I went to the Caravaggio exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a rainy Tuesday morning, hoping to avoid the crowds that gather at big name art events these days. The streets were fairly empty, and I could feel the temperature drop along the line of fountains as I passed—a cozy moment before moving from nature into art. I remembered the dingy comfort of the museum when it was like a library or an old-fashioned bookstore—a perfect place for browsing and meditation—and I recalled my trip to London last January, where I spent a quiet day at the Royal Academy’s exhibit of Venetian art, one of the most beautifully presented shows that I have ever seen.

I canceled out these reveries when I saw the ticket line for “Caravaggio and His Contemporaries.” I was a veteran of several crowd-control experiences, including the last Van Gogh exhibit at the Met, and I could feel that slight edge of tension rise in me again to compete for space in order to see the present work. Unfortunately, I did not see the Caravaggios as much as I saw the entire event itself, which was as far from Caravaggio as I ever want to see again.

I say this because art was the last thing that I experienced at the show. I do not exaggerate when I say that the noise in the first room of Caravaggio’s contemporaries was at a low-level din by 11:30. There were two men next to me talking about their wrist ailments, several women on my left discussing what they would have for lunch, couples exchanging the high points of their trip to New York, babies crying, everyone talking as if they were, in fact, on the street or in their living rooms, the noise of a crowd that might have been just as happy with tickets to a hockey game or midtown movie. Self-restraint, civility, and a general sense of caring and decorum were hopelessly missing from that scene, like an art form or a way of life that once was common knowledge and has now become a secret.

I hate these “blockbuster” exhibitions and the corporate style of the new rooms at the Metropolitan, with their walls of glass and designer partitions, the bookshops selling stationery and vases and bracelets, the mounds of catalogs waiting to be sold in volume sales. I hate the overdone floral arrangements on the main floor and the guards who ask to see my admissions button every time I pass from one entrance to another; and I still remember the ticket attendant who said, “Enjoy the show” at the Van Gogh exhibition, as if I were going to a movie. The crowning touch to this unfeeling scene is the modern managing and marketing of art in today’s “heady art market,” as a recent New York Times article described the current trade. It is the type of scene in which critics exaggerate “world class” names and trivialize them at the same time; where Frank Stella can talk about a European master as if Caravaggio somehow led to him; where the great moment of the Renaissance passing into the Baroque is reduced to a question of “space,” as if art were the same as interior decorating.

We seem to flee from history and subject matter, from everything that once was understood as spiritual authenticity in art: the necessary connection between feelings and ideas. Yet that is where we are today, or better still, who we are today, not only with a Caravaggio or a Van Gogh, but with a Mozart, whom we regard as he was portrayed in Amadeus, as a babbling idiot, a narcissistic child surrounded by a world of less-gifted idiots and craven jealousies, anything but the intelligent master of a discipline that he was, moving in an equally intelligent world of musical culture. For we seem to feel so bad about ourselves, so empty and devoid of values that we need to tear down all that we can no longer respect in simple modesty and to which we no longer have any pretense of aspiration.