A soul-crushing disparity in relative personal worth, as witnessed at a museum

Starry Starry Night by Vincent Van GoghOne thought has been lingering in my mind since I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City over holiday break: who would want to work as a guard in a museum? Working at the ticket desk wouldn’t be too bad, as I’m sure it pays better and is more fun than a typical minimum wage job. It also involves lots of interaction with people, which despite what many say, is a key component to job satisfaction for me (How could your job ever be boring when you keep meeting new people? People are inherently interesting.). But why would you ever want to be a museum guard?

At first thought, working as a guard at a museum does seem kind of cool. You would get to see all of these amazing works of art. And there would be a novelty to it (for maybe the first week). But there’s only so much to see in any one museum, and anyway, as a guard, you aren’t exactly allowed to browse the artwork at will. The uniform isn’t comfortable either. The guards at MoMA are forced to wear formal tuxedo-style clothing embroidered with “MoMA” on it — admittedly, probably the only kind of dress suitable for a museum employee, but they were still dressed far more formally and uncomfortably than the average guest. And — even worse — they don’t get to sit. They didn’t even look like they were allowed to lean. They just stood along walls and in dark corners for hours at a time, brooding, bored thoughts lazily tracing across their minds. Yet they must remain vigilant. Their only human interaction is of the negative kind, when they have to yell at someone to turn off the camera’s flash, or back away from the painting, or not touch the sculptures. It’s pretty much the opposite of the ticket desk job.

The sheer absurdity of the museum guard position was most evident when I stumbled across the painting Starry Starry Night (pictured above) by Vincent Van Gogh in one of the galleries. I’m not even going to pretend to be neutral here; Starry Starry Night is one of my absolute favorite paintings, and when I heard that it was part of the permanent collection at MoMA, I was looking forward to seeing it the entire day. It occupied an understated position in the gallery (I suppose MoMA is too “good” to value one painting over any other in terms of placement). It was the second or third along a wall from a corner, in the midst of a bunch of other unrelated paintings. But that was the only ordinary thing about it.

A crowd of people hailing from many nations stood clustered several deep around the painting, chatting excitedly in numerous languages, blocking line of sight to the two surrounding and totally forgotten paintings. Two museum guards stood on either side of Starry Starry Night, carefully keeping watch and shooing away those who got too close. Many of the guests were taking pictures of it, and each occasional camera flash elicited another stern monotone warning from the guards. The flurry of activity around the painting was so great that I was never able to have any quiet contemplative solitary time with it, which to me, is a crucial part of truly experiencing a work of art (as opposed to merely looking at it). Even when I did make my way close up to peer at it, I couldn’t focus; I was distracted by the general brouhaha. So I left dissatisfied. Starry Starry Night, it turns out, is simply too popular of a painting to have as a favorite.

I just pity those poor guards, who are forever standing in the shadow of a master artist whose impact on the world they will never even begin to be able to approach. Their entire working life revolves around guarding one of the thousands of artworks produced by a prolific genius over a century ago. Entire lifetimes are being spent protecting a work that was created in just a few days’ time. That is a massive asymmetry in worth that has to be absolutely soul-crushing. This, more than any other reason, is why being a museum guard must be such a terrible occupation. How can you be content when, instead of creating impressive things on your own, you are merely guarding those of others?

3 Responses to “A soul-crushing disparity in relative personal worth, as witnessed at a museum”

  1. William (green) Says:

    “…merely guarding [the work] of others”? Seems like it’s important to me.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    As a general rule of thumb, your job isn’t important if you could be replaced by a sheet of plexiglass.

  3. William (green) Says:

    Good rule of thumb.