The best birthday gift I ever gave myself was a membership card to the Musée du Louvre. But as the most visited museum in the world, the Louvre can often feel more like a fairground than a fine arts institution (I suspect this is why Parisians often stay away). From the outside, it is an architectural tour de force; but within, you face the crush of hoi polloi.
I learned quickly that the only time to go is on Wednesday or Friday evenings when the museum runs its "nocturne" hours (closing at 9:30 p.m.). Now I cannot skip a week: The promise of unadulterated awe is far too strong.
Because beyond what the relics, canvases, cave drawings, furnishings, curios, sarcophagi and sculptures reveal about empires, dynasties, monarchies and the details of everyday life throughout history, the museum and its contents confirm that humans have an innate desire to create – and live with – beautiful things.
Of the 6,000 or so photos in my iPhone, a large portion depict the diversity of beauty within the Louvre, from the very obvious Venus de Milo to Georges Bracque's Birds, painted on the ceiling of the Salle Henry II and among the few examples of modern art employed to offset the ancient artifacts. In the grotesque – a 16th-century sculpture of a decomposing saint, say – I find beauty, too.
My visits are not an exercise in ascribing aesthetic value to one object over another; they are a way to enrich my frame of reference and to drift in and out of civilizations the way people browse through a department store.
Back when I relied on academic readings of the so-called dead white men to sound wiser than my years, I might have spent my museum visits with Walter Pater guiding me, sotto voce over one shoulder. In the preface of his 1873 book on aesthetics, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, the British critic was adamant that beauty is relative. In attempting to establish the value of any art form, he posed the questions: "What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? And if so, what sort or degree of pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence?" Today, I believe we should be allowed to appreciate the aesthetic impact of something – or feel wonder at its very creation – without overthinking it.
Whether inside the Louvre or outside Paris at the 17th-century Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, I come away with the same thought: How amazing it is that these objects and edifices have penetrated my soul. The goal is to hold onto that thought as long as possible.
I suppose my impulse to take photos at these places represents my emotional response (even if the likelier answer is seeing everything as an Instagram opportunity). As someone with abysmal memory retention, I imagine it would be tragic to reach the end of this life only to forget that I have witnessed, and enjoyed, such a wealth of beauty.
But the pictures might be doing more harm than good. A study by Linda Henkel published this year in the journal Psychological Science suggests that we impair our memories when we photograph objects. Dr. Henkel, a cognitive psychologist at Fairfield University in Connecticut, suggests that normal observation can build stronger memories than when we mediate our Kodak moments through the lens of a camera. So I recently adopted the trick of a friend who takes the picture, but then stares longer to lock in the memory (someone might want to quiz me a decade from now).
There are about 16 million images hash-tagged "Paris" on Instagram, one measure of the irresistible urge to capture the moment that dates back to the availability of the camera itself. Pictures of Paris became cliché a long time ago. What anglophones may not know is that, in French, cliché is synonymous with photo (alternately a reference to the negative or print), which makes it a true double entendre.
Still, I would gladly take a clichéd image of the Eiffel Tower over clichéd words. And the beauty of Paris-at-large is so exceptional – even factoring in the garbage, the dog poop, the cigarette butts and the less-desirable outer arrondissements – that to match the perfect proportion and imposing presence of Soufflot's Panthéon with a mere sentence is to accept defeat (unless you're in the literary pantheon of Hemingway or Fitzgerald).
This leaves me as an admirer who wanders through the Louvre's galleries, explores Le Corbusier's Villa la Roche, climbs the cliff of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont – all the while harbouring no expectations that I will create a chef d'oeuvre to stand the test of time. Except, of course, that beauty breeds beauty, inspiring people to create.
So maybe I go to the Louvre seeking the genesis of an idea. Or maybe I go for a break from my thoughts. But I know I go because the beauty calls me back.