How to look at Art?

I was sneered at on Twitter yesterday for sneering at people taking pictures of the Impressionist paintings on display at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.


Fair enough perhaps. I had adopted an exaggerated version of the pontifical tone that comes so readily when composing tweets and not everyone saw the funny side. But behind my mock outrage was a genuine note of annoyance.

I don’t have a strong objection to people taking pictures. Indeed I took a few myself. But it was odd to observe those who only took pictures. Those who paused in front of a work with their smartphone or tablet or – more rarely – an actual camera just long enough (quite a while in some cases) to focus and compose the shot before moving on.

Thankfully these were a minority. But then there is the crowd that does not know how to turn off the flash on their phone, or the red light that some cameras use to aid focusing or the fake shutter noises that digital devices insist on retaining as a default setting. As a result, even if you can mentally block out the phones constantly being thrust into you peripheral field of vision, the viewing experience is degraded by random illumination and manufactured mechanical noise. It is a marked change from a couple of years ago.

The people vs art

Our guide book had advised us that photography was strictly forbidden at the Musée D’Orsay in order to prevent bottlenecks forming in what is clearly a popular attraction – we had queued for 40 minutes to get in. This seemed like a sensible restriction, one that serves a greater good.

But clearly the museum has abandoned this policy, ceding defeat to the inexorable rise of digital technology. This technology is undoubtedly a boon in many other areas of life but I wish the museum managers had found a better accommodation, perhaps allowing photography during a happy-snappy hour each day. Because much as I enjoyed my visit yesterday, the abiding memory is one of digital interference.


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1 Response to How to look at Art?

  1. Matthew Cobb says:

    As one of the people who (mildly) ticked you off on twitter, I’d like to offer a defence of the photo-taker. I was recently at the Met in NYC, on my own. Through their free wifi, I was able to take photos of paintings I particularly liked and share them either on Twitter (posing difficult “name those painters” quizzes – much as you did with a detail from Monet’s Rouen cathedral) or in a family chat on Skype. This latter in particular meant that I could share images and discuss them even at a distance of 3,500 miles. And they are a permanent trace of my visit and what I thought was good – even better than a postcard! There were a lot of ppl snapping away, but I didn’t find it a problem.

    As to the point of our perpetual snapping, we seem to think it helps fix the experience. An obvious and widespread response is that we in fact distance ourselves from the event (be it art, or a social or sporting event), but I doubt there’s any evidence of this, beyond unease…

    Finally, as we all know, the real problem in galleries comes at that point where we are museumed out and stroll pruposefully towards the gift shop, blithely ignoring fantastic works of art because we are too knackered, whether we have been taking photos or not.

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