This piece takes as its genesis an argument I made recently at Heaven Tree. In his post 'A Man For All Seasons', Gawain posted a photograph of a statue of Scipio Africanus (presumably this one) from the Uffizi, apparently taken on the sly; his justification for this, and our subsequent debate, went as follows, edited slightly:
GAWAIN. The Uffizi, like most museums, won’t let us photograph; but they will not photograph for us, for money, either. Ergo, you may wonder, what is, exactly, the point? The policy certainly does not make the Uffizi any money. (And, besides, as a public service, should they even be allowed to make money from reproductions of works of art the taxpayers paid to acquire?) The policy really amounts to nothing more than taking things off the market and hiding them from he rest of us. So, Africanus is here partly as a protest.
CONRAD. As for the Uffizi—well, I am sympathetic to them. After all, the world has become so homogenised now—you can have a strawberry at any time of year, and see things from around the world without leaving your desk. Isn't there some value in retaining a mystery about a place—in withholding the beautiful from the casual eyes of the dilettante? Perhaps this will encourage the Goethes of the world to make the pelerinage to Florence, or wherever. The best things in life, like the best men, pace Thomas More, are not For All Seasons, but only for one.
GAWAIN. Conrad, my man, your sentiments re: museum's penchant for acquiring works of art and hiding them are endearing coming from you, but as defense of their policies from their mouths, not acceptable. (Which is why they say nothing and pretend it is not an issue.) (And even your defense does not work in cases where they by something and then lock it up in their vaults.)
CONRAD. My defense does work in such cases. . . for the true connoisseur must not only be in the right place, but there at the right time, and/or in the right capacity. . . !
AMANDA SISK, AKA "JOY IN LIFE". It's a bit like a flash of ankle or elegant wrist (Hugo's Les Miserables has an excellent example of this, wherein the fellow viewing the feminine grace is incensed that casual eyes may follow his to this glimpse, and for a gender reversal, try a wonderfully charged moment in the film The Winslow Boy). . . what matter if the rest is obscured? This does not define a future condemned to one view.
My argument was both specific and general. Specifically, one of the best things about artworks is that they are unique—modern sculptures, yes, are reproducible, as I discovered when I saw Max Ernst's Capricorn for the fifth time, and then there are lithographs, but leave that aside—and that they require an investment of time and money just to see. The art-world is inherently an elitist institution. Chris Miller thinks—if I do not burlesque his opinions—that this is terrible. I do not. This is because, quite simply, I am an elitist, and proud of it.
Gawain's point that the museum itself does not make the argument is fair, but naïve. There is no way that the Uffizi could officially make such an argument—explicit elitism is not tolerated, even though it is implicitly accepted and enforced at all times.
Elitism is frowned upon because it is equated with 'class elitism', and thus with 'looking down your nose at blacks and Cockneys'. People don't like this sort of behaviour, for obvious reasons. But this isn't really the essence of elitism, just a common manifestation of it, and not one I personally endorse. For me, elitism is simply the general notion that things are better when fewer people have them, and that the few (whether groups of one member or 500) should be (and are) hostile—snobbish—to the many. There are, of course, an infinity of fews. Everyone belongs to several. And the pleasure of belonging to a few—especially if that few is just oneself—is derived from the fact that it is not a many. Such a pleasure is concurrent with the pain felt by those outside the few who want in; nevertheless, our pleasure outweighs their pain, and I see no reason to deny ourselves the satisfaction. Everyone benefits in the long view.
A corollary of this argument is that everyone is on the outside of most elites. I don't mind the threat of scorn from, say, boffins, fraternity boys, quantum physicists, erudite classicists, professional musicians, the working class, the aristocracy, connoisseurs—from anyone better than me, which is to say, everyone. But elites are not just stable social and professional groups—they are also accidents of time and place. This is where Gawain's post comes in: I am quite happy not to have access to some of the Uffizi's treasures. Those who do get access to these treasures would, I hope, derive all the more pleasure from them. As visitors, they constitute a temporal and temporary elite—and the connoisseurs who have access to the vaults are an even greater, more distinguished elite. When I was last in Siena I visited the Pinacoteca Nazionale, which contains a wealth of Sienese Trecento, one of my favourite periods. I got to see a painting I'd only heard about, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's tiny City on the Sea—truly exquisite. No postcards were available of it, and at the time it was not on the web—it is now, though I won't point you to it, and it's a pretty crappy reproduction anyway. So, my enjoyment of it then, as something that would not last, was all the sweeter, as is my present memory of the occasion.
Gawain's post, naturally, has only created another elite. His readers will delight that they have had a rare glimpse of an obscure masterpiece, its aura of greatness only increased by the fact that it is unavailable elsewhere on the web. If everything truly were available online—a situation slowly approaching us—then, I am afraid, Gawain's show-and-tell might just be out of business. His leisurely digressions and gentlemanly philosophy, thankfully, would not.
Update: Aaron Haspel, bless his anti-Conradian soul, rules in Gawain's favour. 'Tis pity, but there you have it.