A good thing now is that art is not elite. Art is now only a click away. See it on the screen held in the palm of your hand or on a computer anywhere. Even museums, themselves, are going virtual. It's fantastic to have this kind of access to art worldwide. But no one believes that viewing a painting in a photo or online is the same as seeing the real thing. Do they?
Art Museums as Crowd-Pleasers: The Photo-Op Phenomenon
We're now just emerging from the lock-downs and closures during Covid. Most of us, including me, are thankful for our virtual connections during this confined time. But nothing can replace reality. As real venues open up for us, I look forward, among other things, to visiting actual art in real places. I'm adding to a column I wrote in 2015 because it's so very timely. It's about the art of looking. It's also a commentary on what now brings people to art museums.
Do people go to museums to see the world-famous art ? To get a personal take on the reality of the work they see? Maybe even to get a cultural-historical perspective? Not sure of the motivation, but it's a fact that crowds in museums reached all-time highs before the Covid pandemic. Museums welcomed crowds at a hefty admission price. Swarms of people thought it was worth it. That's a cultural breakthrough.
What does it mean? The triumph of art as a public attraction? That is impressive. But if we look at the actions of people in museums, what do we see? Over the past decade, I've seen an odd, but by now very familiar, thing happening in art museums. You've likely noticed it yourselves. There's a constant click, click, click of the camera as people spend all of 10 seconds in front of an artwork. That's right, according to records collected, the 10 seconds maximum includes the time needed to point and shoot. So, how much time is spent actually looking? I've seen lots of backward-looking, that is looking though the camera at the artwork in order to get a selfie with it.
The popular currency in today's museum visits may be that they offer such great photo ops! There's a frenzy to take a snapshot and continue onward for the next piece of inventory to tally in our camera roll. Driven by a consumerism of sorts, it seemed to me like looting a brand-name designer store for only the tiny name tags sewn in the clothing! Sometimes the crowds were so large in museums (when they were open) that you had to swarm your way through for a look. Otherwise, you just held your camera aloft and clicked!
Sometimes you took selfies or asked another in the clicking crowd to snap you alongside a famous painting, like having a celebrity shot of Mona and me. All this "photo-opping" may reflect a triumph for art in the public eye. But it's also unnerving, to me anyway, when the same people don't even look at the painting for any more time than it takes to click their camera. They leave the museum with a photo checklist of all they've spotted, a marathon race to the finish. And what's that amount to? Fun perhaps to have a bunch of Mona and me photos for social media or personal history. But what's been seen or experienced of all that art? That's the issue for me, one of the many art-lovers in the world. Having a snapshot has little or nothing to do with actually looking and seeing the Mona Lisa.
Are We Really Looking ?
Hey, I like taking photos of art in museums and elsewhere. There's nothing wrong with wanting photo mementos. Museums are for the public, the more the better, IMO. I'm also very much in favour of museums permitting photos (and lowering entrance fees). But this rush to click impedes the "looking and seeing" experience: the engaging and real-time experience that art offers.
Not looking is a missed opportunity. We miss that personal thing that happens when we look closely and see whatever comes. When we look ,we experience what an artwork can do. You may or may not like what it does. But you get to know, for yourself, what the work is about, what it means for you. That's what I think art is for: the human connection to something vital that lives between the artwork and each of us.
The personal experience of art thing requires some moments, like meeting a new person does. Sure, some people already come with a reputation, good or bad, and we're set up to see what we've been told. But with looking, our own impressions count. Some art on first impression will seem odd, ugly, gorgeous, boring, or dangerously exciting. Art always does something. We miss that if don't take the time to look.
What does the fast-snap routine make of the art experience? A snap-shop souvenir of having seen Mona Lisa is fine, like a recollection of someone you want to remember. But if all the time spent with Mona was for taking the snapshot, what have you got to remember? When snapping the shot substitutes for actually looking at the art, there is no such experience to recall. It takes at least a few minutes to take in art with one's own eyes and body, and maybe some moments more to experience some reaction to it. SLOW looking instead of fast-snapping.
Here's a curious thought: What if snapping photos actually gets people to avoid the act of looking? Are we even interested in seeing an artwork? Are we afraid? Intimidated? Maybe we won't get it. Maybe we'll react differently than we think we're supposed to ... as if there is a right reaction. Are we overburdened by a cultural need to "acquire" an artwork, if only in our own camera roll? We take possession of it, without even a first date encounter?
I suppose it's a sign of our times to be rushed, overwhelmed with information, advertisements, opinions, distractions. So much is available, so much junk along with the valuable. So much to consume, so much to need. So many time-saving devices, so little time. So vast the scope of information, so little the attention to spare. So great the pull of celebrity, of headlines, of the visual/sound bite that we can hardly extract an individual evaluation of what's worth our scattered attention. Perhaps then all we can do is run through the kaleidoscope, trying to snatch a bit here and there. Just as virtual conversation becomes texting notation with imo, omg and :) "virtual seeing" leads us to record instead of regard what we see.
What's the antidote to this treadmill? Perhaps it starts with re-valuing the SLOW versus fast-track. Slowing down, slow food, slow walks in the park. Our enforced slowing down during the time of pandemic restraints may have made a slow approach more amenable to many of us. I look forward to freedom from our restraints, to job sites and play sites and art sites opening up, and to a balance that lets more of what's important in our lives matter in how we spend our time.
Taking the time to look is part of the creative experience wherever it occurs, inside or outside museums, in natural or human contexts. To experience a work of art takes a moment or two, as it runs through a range of emotions, thoughts, and reactions, including "what the hell!" or "is this ugly?" This becomes part of the artwork's meaning. It's what counts. Art is a vital interaction, not just something hanging on a wall. It needs viewers who look at it, like it or not, or it's just not vital anymore. Artwork that's not seen (as may happen to much wonderful work artists create) loses that vital spark. Until one day someone comes along, LOOKS, and sees. When that happens, art comes alive. When that happens, there's always a renaissance in art. Viewers who look make it happen!