The crime of the queue

To the Musée d'Orsay in Paris for an exhibition entitled "Crime et châtiment", which celebrates (can this be right?) the 190 years of French punition between Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau's calling for the abolition of the death penalty (1791) and its final abolition (1981). On a chilly June morning, with the wind blowing grit off the quais, now would seem a good time to meditate on the bizarre fate of Saint-Fargeau himself.

Allegedly the casting voter for the regicide of Louis XVI, he was assassinated in January 1793, on the eve of the king's execution, by a former member of the Garde du Corps. The usual Revolutionary canonisation followed: body laid out in the Place Vendôme, buried in the Panthéon, then a four-act musical celebrating his life staged within a month of his death. A cartoon for J L David's painting of Saint-Fargeau's final martyred moments is on show inside the Musée, together with his later Death of Marat. But what's weighing on me, comme d'habitude, is the madness of the crowd.

It's only 10.30am and there are hundreds of them swarming around the entrances and grudgingly sorting themselves into long, snaking lines. It looks as if a formidable pan-European moiety awoke with a start in its chain hotels and rushed along here for a little crime et châtiment of its own.

Jump start

What is it that makes us put ourselves through this torture, this ordeal-by-boredom designed to prove our aesthetic blamelessness? I say "we", but of course I mean "them", for my companion and I soon made with our press cards and swanned inside. But hey, c'mon - before you start inveighing against me for this queue-jumping, please observe that I am writing about "Crime et châtiment", although probably not in the way the Muséed'Orsay's PR flacks would prefer.

In truth, I've come to regard my membership of the NUJ as effectual solely in such situations. Indeed, I even think of it as the National Union of Jumpers, since I've bunked into more museums, art galleries and historic sites than I care to remember on the strength of my avowed commitment to fair wages and working conditions for all manner of hacks. Yet think not unkindly of me, for my childhood memories of the terrifying press of vulturine humanity in search of artificial carrion are seared deep. In 1969, in Amsterdam, my parents insisted on dragging me to a huge Rembrandt tercentennial exhibition where the punters were almost tearing chunks out of each other, so keen were they to get inside the Rijksmuseum.

Seen and herd

And then again, far from one's first trip to the Louvre being a breathless dash in the style of Godard's Bande à part, like me you probably found yourself shuffling in a herd of schoolchildren, wheeled en masse to confront the tiny, glassed-in postage stamp of La Joconde, while wondering: "What's so great about that?" Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that there's an inverse correlation between the size of the object on view and the size of the crowds that swarm about it.

There is timed entry to exhibitions these days, so in theory there need be no queuing. But need be doesn't really enter into it: the museums must increase their throughput, and so the queue is simply relocated inside the exhibition. Nowadays, no signature show is complete without its halting
march and the stop-glimpse-start of the hallowed objects.

Where will it all end? Every time I attend some fashionable Hoxton opening and see the great mob of the rich, the aristocratic and the useless teeming about the entrance to a gallery that cannot possibly contain them, it occurs to me that, were the more proletarian queue for a museum to be bussed in, a Terror of some kind would undoubtedly ensue.

ll of this courses through my mind as we stumble through the semi-darkness of "Crime et châtiment". Ahead of me there's an object that seems to be the focus of considerable attention, the queue backing up and lumping into a throng. What's this? Why, it's Madame Guillotine herself, in all her steely finesse, her gaunt and wooden exactitude. But who sits below? Not cackling, stitching, purling tricoteuses, but a couple of plump security guards, walkie-talkies warbling on their hips. The crowd is cowed, sedated by the gloom and its own animal heat.

We move on - our time will come.

Next week: Real Meals

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 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals