Roll up, roll up, and watch the Mona Lisa weep

By Celia Braifield (THE TIMES, 19/02/07):

Isn’t it time we admitted that art is hell? You go to one of the world’s great art exhibits looking forward to seeing human creation at its most beautiful and instead you experience human nature at its ugliest.

I am full of solidarity with the staff at the Louvre, who are striking for more pay because of the stress of dealing with 8.3 million visitors a year. Their job is to funnel the equivalent of the population of New York City through a palace built for a few hundred courtiers, past a painting intended for a private home.

They describe their days protecting the Mona Lisa from her fans with words such as “unbearable”, “aggressive” and “dangerous”. Citizens, I know just what they mean. It’s probably small consolation that you are actually being paid to be in the presence of Leonardo’s masterpiece while the rest of the world has to pay for that privilege and queue for half a day to claim it.

Just a few weeks ago the Sistine Chapel took action to protect the Michelangelo and Botticelli frescoes, cutting opening hours and raising prices. My recent memory of this, the ultimate shrine of Christian art, was struggling to stay on my feet in the middle of a yammering mob while a team of young priests went hoarse calling for silence and respect. It was like Grand Central Station, except that there just wasn’t room to sit down and weep. Four million people a year, the population of Sydney, enter the Sistine inferno. The queue most days is six deep and a mile long.

These places are like rock stars. They are the charismatic species of art and architecture — the Uffizi, the Hermitage, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids, Notre Dame, the British Museum, the Tates — and the desire that people have to be in their presence has gone far beyond the attraction of artistic achievement. They are icons, talismans, pilgrimage sites and visiting them is as meaningful as going to a rock concert, getting caked in mud, hearing a booming noise and seeing on stage a capering figure one millimetre high.

The phenomenon has a tsunami-like momentum of its own and draws people whose motives have nothing to do with art and only a questionable interest in humanity. The Louvre is suffering from an added influx of Da Vinci Code readers; I don’t think they’re there for love of Renaissance painting. Pope Benedict XVI showed Christlike forgiveness when he acknowledged that the Vatican tourists are “not Catholic, not Christian and perhaps not even believers” but said he hoped the Sistine Chapel “leads the mind to open itself to the sublime” and so highlights “the continuous interweaving between faith and art, the divine and the human”.

Is it possible to open your mind to the sublime when you’re being herded like cattle to the abattoir? Overcrowding makes every species aggressive. Can you gaze at the majesty of the Pyramids of Giza and screen out the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet? But pilgrims have to eat. Can the smile of Botticelli’s Primavera touch you even through a thick plastic antivandal screen? If she were a rock star, she would have 20 minders.

The tragic paradox of our great art works is that the more significant they become the less their significance can be appreciated. You brace yourself to visit a great gallery knowing that there’s no chance of the transcendent experience supposed to happen when contemplating a masterpiece. At the Holbein exhibition at Tate Britain a few weeks ago I calculated the elbow-jabbing and toe-stomping that I would have to endure to get a square view of one drawing, tore up my timed ticket and ran away.

It is just as tragic that the millions rush past many great works that aren’t in the exhibition of the moment or listed on the tour-bus itinerary. I’ve long cherished the notion of an art visa scheme, which reserves admission to the greatest paintings to those willing to study for a diploma in the relevant school and collect loyalty stamps for at least ten other unjustly neglected works.

Curators are in a bind. Their mission is to make great art available to the greatest numbers. Crowd control was never part of an art history degree. Read a gallery’s annual report and it will proudly record acquisitions and exhibitions while the visitor experience is the elephant in the room, a massive problem never mentioned. Only when the works are threatened by footfall, flash photography or psychotic fans is action taken.

At the Uffizi, as well as the Perspex screens protecting the major works, the decorated floors and ceilings have been boarded over. At the summer palaces at St Petersburg they insist that tourists wear felt slippers but the inlaid wood floors are still splintering. Increasingly the choice is between risking a work’s survival and letting it be seen.

The sharing of cultural heritage ought to promote world peace and understanding, not make the participants want to cry. It’s time that art lovers united to resolve this paradox. Back in France, archaeologists have found one solution. When it became clear that the cave paintings at Lascaux were being damaged by the rise in humidity caused by visitors’ exhaled breath, they replicated the whole rock face in fibreglass and installed it in a custom-built visitor centre. Only scientists and heads-of-state are allowed to view the real thing.

As an experience, Lascaux 2 is still moving, dignified and impressive, all the more so because it doesn’t brutalise the visitor or pander to the unworthy desire to go home boasting that you almost touched the precious object. With the intellectual rigour that is particularly Gallic, the custodians of this icon recognised that they were really in the theme park business and rose to the challenge of making a mass experience meaningful. Disneyworld or disaster: we have a choice.