Viewing art exhibitions through the lens of our cell phones might make them more Instagrammable, but it could be diluting our experience.
As I walk through the three floors exhibiting “Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel” at the New Museum, I find myself photographing her early collage work, laden with tabloid cutouts, with my iPhone. As someone who works in a gallery, I feel a pressure to keep up with Instagram, my social resume, by presenting myself as someone who regularly visits the institutional axes of the art world. In part, I do it to remember the images I may want to go back and revisit. However, I also have the intention of posting these images on an Instagram Story as a kind of digital dressing-up, as if to say this is my style.
I watch other visitors taking pictures as they often do of the objects on display. I think about the various museums I’ve visited, observing people walk swiftly through the exhibition space with their phones pointed at every artwork. It puzzles me to see museumgoers pay for their entrance, make the trip to the museum only to look at the object through the screen of their phone. If all they want is an image of the work, why not mine it off of Google Images? A big reason is, of course, the selfie phenomenon. Many people are looking to be seen with the work, rather than to simply see it.
Living in a world where our interactions with each other and the natural world are diluted by the digital experience, it no longer feels unorthodox to use cell phones in spaces meant for viewing art. It can feel as ordinary for people to take a picture of an artwork as it does to text a friend rather than call them. We have become so accustomed to “seeing” things online that the act of viewing through the screen of a phone may feel as natural as simply looking.
It seems that many people would rather show that they saw art rather than actually enjoy seeing it for the sake of it. Art has been a means of social mobility ever since the 16th century. Famous museums, galleries, and their art world darlings—such as the MoMa in New York, the Pace and Gagosian galleries, and artists like Jeff Koons—have become brands in the global contemporary art world. Associating oneself with these brands, similar to wearing clothes from well-known designers, has become a way of defining social status. Posting images on social media of the art one has visited can be a way of associating oneself with the cultural brand, as if to say “I’ve made the cultural pilgrimage to this site, therefore I am cultured.”
I’ve noticed in galleries, people tend to look at the art more before engaging with their phones. Galleries, having no entrance fees and a smaller, less overwhelming collection, are easier to peruse. They are also often clustered together in art districts, thus visitors stumble in from one to the other. Gallery visitors are not after the high-profile items that the museums become famous for, except for certain highly publicized shows, such as the psychedelic environments of Yayoi Kusama—an Instagramer’s dream—that people wait hours in line to see.
Many museums and galleries welcome (and, in fact, encourage) the use of phones. They can serve as a vehicle through which to further engage with art while also providing additional online exposure for the gallery or museum. There is nothing wrong per se with photographing works on display. The problem occurs when it becomes another form of insatiable consumption, a way to “have” this experience or this artwork without actually experiencing it. It is difficult for anyone to contemplate an artwork, to really grasp it and benefit from and enjoy the type of meditation required when they move so quickly past it. According to a New York Times article by Stephanie Rosenbloom, people spend only about 15 to 30 seconds in front of an artwork in museums. If they could dedicate at least a few minutes to a few works that really resonate, the museum will become a restorative environment, a place contemplation rather than a commodified space full of objects to consume.
There is a word in the Spanish language, duende, that means a heightened state of emotion created by a moving piece of art. If a visitor’s intention in visiting a museum is merely to photograph the artwork to take as a digital souvenir, they hamper their capacity to really feel something. On a more existential level, photographing artwork can also be an attempt at memorializing its beauty and our experience with it. Whatever the reason may be, it’s important to first look, think, and engage with the artwork. Joining a tour of the museum can be a great way for visitors to hop off the superficial fast train. They can be fascinating with the right tour guide. I personally enjoy the guide headphones. They allow me to choose what I want to hear about, to curate my own experience. First, I listen and contextualize the work. Then, I look. And sometimes, I’ll snap a quick picture too.