows of very interesting, though secondary, pictures, to come to a rapturous halt in front of a Titian or a Raphael — one of those that have been most popularized by the engraver’s art; then they will go home happy, not a few saying to themselves, ‘I know my museum.’”

Many visitors claim that the Mona Lisa is pretty small; “overrated” is a term I’ve often heard used to describe it. I don’t agree with that, but I can justify it. After all, Mona Lisa doesn’t hold the key to beauty, it doesn’t define some intangible ideal, it’s just a painting.  I had gone to the Museé D’Orsay already, an old train station converted into a gallery of impressionist paintings, and that was enough art for me. I should have continued to educate myself, but the outer walls of the Louvre, the gardens and lawns around the building and the eleven year olds playing soccer outside, rehearsing different goal celebrations, all offered more appeal. The secret was on the surface. The norm of the city in general, the bustle and flow, the lazy Parisians drinking cappuccinos, and the latest scam — pretending to be mute and asking for a pledge of money — combined for a more beautiful and hilarious experience than any historic institution of art could have offered.

Beauty, as Baudelaire argued, is made up of an eternal element, “which is excessively difficult to determine,” and a relative, circumstantial element: “whether severally or all at once, the age, its fashions, its morals, its emotions.” I wanted my experience to be informed by the latter element.

This intention, if nothing else, was completely obvious, and I’m sure that many would agree. Artists have responded to this distinction for hundreds of years. Additionally, there have been numerous characterizations of museum adversity over time. Marcel Duchamp famously put a toilet in a museum, thereby using the museum itself to justify the object as art. Even at Cornell two months ago, architecture student Elaine Oh ’12 questioned the idea of a frame as a device that confirms art in the eye of the viewer. If a famous work of art doesn’t have a frame, than does it lose any respect in our eyes?

Unfortunately, the Louvre doesn’t exist in Ithaca (though the Johnson museum does offer a nice alternative). Maybe I didn’t have to fly to Paris to do the same thing I could have done anywhere. I’m hoping, though, that my glimpse of Parisian life will enrich my view of everyday life in Ithaca. Circumstantial beauty can occur even in a place that many Cornellians, but not all, deem boring. Indeed, Ithaca doesn’t have the history, complexity or variety that Paris has. This doesn’t mean that at least part of the secret resides here.

Original Author: Joey Anderson