Life through a screen | how should we be looking at art?

It struck me when I was rambling through the halls of the National Gallery on Friday night (which – I should point out – is the ideal time to visit because you only have a few stray tourists to jostle with for a view of van Gogh’s sunflowers) how much we filter our viewing experience of art. I’m sure it won’t come as a surprise to hear that most of the visitors had a camera phone between them and their masterpiece of choice.

Most galleries have argued, debated and cursed the subject of smart phones through the years as the latest iPhone has become a status symbol and integral part of our social lives. The arguments for and against photography in galleries wavers between a puritanical tirade about the sanctity of art and a resigned submission to the stampede of contemporary life. In the case of the National Gallery in London, the institution bowed to popular opinion and gave way to photography in 2014 when it was decided that the gallery could no longer hold back the tide of tourists desperate to get a snap of Vincent’s blooms.


Of course it’s a double edged sword. The museum wants you to engage with the art (in the right way of course), but it also wants to get its visitor numbers up and generate some social media buzz. You just can’t have it all. Of course what is undeniably dangerous is the damage photography physically does to art. Each lightening bolt of a flash bulb is a conservation nightmare (though how much of a nightmare is disputable). It also makes the number of snap-happy visitors glaringly obvious as flashes bounce off protective glass. There are even some literal examples when smartphones have threatened art – like the selfie-hunter who managed to destroy $200,000 worth of art last year when she toppled over an array of plinths, mid pose, at the 14th Factory in Los Angeles.

It’s true enough that an emotional connection to a piece of art is hard to find when there is a screen in front of your eyes – the windows onto our soul. But then the camera and its role in visual culture is not that simple. If the smartphone has become an extension of our bodies and the way we view the world, then it has a corporeal and an emotional part to play in our relationship with that voluptuous Bernini sculpture or those Monet waterlilies.

Susan Sontag in her seminal treatise ‘On Photography’ lamented the camera’s violent ability to steal an image. That seems even truer today when we think about the power of social media and the internet to make an image last forever. I would suggest – a little theft never hurt anyone. Taking that snap and sharing it with your mum keeps an artwork alive and forces it back into the public conversation, making art not just for the few, but the many.


For that reason, I didn’t find it half as annoying as I thought seeing all those tourists clamouring for the perfect photo. In fact, it made me feel faintly relieved that the National Gallery still has a faithful audience that think it’s still relevant enough to document every second of their experience.

Will they look at those images again? Unlikely. Have they changed the way they would have seen the art without a smartphone? Almost certainly. But the point is we are not aristocrats wandering the halls of the Paris Salon, tittering about that disgraceful painting with naked ladies in the forest. We are a global community hellbent on sharing social experience. And what better way to do just that and spark a little debate than by sharing?

Of course I’m not saying that everyone should have a camera up to their faces at all times in a museum. That would be exhausting. And I don’t think your followers would appreciate it. But perhaps we should consider what we value in our relationship with art as a social, political and philosophical tool before we go raging about the evils of smartphones.

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