The solitary art of appreciation

I wonder what the collective term is for a crowd of aesthetes. There must be one, although I've been unable to find it - answers on a card but make sure there's a work of great art on the obverse. It's counterintuitive, isn't it? The idea of appreciating the beautiful and the specific in an ugly mass of people who become, inevitably, similar - if not indistinguishable - purely by that act alone. Yet, given the vast crowds that the top art exhibitions attract, there ought to be some way to make the collective appreciation of art enjoyable.

Tate Britain, which is running an exhibition of the great 19th-century showman-dauber John Martin, has gone some way towards e-creating the crowd spectacle that his works represented in their heyday. There is one room dedicated to the great triptych of paintings depicting the Apocalypse, the Last Judgement and the New Jerusalem. Bleachers have been erected and there's a nifty son et lumière to give you a sense of how Victorian sensation-seekers might have responded to the images. But this is a recherché experience: Martin's works were the disaster movies of an era before disaster movies.

No, the big art exhibitions of today have acquired a weird rubric all their own, one that seems increasingly fraught and unpleasant. I know I'll be accused of snobbery - but hear me out. Take the Leonardo show at the National Gallery: it's now too late for you to book online but you can chip up in person and queue for three hours (venue's own warning) in order to buy a timed ticket that allows you entry during an allotted half-hour segment. True, once inside, you can linger as long as you want - but in practice how long will that be, given that the hot press of bodies is hardly conducive to gentle contemplation of the old master's brushwork, if you can see it at all?

What a croc

I know galleries are concerned about this - how to juggle the intense desire the masses have to see a show with the misery of too dense a press. Presumably, in the bowels of the National Gallery there's an expert on fluid dynamics and laminar flow whose speciality it is to determine how long an individual will contemplate a painting and how that will affect the movement of the art-chomping crocodile through the hallowed chambers. I often fantasise that the crowd will react en masse counterintuitively to the announcement of a big exhibition and stay away in droves, leaving it blissfully empty for me to wander on my ownsome.

Fat chance. It could be that I'm so averse to art crowds because my insufferably bien-pensant parents dragged me to the huge Rembrandt retrospective in The Hague in the 1960s - among many others - and it gave me a sense of unutterable claustrophobia, punctuated by awe-on-demand, that has stayed with me. I remember being at the Uffizi in Florence when I was around nine and refusing to go into the gallery because it was so packed and my enraged mother - that great lover of beauty - walloping me. Hard. Over the years, I've tried to counter this unintended Pavlovian conditioning by attending the odd show that I know will be popular, but it never works: I end up hating the crowd and, perversely, the art as well.

Alone in the dark

People often talk about the privileges enjoyed by the metropolitan elite; when it comes to art galleries, they're right to be enraged. On occasions when I've been reviewing a big show, or known the artist, or a relevant curator, I've been allowed in to see the exhibition alone, and yes, this is a blissful experience. It's such a blissful experience that it seems to me it is one everyone should be able to enjoy at least once in their life. I think every institution that puts on a show of such extreme popularity that spectators have to be inserted feet first into the gallery over the heads of others should also hold a lottery, the winners of which would be allowed to see it in splendid isolation - or near-isolation.

There is another alternative. Instead of concentrating on populist extravaganzas, galleries should do their best to encourage the appreciation of the neglected portions of their collections. At almost any hour of the day in cities the length and breadth of the country, there are great works of art being steadfastly ignored. That is why there isn't a collective noun for aesthetes: the appreciation of art is a mindful and existential state - and that is diametrically opposed to the moiling of a crowd.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Unholy war