Photography in Art Museums: A Teenage Perspective

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On a sunny morning in Paris this past spring, I went to the Louvre for the first time. I knew that there would be a long line to get in, but my Paris museum pass made the entry easier. Job done. I could now go see great works of art without any hassle, I thought. I had read of many horrifying anecdotes of the crowds at the Louvre, especially near the Mona Lisa. I had seen reports and images of people snapping away with their cameras to a point that would make any introvert sick at the prospect. But – somehow – I thought I had no cause to be anxious. After all, I would be able to see the Mona Lisa at some point. People, you know, can move, right? But I was wrong. Terribly wrong. Before I even got to the room where the famous Da Vinci painting is located, there were swarms of people rushing to the spot. Forgive me if I felt like it was a reenactment of the storming of the Bastille. It seemed like people were more interested in going to see – the Mona Lisa – and not in actually seeing it. When I got there, people were taking pictures of themselves and each other in front of the famous painting. But I thought, that’s just only the most recognizable painting or artwork in all of mankind, surely I could see the merely famous paintings by Jacques-Louis David in the adjacent room in some state of contemplation? Well, I got closer to them than the Mona Lisa…

The National Gallery in London has made what I think is a retrograde decision. It is allowing people to take photos. I will admit, I have taken photos before in an art museum. In fact, my last post had photos of me looking at artworks or photos I took of other people looking at art. I do this to look more professional, but now wonder if it’s necessary. Why take photos of people looking at artworks that only suggests a superficial realization that people, you know, look at artworks? So, me taking photos is not happening anymore.

However, as a young American Millennial, I wonder if the National Gallery’s “undertaking to provide a warmer welcome for visitors” is partially aimed at teenagers. I don’t know what people’s preconception of teenagers in museums is, but I can speak from my own personal experience that one of the many reasons I like going to art museums is for escapism. For me that means a chance to not have to be digitally connected, just admiring the beauty of works of art and hopefully in an environment that lends itself to quiet study of art. I know I have to look outward at paintings, but after doing that, the best experiences are those after looking inward. I know that when I went to the Tate Modern I was looking forward to seeing The Seagram Murals by Mark Rothko. I wasn’t disappointed. It showed to me that some trace of classicism is necessary in abstraction. But most important of all, the classical abstract grandness caught me emotionally. It was an experience I’m not going to forget. It’s ironic, though, that I saw some people taking photos of the murals. I thought modern art was a means of expression that was intended to counter the need for cameras. Why substitute a different medium to capture the experience of seeing an artwork? Why not trust your own visual memory? As the author of the blog Grumpy Art Historian observed when he was at the National Gallery recently, “people (were) using the camera as a prop so they had an activity to keep themselves busy in an unfamiliar environment.” Ultimately, I can’t fathom how people can think that taking photos of an artwork can make for the best experience. Clearly that’s what they think, for why take them at all if not?

However, I must say the Tate Modern did not make for the best art museum experience. That crown I would have to give to The Courtauld Gallery. It’s the most sane place that I have been to to view art. The collection is terrific. If there were people taking photos I did not notice them. At the very least, I was not distracted. And that brings me to my next point: the big museums like the National Gallery and the Louvre are often so crowded that the crowds alone are distracting; thus, such museums can be inferior experiences. As a self-proclaimed introvert, for me, a room full of people jostling for the right shot, loud tour guides and flashing streaks of light do not make for the best environment in which to view art. After a while, it just exhausts me. But what really concerns me is that people trying to get “the right shot” will soon become (if it hasn’t already) the accepted practice when going to an art museum. In an interview with Conan O’Brien, rock musician Jack White expressed his regret that people were taking photos or filming his concerts, thus preventing themselves from being “in the moment.” At the start of a tour, when he asked people to put their iPads and smartphones away, he was apparently “applauded” by his fans for taking the steps for a more enriching experience. (I recommend watching the first minute and thirty seconds of the video). It’s well known that movie theaters do not condone texting or phone calls. I can’t imagine it’s any different for the stage. And really, if someone is going to a sporting event why take photos when there are so many better photos being taken already? And the same applies to art museums. Why take photos of artworks when you could buy postcards, books or posters? Surely, if you’re going to show a reproduction to someone you would at least show them a high quality one. I wouldn’t want to show/give a friend a bad copy of a favorite film of mine when I have the BluRay. You wouldn’t be making a good case for the artwork. In fact, why wouldn’t a recommendation for the museum not be enough?

An art museum should not have to pander to people’s every wish. Just because it’s art and is possibly funded by the public does not mean that the expectations of seeing art should be lowered. Either way the gauntlet has been thrown down and I’m worried that a place of culture has become a place of lies. If people have a right to take photos in art museums, then don’t others also have a right to quiet study of art? How is it possible for both to coexist? Readers may think I fall into the archaic spectrum when it comes to this issue. Since I’m a teenager, that shouldn’t be happening, but maybe it is. Maybe I’m being – perish the thought – “elitist” about this. I already know having an opinion about art is often considered pretentious, but I gather that to think that people should try to have a certain, enriching experience from seeing art is even more so. Personally, I’ll keep going to museums that support photography, but the appreciation of the artworks might lessen.

Got to admit, these 1920's selfies are pretty cool!

Got to admit, these 1920’s selfies are cool! Still don’t think I want them taken in front of artworks, but who knows, maybe an exhibition of selfies from the swinging 20’s? That would be fascinating.

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4 thoughts on “Photography in Art Museums: A Teenage Perspective

  1. The tourists have always flowed past Art as the Pilgrims swarmed the cathedrals. I’m glad you are asking the interesting questions in a crowded world. When Tate Modern first opened, I went into the first room, turned the corner and stood before a Cezanne. I studied, made notes, and noticed I’d spent half an hour with one work. And thousands had passed glancing here and there. We ask to be thoughtful when the economy presses us to become commercial. Keep writing in your well produced blog. JON

  2. i think people are taking pics in museums now so they can post them to facebook/social media in order to show off that they’ve been to said museum, saw said artwork, and/or leave a virtual comment that they “like” a piece. its utterly pathetic that some people need to qualify their existence with this kind of photography, and its becoming second nature to just whip out your phone and click “i wuz heya.”

  3. Pingback: The Downfall of Art Museums | Retrograde Canvas

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