A few days ago I was at the Louvre, looking at some of the world’s most gorgeous art. The Museum’s magnificent collection includes a number of beautiful paintings by Leonardo da Vinci that are hung on a wall close the room where the Mona Lisa is displayed. It was a pleasure spending time with the other da Vinci’s—I could stand in front of them for as long as I wished and get as close as I wished without disturbing others or being disturbed by them; mostly because the others weren’t there. They were in the adjacent room where the small Mona Lisa is hung behind bulletproof glass and fifteen or so feet beyond where the closest viewers are allowed to stand. Eventually I walked into the room where the celebrity painting holds court to millions of viewers each year—roughly half of whom were there when I was. Each of them was pushing, shoving, clawing his way to the front of the crowd—digital cameras held high and flashing their forbidden bulbs. The crowd looked like paparazzi—I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear people shouting “Look this way, Mona.”
One of the things Alzheimer’s reinforces is the value of living in the moment, of experiencing what’s in front of us. Maybe some of the people in front of the famous painting were experiencing the moment they wanted to experience—maybe their pleasure came from taking a snapshot, plugging their readers into their computer, and experiencing Mona Lisa several times removed. I know that many museums, including MoMA, are now working with Alzheimer’s patients because they believe that looking at art soothes AD sufferers (and their caregivers). I like to think that people with Alzheimer’s really look at a work of art when it’s in front of them.