I have a clear, vividly embarrassing memory of visiting the National Gallery of Art when I was 11 or 12. I don't remember if I was on a field trip (Isn't it strange how the quality of elementary school field trips depends on one's home state? I was lucky to grow up outside of D.C.), but I do remember searching for the least representational, most abstract painting I could find--I think it may have been a Rothko--and sitting in front of it for a while, furrowing my brows and trying to appear pensive.
In retrospect, this awkward performance betrays two desires:
1. A genuine wish to unlock the meaning of a work of art that I had been told was complex and interesting.
2. A genuine wish for passerby to think to themselves, "How bright and sensitive she must be to appreciate such difficult art! How unlike her female peers, who, despite their more advanced physical maturation, lack this girl's emotional depth!
Over a decade later, I still recognize the same motivations--minus my ardent jealousy of my classmates and their training bras--when I visit or tour cultural sites. It's inevitable: I arrive at any museum/gallery/landmark burdened with at least ten different prescriptions' worth of anxieties, including my desire to think historically, my desire to think theoretically, my consciousness of the viewers around me (as in, I don't want to act like the dumb tourists taking cheesy pictures), and my self-consciousness of my own overdetermined response. And then there's the lingering fear that I'm simply thinking too damn hard instead of just enjoying the experience, like John and Jane Doe from Iowa, who are talking too loudly, wearing the souvenir t-shirts they bought yesterday, and taking pictures of each other replicating the sexual poses in statues and paintings.
Since arriving in Italy, I've seen the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Forum, the Piazza Navona, the Fountain of Trevi, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Vatican. I've gazed at the Pieta (small and gleaming) and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (small and dark). After studying the relevant art historical periods at Yale, I feel intellectually prepared for these sights; such knowledge, however, only plays a small role in my ability to withdraw inspiration from them. I've found a greater sense of awe in basic things like sheer size (the piazza in front of St. Peter's Basilica, which is pictured, could fit a cozy neighborhood), intricate detail and workmanship, mandated silence or darkness, and a communal sense of wonder.
It's difficult to say if education and maturation have made erc a better tourist. A snobbier one, certainly. But while I'm no longer conscious of how others perceive me, I've grown regrettably self-conscious of my own perception. And also deeply resentful of John and Jane Doe's seemingly unadulterated spectatorial pleasure.