Paris is a city defined by aesthetics. It’s gargantuan landmarks, the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Notre Dame Cathedral all probably come to mind at the first mention of the city. The orderly boulevards and Haussmannian buildings which surround them come next. But Paris is somewhat unique for the ubiquitousness and quality of its art.
Paris’s most famous art museum is the Louvre. It seems that the famous glass pyramid is typically used as visual shorthand for the Louvre in media, but this tends to underplay the size of the building and the collection inside. The Louvre is unbelievably large- I went there at a time when it was open for free for three hours, and I was only able to see a small fraction of the museum at a pace that felt like a sprint.
While the Louvre is the most famous and most popular, there are 130 museums within the city limits. 39 of these are designated as art museums by Wikipedia (although many more of them could probably count). I went to a mere three of them: Musée du Louvre, Musée de l’Orangerie, and Musée d’Orsay. There are 380,000 objects in the Louvre collection alone. Everyone in Tampa could go to the Louvre and take something home with them, and Paris would still be the home of some of the world’s most influential artworks.
That said, art is not a fungible commodity. There are rooms in the Louvre that hardly ever see any visitors, but the Mona Lisa has a roped-off line to see it, like a ride at Disney World. It is safe to say that most works of art in a place like the Louvre are there because they are either pristine examples of a rare type of artifact (for example, Egyptian papyri), or because they have in some way altered the course of future art.
On the other hand, people are routinely frustrated with modern art, because the reason for its placement in a museum is not so readily apparent. I visited the Tate Modern on my trip to London and was a little bit amused by some of what I saw. If I saw a Rothko painting without knowing anything about the artist, I can’t say I would be terribly impressed. Yet, the series of Rothko paintings in a dimly lit room in the Tate Modern was quite memorable. Those Rothko paintings are 60 years old and are (I think) well accepted by the art community as culturally important, but they continue to perplex and annoy regular visitors. These same visitors line up in droves in Paris to take photos of Monet and Van Gogh, who were panned by their more traditional contemporaries in their time.
It seems that a feature common to good art is that it provokes negative reactions on its debut. Nearly all of the descriptions below the works of the famous impressionists in d’Orsay claim that the painting caused a “stir” or “commotion” or even “outrage” when it first appeared at the salon. It’s hard to imagine having your 19th century sensibilities threatened by Manet’s “The Luncheon on the Grass”, or finding Caillebotte’s “The Floor-Scrapers” vulgar for glorifying the working class. But these paintings made people angry enough that we still talk about it. Barnett Newman’s paintings made people so angry that someone slashed one with a knife, twice!
I would argue that the only difference between those works considered masterpieces and those that inspire harsh criticism is that enough people have liked them long enough that people forget that they were once new, different, and scary. People hated the pyramid at the Louvre when it was first built. They though the Eiffel Tower was crass, Notre Dame was a decrepit wreck, and Haussmann’s redesign of Paris was tasteless. Now each of those things is inseparable from the amalgam of ideas and images that is “Paris”.