I am stationed in the museum cloisters, guarding the first-floor galleries while the caterers set up for an event. Bach’s Cello Suites plays from an iPod speaker-console as the last rays of sunlight shine through the courtyard skylight, illuminating a Roman sarcophagus in front of me. I read from Oxford's A Very Short Introduction to Ancient Philosophy. All is quiet but for the Bach and the gentle clinking sounds of the caterers.
Occasionally, I look up from my reading to regard the ancient burial container before me. A Dionysian scene of drunken festivities parades around its hefty marble exterior. The merry band of celebrants, silent and still in shallow relief, appear fixed in time. They remind me of Han Solo being flash-frozen in "carbonite" at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. I consider the word "empire" as I turn the page of my early philosophy intro.
I am at peace, enjoying a confluence of Western art and culture: the Bach, the sarcophagus, the text—all commingle in the warm light. Of course, light, the natural medium through which all others resonate, is not particular to the West. Nor to the East. Although that is where the sun rises (or appears to rise anyway.) I remember learning that medieval European maps of the world, or mappae mundi, often place the East at the top of the projection as that is where the sun first appears each day. To medieval mapmakers, the sunrise was of greater importance than the North Pole. Thus, the orientation of medieval world maps has the Orient at the top. To orient oneself means to set your bearings to the sunrise, towards the Orient.
Light illuminates all. Well, except for that which is in shadow. Although I suppose nothing is completely obscured in darkness just as pure Light fails to absorb all. Is this a good thing? Probably. I wouldn't want to be engulfed by pure light whatever that might mean. I suppose what we call "existence" is safely situated somewhere between these extremes, neither wholly dark nor completely light, like the yin and yang. Oh, God! Did I just write that?
Anyway, the guests have begun to arrive, so I should probably "look alive" now. But I will clandestinely continue to take notes on my iPhone note pad.
The competing smells of catered apps, cheap Chardonnay, and noxious chemicals of the guest's perfumes and colognes do not jibe well with my previous meditations. I’ll have to shift gears now. My earlier more abstract observations on culture and history have been replaced with direct real-time surveillance of the present moment, a moment I wish I did not have to experience. Whoever said that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” never had to guard a private event at an art museum by themselves. But it’s my job.
The obnoxious guests, a mostly-Asian group of recent dental school graduates, thoroughly lack any appreciation for fine art. They impatiently wait in line for "Sparkling Sangria" at the open bar in the Spanish Cloister, oblivious to the massive John Singer Sargent painting, El Jaleo (1882), that looms above them. It too depicts a scene of drunken merriment: a dancing woman dominates the foreground, her dramatic pose frozen in time; musicians strum on their guitars in the background as onlookers clap and encourage her movements in rapt amazement. Outside the picture, the booze continues to pour. But the guests ignore Sargent’s masterpiece. They just want free sangria.
Some guests, nearly finished with their first round, socialize by the ancient mosaics in the loggia, occasionally taking "selfies" by the Venetian Gothic courtyard. They don’t give a damn about the art, which merely serves as a backdrop to their staged group shots and posed portraits. They are way more interested in reviewing their many pics on their glowing smartphone screens and selecting cool filters to make their digital images appear vintage. The dental students’ theatrics are an affront to the many triumphs of the human spirit that surround them.
They are tourists. To them, the museum is just another environment to be in, to pose in, to briefly consume via digital photography, only to later regurgitate on Facebook and Instagram: "Look. Look at me. There I am: that’s me! That's me here, and that's me there… Me, me, me." I have often noticed that the most self-centered people are also the least interesting. They talk a lot, but say nothing. And they always make the same stupid expressions for their camera-phones. They have great teeth though, perfect smiles.
Normally, food and drink are not allowed in the museum. But this is a private party, a "rental." The dental school grads voraciously eviscerate the free food: vegetarian croquettes with Vermont goat cheese and gluten-free steak tostadas with avocado mousse, washing it all down with beer, wine, and sangria, never skipping an arrhythmic beat of pointless conversation.
They are very loud. And they are rude. They disdain my presence, which is not for them, but for the protection of the collection. And from what I can glean from the cacophony of collective conversations they are not very bright either. I catch snippets of insipid dialogue, mostly protracted dissertations on popular culture or not-so-amazing stories about their mutual frenemies. I can hardly hear myself think over the din of idiocy that reverberates through the museum halls.
They are also taking flash photos, which is technically against the rules. I repeatedly and politely tell them "No flash," only to be ridiculed and scorned. I don't mind though. I would much rather see the artwork protected than to just let them do whatever they want. After a while though, I give up and then the flash photography abounds. Why so many pictures? Is this really that important an event?
With each round of drinks, they become more obnoxious. Their noise levels rise and whatever civility they have falls away. Things are starting to get weird. I get a report from one of the female caterers that some of the guests are drinking their own booze in the women’s restroom. I really hate to be a party-pooper, but guests are not allowed to be drinking their own booze in the bathrooms. I go to the women’s room door, knock, and announce my entry. Sure enough, there is a group of guests passing around a store-bought bottle. I inform them that this is against the rules. They grudgingly comply and start to clear out when I notice two people in one of the stalls. I knock on the stall door, which wasn’t locked properly and it immediately opens to reveal one of the female dental school graduates performing oral sex on one of the male guests. It was Bacchanalia!
Back outside the bathroom, there are strange rumblings in the air. Through the crowd, I see two men square off in what appears to be fighting stances. I pray they are only joking around, but then one swings a hard-right hook at the other’s face and they begin to brawl. I run over to them and break it up before things get worse.
"You," I point to one of them, "go over there and sit down."
I order the other to leave the premises and call on my radio that a fight broke out and that a general chaos was ensuing. Apparently, they were fighting over one of the young women in attendance, who appears to be equal parts inebriated and delighted. My manager, “Unit 4,” arrives on the scene with another guard and we decide to shut it down. We tell the caterers to close the bar and announce that the event was over. The debauched group of dental student grads are not delighted. Nonetheless, we herd them like drunken cattle towards the museum exit. In a narrow glass corridor that leads to the exit, several guests smash their glasses on the ground in juvenile protest.
The dental school grad event was far and away the worst rental I ever guarded. I had never experienced before nor since any group that rowdy or rude. In the weeks following that night, the museum trustees reviewed their policies regarding rentals, but decided not to change anything. Apparently, these after-hours events bring in so much money, the museum can't afford not to allow them. But that's where we are these days. Museums are always struggling for money, trying to stay out of the red. They are willing to do anything to bring in some extra cash. To me, this is a sad state of affairs and represents the "Disney-fication" of cultural institutions that is occurring all over the world right now. We are trading our robust culture and long history for vapid entertainment and fleeting spectacle.
In the future, after they finally pull the plug on the last bit of federal funding for the arts, and the older cultured elite have all died off, art museums can at last become full-on night clubs. Whatever artwork remains will be digitally projected onto the gallery walls and visitors to “The Museum” can dance the night away right near a high-res simulation of Titian’s Rape of Europa or Picasso’s Guernica. Hell, you’ll be able to super-impose yourself right into your favorite painting through your iPhone filter! So instead of saying, “Hey, look: that’s me next to something famous,” you can say, “Hey, look: that’s me in something famous.” That way you don’t really need to think about culture or history anymore, or even be an integral part of it. You just need to be embedded in it.