As I’ve mentioned before, The Girlfriend and I planned a trip to Paris for this winter break. In addition to being near-perfectly timed to avoid the catastrophic cold in Chicago, it also proved to be a particularly fruitful moment for me, given that I’ve just spent a semester thinking about art in a focused way. My priority for this trip was the museums, and we wound up hitting the main highlights: the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Rodin Museum. We also enjoyed great restaurants, morning croissants, book shopping, and just walking around — including in the incredible Luxembourg Gardens, which features the magnificent sculpture Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea.
In recent years, I’ve been trying to get away from the model of attempting to “see everything” in a given museum. We all know the drill — we walk along, stop briefly before each painting, maybe read the description card, and then move on. I have tended to opt for more concentrated viewing, faciliated by the fact that the holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago are pretty familiar to me by this point. In Paris, though, I felt myself drawn back toward the “see everything” model (even though this would be physically possible in the Louvre), and I came to see its value in terms of giving a broader context and historical sweep. I won’t remember in detail all the paintings I saw, nor the names and dates of the artists, but I feel I have a better handle on the trajectory of at least one particular national artistic tradition (and on its various by-ways). And that contributes to the appreciation of individual works: simply by following along in the Musée d’Orsay in more or less chronological order, I was able to understand Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe on a much more intuitive level.
I was also shocked by the number of bookstores and their quality. Bourdieu’s Collège de France lectures on Manet had recently been published as a 700-page tome, and several stores I visited had it in a highlighted spot. I was able to get the recently published early Derrida seminar on Heidegger at a place a few blocks from where we were staying, a place that devoted half the store to children’s literature (and where I also bought the first Harry Potter and The Giver in French as gifts for my sister and mother, respectively). Whatever the French government is doing differently in this regard, we need to begin doing immediately.
Finally, I found many differences between French and American culture crystalized in a single point — the use of cash. I hardly ever carry cash in the US, but in Paris it was the most convenient means of payment. The Girlfriend and I both found it appealing as a quick and easy way to do things, but then we enumerated all the things that militated against it in the US: above all the insistence on charging sales tax separately, so that attempting to give exact change becomes a fool’s errand, and the car culture that makes it more convenient to buy everything in one place (both by providing ample storage space for purchases and by making it very laborious to visit several stores for one shopping trip). Perhaps there’s some kind of inner connection between an urban, walkable culture and the use of cash. I don’t know. I’m kind of jetlagged.