How not to feel like shit in an art gallery
Visiting the Uffizi and having thoughts
Nothing makes me wish I was Geoff Dyer more than when I visit an art gallery. Though it has to be said, I pretty much wish I was Geoff Dyer all the time. Well, just in terms of writing things and thinking thoughts.
I’m highly ambivalent about art galleries. On the one hand, they’re full of beautiful objects and the works of genius hands and eyes; and on the other, it’s as if an evil mastermind tried to work out the worst possible context in which to see those things. It’s like being presented with a perfectly cooked gourmet meal in a sileage-filled farmyard. Fat horse flies buzzing above their shadow on the damask tablecloths.
We were in the Uffizi on Monday in Florence. I’d never visited it before so it was one of those must-sees which as I get older feel more like a tiresome obligation than a vital experience. We queued for our online ticket pick up; then we queued to get in. Then we joined what was essentially a never-ending moving queue that took us through the intestines of the palazzo and past some of the greatest works of Renaissance art as if we were on the Generation Game conveyor belt and the Venus had to remember us all to win a fortnight in Torremolinos.
Botticelli’s Venus was amazing, though. It’s one of those paintings I’d seen a thousand times but never actually looked at. A tablecloth, or a Terry Gilliam skit, now I actually saw it was a painting. The swirl all centred around a zen-like calm beauty - the skin and the fabric, the flowers and the fingers, the sea and the forest, the guy in the blue fedora taking a selfie, eyebrow cocked with a bemused ‘look where I am!’ expression.
Venus is one of the celebrity paintings. You can tell by the scrum in front of them. We stand at the back wait for people to take their pictures and then hover and then retreat grinning and I do the same. I try not to take a picture and just absorb the painting through my eyes. After all, I’m never going to look on it once it’s on my phone. Maybe I’ll post it on the socials with a filter to give it a more Renaissance-y look. But then I feel not taking a photo has become a heavier act than taking one. Like I’m braying above the crowd - ‘look everyone! I’m not taking a photo’.
So now I feel like shit. What can I do in front of this stuff? What do I do with it? Why do I have to be so self-conscious? But it’s like Christmas. It should just be another day of the week but it sharpens everything with a different blade. You can’t just be in this kind of situation. I’m not just looking at paintings: I’m looking at other people looking at them and I’m aware that I’m being looked at as I look at them. Not in an ‘oh he’s interesting’ way, but rather in a ‘why’s he just standing there and not taking a photo?’ way; a ‘when’s he going to move?’ way.
My discomfort levels aroused to a significantly high degree, I engage satire. It helps that the Uffizi is pretty much wall-to-wall God fan fiction. I start spotting Hollywood actors in medieval garb. A lot of Mia Goths, a few Mark Rylances, there’s William Forsythe as Martin Luther. We compare ugly baby Jesuses. And at the other end of the lifecycle check out the Messiah’s abs in the crucifixion scene. He’s a hard 33 poor bloke. A rough life.
Art galleries feel like the National Lottery. On the surface it’s a good thing right? Giving all this money to someone, or making all this beauty available to the public. But on the other hand, it’s a lesson in why certain people shouldn’t have money/beauty. Rich people know what to do with it, the lottery tells us. They’ve had the training. They’ve expected it. Someone like me gets it and wants to buy a helicopter and fill it with Curly-Wurlies. You just know he’ll be stupid broke in the space of eighteen months.
Same with this art. If I was a more cynical type, I’d argue that art galleries are designed to alienate us from ourselves and from culture on purpose. To make us feel more estranged and unworthy, buying fridge magnets and jigsaws in the gift shop and feeling wretched. I want to be Cameron in Ferris Bueller having a direct meaningful relationship with a painting but I’m more like Ferris Bueller in Ferris Bueller. Striking allegedly funny poses of archness. Once more, the urge to punch myself in the face becomes overwhelming.
Then again I bet this is exactly what the Renaissance was like. After all, this is both where and when the bastards invented capitalism. Everyone gathered to see and be seen. Everyone thinking of vacuous nonsense and talking new ruffs and dung prices and trying to work out if it would be cooler to like or not like the latest Da Vinci. Moaning about the cherubim discourse.
At a certain stage - possibly due to exhaustion - I start to like it. I get into it, somehow. I’m not sure if what I’m experiencing has any real connection to art, or depth of knowledge. Rather it occurs to me once more that I’m dying and so is everyone here and in that I find some comfort when the Spanish guy with the loud baby barges past the Caravaggio. It’s a perfect moment. Right out of a Geoff Dyer essay. Which gives me an idea.