I do not believe it to be an exaggeration to state that the invention of the high quality cameraphone has entirely changed the way in which the majority of us interact with art.
It is a common sight in any gallery. A phalanx of smart phones, supported by those ubiquitous selfie sticks, surround an institution’s most iconic works as people jostle to take yet another photograph of an endlessly reproduced artwork. Masterpieces by lesser known artists are ignored; Picasso’s favoured over the work of other luminaries like Arshile Gorky. This will be a familiar sight to all as it takes place in every gallery of every art form or period in every country. While it is tempting to attack those with such priorities it is worth considering the shift in approaches towards art.
This trend occurred to me most strongly when in the Louvre this summer. My friends and I stopped in front of a portrait. A Spanish guy passed by, noticing us looking at a work that had previously received no attention. He stopped and asked us ‘is this famous?’ After we replied in the affirmative he took a photograph of himself grinning in front of it and asked us to point him in the direction of the Mona Lisa. We did so.
His objective in being in the gallery was to find the most famous pictures and take photographs of himself in front of them. Within this approach was no effort to find any particular merit within the artwork, to understand it within its context or even appreciate its craftsmanship. To him its merit lay within its recognisability. This new approach is not necessarily a bad thing, but if it comes at the cost of appreciation then we must surely question it’s arrival.
Artworks have become the new landmarks. To get a photo of oneself in front of the Mona Lisa is equivalent to getting one of a friend holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Artworks have become images. Their fame usually derives from the depth of composition and the skill of their execution while, conversely, these have gained the work sufficient notoriety for these features to be largely ignored. Sometimes it is considered enough to simply have seen the work, rather than sought to have engaged with it. In this context it is wholly unsurprising that the Louvre estimates that the average span of time spent by a viewer looking at the Mona Lisa is fifteen seconds. Do we now attend art galleries to see rather than to look at artworks? This is of course a difficult distinction to make and it must be noted approvingly that art galleries have largely shaken the elitist sensibilities that previously surrounded them.
The National Gallery’s decision to allow camera phones to be used, for the first time, is surely indicative of the democratisation of these spaces. However, such progress must come at a price. And the price, it seems, is the decline of engagement with a work. Attempts to educate the viewer as to what they are seeing are valiant, and appreciated, but it seems that galleries are moving towards more of a Madame Tussauds model: a space full of recognisable and famous images.
Is it right to even attempt to reverse this trend? The viewing experience of a person wholly ignorant of every aspect of Raphael’s career, as opposed to one who has written a thesis about it, is by no means inferior. Their right to gain access to this work is by no means lesser.
But while it would be wrong to attempt to make such spaces more restrictive there might be some merit in restrictions upon people’s right to take photos. After all, galleries put a significant amount of time and thought into the overall viewing experience that their institutions offer. Should this consideration not be similarly extended to the annoyance of iPhones stuck in your sightline, obscuring the artworks?
If the primary desire is to see these works, then a ban would be no bad thing. It might encourage many to look critically instead. A decision must be made by curators as to whether they are running a tourist attraction or somewhere which attracts and engages tourists. The democratisation of the gallery should not come at the expense of its contents.
Besides, I’ve seen enough blurry photos of the Mona Lisa from friends who have visited the Louvre. And if I see one more kid on a school trip covering up the lower part of a nude with his jumper, while his friends laugh, then I’ll hit someone. Similarly, there are few things more annoying than some dick moaning about how his History of Art degree entitles him to view art in isolation.
It’s a hard middle ground to tread but both are a frustrating sight. Banning cameras would not be a regressive move, but would rather encourage engagement.