The 3 Degrees of Art Separation

I recently visited an exhibition of Monet replicas. One piece I particularly enjoyed was La Gare Saint-Lazare. The first in a series of twelve paintings, it shows the interior of an open train station in the late 19th century. The shapes of trains, tracks, people, and smoke blur together, making for a sort-of-graspable but also mysterious view. It’s magnificent.

In learning a bit more about the painting, I discovered that the original hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. A few days later, an acquaintance sent a picture of a random painting into a group chat I’m part of. Someone else asked where he was, and the reply promptly came: “Musée d’Orsay.” I told him not to miss La Gare Saint-Lazare, and naturally, within a few minutes, I was looking at a photograph of the original painting, hanging on a grey wall in a beautiful, golden frame.

“Unbelievable,” I thought. The picture of the painting was cool, of course, but what really struck me was the coincidence — or was it? Maybe you’ve heard of the concept of “six degrees of separation,” which states that any two people in the world can be connected via a chain of six relations. “If it only takes six links to connect any two out of billions of people, what about connecting any given person to a famous piece of art?” I wondered. It’s only a guess, of course, but personally, I think I could “reach” any masterpiece within three sequential connections.

Most major works of art are in museums in big cities. If you wanted a picture of La Sagrada Familia, well, do you know someone in Spain? Or someone who knows someone in France? Chances are, they know someone — who in turn might know someone — who’s been there. And probably not that long ago. If you can reach any country within two to three connections, chances are, you can reach any world-famous piece of art — and that’s kind of amazing!

Of course, whether it’s three degrees, or two, or four, ultimately doesn’t matter. What matters is that while, yes, you can pull up any of humanity’s most stunning creations on your screen at any moment, you’re also only a few friendships away from someone who’s actually stared at the real thing. That is its own kind of magic, and perhaps an even more special brand of it than our personal all-connectedness to everything.

Make room for art in all its forms — and that includes allowing it the potential to only touch you from afar. Remember the three degrees of art separation. The next inspiring masterpiece is always a little closer than you think.