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Updated: Apr 4, 2023

For years, I’ve made a casual study of how people react to great art. It’s not like I follow people with a microphone when they’re leaving the Tate or the Uffizi. Occasionally, though, when I know they’ve been close enough to breathe on this or that masterpiece, I ask what they think.

I like it when their responses are unguarded, authentic. “Pretty colors.” “Boring.” “Not as big as I thought.” Sometimes they’ve read the guidebook. They gaze at a distant spot and begin, “It deserves its reputation as one of the unparalleled splendors of …” I never hear the end of that remark because my attention wanders.

Where art voyeurism is concerned, I’ve had a fortunate life. I’ve seen a lot of “unparalleled splendors.” My first trip to Italy was when I was thirteen, and my mother—an Italian—marched me into every gallery, monument, historic site, and museum until my shoes had to be resoled.

A year later, when I saw Michelangelo’s Pieta for the second time, I began to feel pursued by masterpieces. But because the reverence for great art was already rooted in me, I dutifully pursued masterpieces right back.

Years and galleries unrolled. I saw the Davids (Michelangelo’s, Donatello's, and Bernini’s), the Lacoön, a clutch of Botticellis, a herd of Monets, a covey of Toulouse-Lautrecs, flocks of Turners and Renoirs and Rubens and Chagalls and Dalis and Constables. A heaviness of Henry Moores. A lushness of O’Keefes. The Vatican, the Vatican, and—again—the Vatican.

The Mona Lisa. Seen over the heads of a dense, fidgety crowd at the Louvre, shielded by bulletproof glass (the art, not me), on such a cold day that all I could think about was getting out of the gallery and into the café for a hand-warming coffee. Sorry, Mona.

The greatest art I’ve seen, I didn’t see. One beautiful morning in Majorca, I went to the hilltop monastery of Valldemossa, where George Sand and Frederic Chopin spent the winter of 1838. Chopin wrote, among other ditties, his Moonlight Sonata there and then. I fancy my time in Valldemossa was nicer than Sand’s and Chopin’s, what with her complaining and him coughing.

Sitting in the courtyard of the monstery in summer, steps from where two of the most controversial and gifted artists of the nineteenth century probably sat (drinking hot mulled wine, I hope), I fell into a trance of understanding.

We celebrate the evidence of artistic process. The sheet music, the novel, the painting, the sculpture. But the most sublime and least enduring part of art is invisible. The still moment in which the artist makes decisions about what to create, and how. If only there were a way to preserve that moment, to get into that sanctum sanctorum of creation …

But there’s not. All we’re left with, when the moment passes, is the chalk outline of a muse who died for a lasting reminder of the passion between a single human and inspiration.

So if you see masterpieces and they do nothing for you, don’t kick yourself. You’re not a philistine. You’re simply noting—in a way art historians rarely do—that the artsy part is dead and gone, and museum space is taken up mostly by beautiful cadavers.

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