This is topped-and-tailed from something I wrote a while back, but it seems relevant (a relative term) again on the basis that Will Gompertz – the BBC Arts Correspondent with a look about him of a hybrid between the late Terry Nutkins, Bill Nighy and a generic 50s Oxbridge don – has named the reopening of the wonderful Mauritshuis Museum as his big story for 2014. Apologies, then, for the sense of déjà vu the handful of you that read it the first time round might feel.
I have an unpopular view. Well, I have lots of unpopular views, but I just want to hone in on one specific one for the time being.
In short, that view is that I don’t like other people being in art galleries when I’m in them.
There. I’ve said it. In public this time, rather than just in the pub after work, to people that know I’m prone to bluster about these sorts of subjects.
Now, before you go chewing my head off, hear me out. I couldn’t be a greater advocate for people of all ages, classes and backgrounds visiting galleries, I really couldn’t. It’s just that I don’t want them, whomever they might be – kids from a local state school with poor arts provision, a gaggle of middle-aged crusties plodding their way through OU textbooks in a tardy attempt to culture themselves, a wanky bearded art student with carefully curated splashes of paint on his jeans and a girl in thrall at his shoulder or a set of intellectuals among whose number might be found Pope Julius II, Ruskin and Clem Greenberg themselves – to be there in numbers greater than two or three (fewer, ideally) at a time or making any noise while I’m in there scowling my way from painting to painting.
It’s not that I’m better than you or them, or that I have a greater connection with paintings than other mortals, or any more right to be in a gallery than they. It’s just that I am myself a really quite stupid individual that requires every ounce of concentration I can muster to zone in on a painting and absorb its power or to pour scorn on its lack thereof. And that’s something I enjoy doing more than nearly anything else in the world and have very little chance to do these days.
So, imagine my horror when I’d paid – yes, paid: we in Britain should be far more grateful than we are that we can, on the whole, enjoy the privilege (covered by our taxes, of course) of walking into galleries and see masterpieces without having to hand over any cash – for both my very reluctant wife and I to visit the gloriously located Mauritshuis in The Hague, only to find that there was a middle-aged, beardy windbag (an American, naturally) with scholarly pretensions dragging two bored-looking ladies of a similar age around the place by their handbag straps, spouting all kinds of dreary nonsense at something approaching the top of his nauseatingly whiny voice.
Being far too English by nurture to tell him to shut the fudge up before I smashed his fudging face in, I tensed up, became distracted and started being snappy with my wife. The day was ruined – RUINED! – as far as I was concerned: for me because I’d now struggle to enjoy the Mauritshuis’ astonishing collection of Rembrandt and Rubens paintings to anywhere near their full with this tit droning on; and for my wife (Katherine, let’s call her… because that’s her name) because she’d have to put up with me – and she hadn’t even wanted to come with me in the first place.
And why hadn’t she wanted to come with me? Not because she’s a Philistine – though she can be, as I can be in regards to some of her cultural interests; like dance, for instance – but because she knew that this sort of thing would happen. She knows that I’m an absolute nightmare to be with in galleries, storming about the place with my hands linked behind my back like a deranged Field Marshal inspecting a parade of ghosts before settling in front a painting for a half an hour at a time and glaring at it in silence, bristling at anybody that comes within two foot of me; or else, in her unfortunate case, rabbiting on to her in rapid, hushed tones about a painting in a preposterous, crazed and misinformed fashion while she’s actually just trying to appreciate it from her own perspective.
There’s nothing that could salvage this gallery visit, nothing. Except, hang on… what’s this? The American windbag has got too close to a painting! Out from the shadows – with serpent-like speed and threat – emerges the previously unseen, enormous figure of what was once, unmistakably, a member of Holland’s Special Forces: “Excusje me, shhjir: pleasje don’t touch jha paintingsje,” he menaces. “I wasn’t touching it, I was just gedding closer to show these ladies something – see,” he says prissily, gesturing to touch the painting again with a prehensile, poking index finger – at which, with alarming suddenness, the creature grasps the pest’s arm without quite hurting him, oozing a Pinteresque threat of restrained violence before very deliberately uttering, slowly, so as to make sure there’s no misunderstanding: “I told you, shhjir: don’t. Touch. Jha paintingsje.OK?.” And with that – once the beast had let go his grip – the windbag skidaddled, with his hens clucking in tow behind him.
Well, I might have applauded were it not for fear of the 1,000-yard stare turning in my direction and the brute taking his frustrated desire for violence out on me. I instead allowed myself a self-satisfied smirk, turned on my heels and made my way happily to a brilliantly graphic painting Rembrandt had made of a live autopsy, thinking to myself that I must find myself a man-beast and train him to destroy fellow gallery-goers on my behalf.
Of course there’s an element of hypocrisy in my attitude to other people in galleries in that I probably prevent other people from enjoying their gallery experience, but I really can’t see that changing. Scream and shout, talk rot and frankly do as you wish while you’re in a gallery – just don’t do it while I’m there, please. Or else I’ll be forced to unleash the beast. And I shall take great pleasure in doing so.