Once upon a time there was a custodian who worked at a popular museum. He regarded with contempt the mindless tourists and pretentious art aficionados who sullied his shiny floors as they walked back and forth, ogling the overrated works of art on display.
How he longed to hijack a tour and teach them to look at the art from his perspective. He’d force the group to pause in front of each piece and then articulate why it was worthy of the wall upon which it hung. When they couldn’t do it, he would tell them that beauty isn’t so much in the eye of the beholder as it is a function of marketing and propaganda. This is what twenty years of cleaning the museum had taught him.
When he first came to work at the museum, he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the masterpieces around him. He considered it a privilege to keep the viewing environment in a pristine condition for the visitors who made his job necessary.
During the night, when he did most of his work, the custodian had the luxury of moving slowly from one piece to the next. He learned the names of the artists and a bit of the history behind each painting. In the wee hours of morning, he would pick a painting and sit in front of it, often falling into a trance-like state.
Of each work, he would ask, “What makes this one so special?” He eventually concluded that most of the pieces, in and of themselves, were not special. It was only the reputation of the artist that gave each painting its significance. Once he allowed himself this one critical insight, he became aware of the facade constructed by modern art critics and those who charged people money to see “masterpieces” enclosed in glass.
His greatest temptation was to smuggle in a cheap painting from a street artist, who sold his work in a nearby park, and stick it in a corner and see how long it would take for someone to notice it didn’t belong.
One morning the custodian was sitting on a bench in front of the latest monstrosity to be trotted into the museum by the curator. He was eating a snack while gazing at the painting. He had seen better work for sale at local art shows.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” asked the curator from behind the bench.
“Not bad,” replied the custodian. “I’ve seen better.”
“Oh you say that about all the new pieces we bring in,” snapped the curator. “Are you ever impressed by art?”
“I am,” the custodian said. “There are a few notable pieces here, but if you want my honest opinion, I think most of these paintings are overrated.”
“Overrated. I’m sure!” the curator smirked.
The custodian said, “Listen, I’ve looked at these paintings more than anyone else, besides you, although I wonder if you ever stop long enough to really look at anything hanging in your museum. Most of them are incomprehensible. When people come in and gush about how wonderful they are, they’re simply doing what they have been told to do. Who pays good money to come into a museum and be disappointed? No, they have paid to see beauty. They’ve been told by the experts to expect greatness. That’s what they want to see. So that is what they see. I, on the other hand, am able to see these works for what they are, because I have no emotional or financial investment in needing them to be beautiful. So I say they’re not so great.”
“You’re right, of course,” the curator said. “I spend hours studying these pieces weeks before you ever see them. Do you know why I spend so little time looking at them once they’re on display?”
“Because your busy?” the custodian guessed.
“No,” the curator said. “Because I’m sick of looking at them. Make no mistake, I see these paintings for what they are.”
“And what are they?” asked the custodian.
“For you they’re a distraction,” the curator said. “Something to look at while you eat an apple. For me, they are a job, a living, a career. Someday they’ll be my retirement.”
“You planning on stealing one?” asked the custodian.
The curator laughed, “No, but I am well compensated to keep this collection fresh. The more people who walkthrough these doors, the more appreciative the Board is of my efforts. I see what you see, but I can’t afford to dwell on it. I note the absurdity and then immediately forget it. I move on with my work.”
“So you don’t think these paintings are beautiful?” asked the custodian, double-checking the curator’s meaning.
“I think they are the most beautiful, awe-inspiring paintings in the world,” gushed the curator. “And as long as I am paid to market this beauty to the masses, how can I ever believe otherwise?”
The janitor smiled and nodded.
“Enjoy your sandwich, but please don’t leave a mess,” the curator said. “Our custodian has been a bit distracted as of late. I’m afraid he’s spending too much time analyzing the artwork instead of scrubbing the floors. Good day.”
“Good day,” said the janitor, not sure if his job had just been threatened.