Art museum heresy

[Conor Friedersdorf]

Vacationing in Europe this summer?

Strike the Louvre from your Parisian itinerary. Walk swiftly past its pyramidal entrance, tossing a smug wave to the suckers standing in line. A lifetime in the City of Lights would be squandered if you never explored the world’s most famous art museum, but a vacationer passing a week or ten days there is better off exploring other museums, or eating a leisurely lunch at a sidewalk café, or strolling along the Seine.

“But I’ve heard of the Louvre,” you might protest. “The Mona Lisa is there! How could I tour Paris, perhaps for the only time in my life, and return home without seeing it?”

Indeed, it is expected that you’ll visit.

“Has it changed since my honeymoon?” your coworker may ask.

“Is it really as Dan Brown describes?” your hair stylist might inquire.

Tell them that the Louvre is a labyrinth where mobs crowd famous works three people deep, particularly the Mona Lisa, entombed beneath three feet of bulletproof glass. Lesser known works mostly span artistic periods visitors know nothing about; the line alone stretches longer than it would take to visit two smaller museums.

My favorite Paris collections trace a single artist’s career, showing his works in context; its galleries aren’t crowded, the mood isn’t frenzied and you can leave after an hour, before successive rooms become a chore rather than a pleasure to ponder. Even a visitor intent on a hoard of great paintings is better off at the Musée d’Orsay, whose extensive collection is quite manageable compared to the Louvre; more importantly, most visitors will find its genres more enjoyable.

Another muddled analogy is useful: the Louvre is akin to a library of history’s best classical music; enough major symphonies, classic concertos and delightful string quartets exist there to occupy a dozen orchestras for decades. But the music people savor today is rock & roll and its offspring.

That’s why casual music fans are far more engaged exploring the moment when rock’s birth altered the course of Western music than sifting through the many centuries of musical evolution before it. Elvis Presley, The Beatles and other legends of the late 1960s came in a single epoch… sort of like the transformation that swept European painting and sculpture circa 1880: enter Manet, Cezanne, Monet, Picasso, Braque, Van Gogh and others by 1915.

Hence my litmus test: if your idea of a fun concert is a 10 day classical music festival where the best orchestras in the world perform influential but mostly unfamiliar classics, the Louvre is the art museum for you. Those who’d prefer Woodstock, however, should visit the Musee d’Orsay instead.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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