Spending the day the the Metropolitan today, I kept seeing these upper class NYC types — some of them elderly women, just now a mother/daughter pair — you know, the ones who wear tony loafers with snaffle bit buckles on them, dowdy but practical-looking outfits from Talbots, etc.
They were walking through the Delacroix show with barely a clue as to what they were looking at. (I’m put in mind here of the jaw-droppingly brilliant, yet unspeakably condescending description Baudelaire deploys in the “The Painter of Modern Life”, about how some slack-jawed pair seen sitting watching the passing crowd on the street really have not a single idea in their heads, and that they exist purely for the pleasure of his flâneur/observer, and not for themselves.) One old bird (owner of the sensible shoes seen above), leaned in close to a chat label, reading out loud, in somewhat fractured form, the information related to the story of Medea killing her children, which was the subject of the painting she was missing in order to read the text. She seemed amazed at the content, but then added the comment “This is something you see in the headlines every day!!” Of course the chat label didn’t go into the part about how Medea had been an enchantress, one who’d saved legendary hero Jason’s gravy with her powers, nor how she had fallen in love with him and married him as her reward, only to be carted back to Hellas where she was regarded as some sort of barbarian, and in relatively short order found herself dumped in favor of a younger trophy wife of more acceptable (and politically desirable) Greek heritage. Let’s not forget the part about the magic shroud she sent as a wedding present to the new bride, which caught on fire as soon as the poor thing tried it on. Not so sure I’ve read about that sort of thing happening in the paper lately.
Oh, and then there was the little clique that spent precisely three seconds reading the title line of another label, commenting with some surprise “Don Juan! A shipwreck!!”, and even less time looking at the painting, thereby remaining oblivious to the nature of possible significance of the literary source (Byron), let alone the fact that the poor souls in the little boat were in the process of drawing lots to see who would be cannibalised next.
What is eating at me isn’t so much simple ignorance of certain cultural information — what the fuck do I actually know about Byron, after all — but there is something about the fundamental unculturedness, an utter lack of cultural curiosity, any whiff of interest in finding out more about any of it. It’s the Instagramming of culture, snapping bad photos on your smartphone to post to social media as evidence that you’ve been somewhere, and then grazing across the surface, hitting a like button here or there, never lingering too long nor getting too deep with much of anything.
I hasten to add, not everyone does this — but I find it particularly tiresome coming from this class of people, those with a kind of bourgeois privilege, who manage only ever to take it as their god given right to feel virtuous because they’ve spent an afternoon at the Met, mindlessly gawping at the culture laid before them, all their taste ultimately residing in their mouths.