This is the longest response to one of my posts I have ever received, so kkkkai definitely deserves a trophy or something. And I’m not surprised, because whatever I say usually receives some kind of pissed off reply. What can I say? This blog is controversial. Haha!
Even though Kai admits to seeing a similar phenomenon at the Smithsonian, she/he dismisses my argument. I am not dismissing her/his experiences of taking photos at museums as invalid or pointless or even wrong. And I am certainly not suggesting what she/he can and cannot do. I am just saying the overuse of photography in today’s society is becoming distracting (especially in the museum experience) and takes away from life’s special one-of-a-kind moments. It’s my opinion and I’m allowed to voice it, just like Kai. As a hobbyist photographer, I understand the need to take pictures, and many of you shared with me how you use such pictures as reference for art, an exhibit idea, etc. but I think that’s the exception, and not the rule. Ktilda brought up a great example of people waiting in a long line at the zoo and as they reached the viewing window they all pulled out their smartphones. Before photography, did no one experience beautiful things, like looking at wild animals or ancient statues or a lush landscape? Of course people did. They just don’t have the proof. I am only expressing a fear I have of mobile devices displacing our own eyes and memories. People are too busy capturing a moment to be instagrammed or facebooked instead of actually engaging in that moment. Kai is very passionate about her/his experiences with art, and shared many examples of that, so of course she/he appreciates it. I am not denying or dismissing it. Or anybody else’s experiences. I know we all connect with art in different ways. But I don’t think she/he can argue that the majority of people looking at art through their phones are not experiencing it the same way she/he does. I have studied museum visitors for years and years, (first at graduate school, later at my various museum jobs) and many of those camera happy people aren’t even stopping to look at that art with their own eyes. They just go from piece to piece without ever putting their camera/phone/tablet down. And that’s not to say every piece of art needs to be carefully studied for minutes on end. But only seeing it through one’s viewminder is concerning. But I wonder if art’s purpose has now changed (and yes, art is always changing) in that it’s not something to actively engage in or even admire with one’s own eyes. Like Kai said, memories are not to be recalled from inside one’s own head but to be relived only when pulling up phone pics or unloading memory cards.
I can’t say I didn’t notice something similar when I was at the Smithsonian American Art Museum last month, but I think it would be false to say that people using cameras and cell phones should have just stayed home because they aren’t “experiencing” the museum “properly.” That’s like saying that tourists aren’t properly experiencing a city or country if all they’re doing is taking photos, so they should have just stayed home and looked at it on Google Maps.
When I was at the SI museums, I took probably hundreds of photos, I spent a whole morning at the AAM wandering back and forth through the galleries, taking photos for pieces that spoke to me, of art that I didn’t know existed and that I never thought I’d see in person. I took pictures of paintings that are favored by my mom, my best friend, my cousin. I took pictures of things that I thought were interesting, of paintings of people who looked like people I know, of furniture that I thought my sister would love to know existed.
When I lived in the SF Bay Area, I would go to the Legion of Honor something like four times a year. Always with a similar group of friends, and we all had the rooms, the galleries, that we could just stand in for hours. And every time we went, I would take photos on my phone. I’ve got about ten photos of Georges-Pierre Seurat’s The Eiffel Tour,1889, one of my favorite paintings. Could I get better quality online? Definitely, since my hands are about as steady as my elderly grandmother’s. But does taking these photos, or even having been to the museum before make that particular experience pointless? I don’t think so.
I may be a special case, an art person, a museum person, a history buff, and I might hold a different appreciation for or understanding of what I’m seeing. The fact that Mark Rothko’s No. 14 brings me to tears is likely just a personal issue, not a common experience. But who are you or I to say that other people, museum goers, tourists, are not appreciating what they are seeing, simply because they are seeing it through a camera lens? I have taken some of my best photographs when I am just trying to capture as much as possible so I don’t forget what I saw. I’ve taken amazing photos when I was so overwhelmed by everything going on around me it was all I could do to “pause” the experience to process and relive later.
My biggest pet peeve is when someone tells me the way I’m doing something, the way I’m using something, the way I am living and being, is wrong. That the way I play a game, or use a camera, or feel a thing, is incorrect because its not the way they do it. Who are you to say? By all means, enjoy things the way you want to enjoy things, but don’t tell me that my experiences lack meaning because I didn’t sit in front of a Picasso for ten minutes contemplating the meaning of beauty. Don’t tell me that I could not really have enjoyed the five minutes I had at the Piazza di Spagna just because I spent most of it trying to take as many photos as possible, rather than climbing the steps or sitting next to the Fontana della Barcaccia.
You are a special snowflake, as am I, as is every person, in that we all process experiences and enjoy things in a different way. Personally, I often get overloaded and distracted when I’m in a place with a lot of people or things to see. To enjoy a museum the way you say is “right” would take me at least two full days, if its a museum the size of SI’s AAM. SFMOMA would take three, probably, and the De Young would take four. I don’t tend to have that time, I’ve got a few hours, maybe a morning. Taking photos allows me to hold onto that experience, to relive it when I pull pictures off my phone, to unload my memory cards and take a trip down memory lane when I have time.
I understand how frustrating it is to have to jockey for a position to look at a painting when everyone else is trying to frame it in their viewfinders, I know that is tough when you want to experience the art in person, to relate to it and feel it. But art is for everyone. Let me say that one more time, so it sinks in. Art is for everyone. Art is not just for you, not just for an elite group of people who ‘enjoy’ it the ‘right’ way. Art is for the girl taking selfies in front of them because she likes the way the patterns look in the background, the guy with his parents who has to take photos ‘cause his mom doesn’t know how to work the camera, the tourists who don’t speak English and are talking too loud because of the audio tours they’re using, the kids on the field trip who can’t wait until lunch and keep daring each other to touch things, the old guy with the DSLR he has on auto who just wants pictures so he can brag about his trip to his neighbors back home. Art is for everyone.
The biggest thing I learned from my art history classes is that our understanding of art changes. High art, low art, folk art, street art, it is never the same for every generation, and the appreciation of art changes as well. Where I may see Waterhouse as the height of beauty, another person finds Duchamp to be more clever than Da Vinci. The thing that remains unchanged is the art, what is really altered is the vocabulary we use towards it. Museums, as you say, can be a sacred space for people, but just like a church or a temple or a cemetery, the way you experience religion and grace may not be the way I experience it. Art goes through cycles of separation, where it is seen as unattainable except to the upper classes and then it is brought down to be experienced by all people. In the current economy, art has become unattainable again, many people don’t have time or disposable income to go to museums, even ones like the SI that are free. When they do go, they want to document it, many because they may not have the chance to see it again.
I am glad for you, that you have the opportunity to see art in museums, to see it in context and at scale and with all the care and attention given to it as is its due. So I ask, now, though I probably won’t get a response and I do tend to ramble on, don’t shit on that experience for the rest of us. Don’t tell me that I don’t really appreciate art because I use my phone in a museum, don’t tell me that seeing something online is the same as seeing it in person, regardless of how I use my viewfinder.
Don’t tell me that my experience isn’t valid because I photographed it.