Art galleries: An opportunity for self-reflection or selfies?

I took this photo of Emma (2002) at the 2014-2015 Chuck Close: Prints, Process and Collaboration exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). At first glance, you would think Emma is mosaic-like painting that uses geometric shapes and varied tones to render the beautifully beaming face of a baby. However, from just looking at this photo, you probably wouldn’t know that Emma is a remarkable Japanese style woodcut print that was created from 27 individual blocks, 113 colours and 132 pressings per print. In the art-world, photographs do not do justice.

The issue of photographing works in art galleries and museums is highly contentious and subject to Banksy portrait with writing 'Exit through the gift shop'the different perspectives of contending stakeholders. For art institutions, restrictive photography policies fundamentally reflect their business agenda (Palmer 2014). Allowing visitors to take their own photos depletes the revenue streams of the highly strategic post-viewing gift shop experience – the exorbitant prints, scarves, books, stationery and other obscure albeit desirable pieces designed for a place on our coffee tables. This business strategy is made clear on the website of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA):

Still photography for personal use is allowed in the permanent galleries only. No flashes or tripods, please. No videos or photographs may be reproduced, distributed, sold or displayed on personal websites without our permission. There are some postcards and other delightful paraphernalia in the shop.

Photography regulations are also enforced by art galleries for conservation purposes as flash photography is feared to cause physical damage to fragile works (Evans 2013). Some museums also have a responsibility to protect intellectual property agreements with donors and lenders (Palmer 2014).

Yet from an audience’s perspective, photo-taking allows visitors to memorialise museum experiences (Simon 2009). This is true of my photo of Emma which is immortalised on my phone as a pleasurable reminder of my astonishment learning about Chuck’s innovative artistic practice.

Young woman taking a selfie in front of a statue

Some people also argue that creating a personal record of an experience can encourage further engagement and learning. For example, an individual’s analysis of Instagram photos of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery revealed that people are actually looking at art and picking out unusual details, not just being snap-happy (Korey 2014). The author concludes that Instagram photos can amount to a modern form of social commentary (Korey 2014). Despite being rather interesting, I am critical of this approach given its selection bias. I am also not convinced that some of the photos shown are truly indicative of meaningful social commentary.

At the same time, perhaps I am mistaken to assume that art gallery selfies do not hold any value. In 2008, a team led by former MIT researcher Henry Jenkins published a white paper entitled “If it Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead” arguing that media artefacts have the greatest impact when consumers are able to pass on, reuse, adapt and remix them (Simon 2010, p.172). Does this mean all the Mona Lisa memes and The Scream appropriations circulating the Internet could actually be contributing to the value of these masterpieces? Many art galleries are now encouraging visitors to use photographs to interact on social media (Furness 2014). This not only helps exhibitors expand their reach, but also supports visitors’ “process of meaning making” (Simon 2010, p.173).

Despite the potential benefits of social media photo sharing, many people are still critical of the use of cameras in the gallery space. In a powerfully compelling article, English art critic Jonathan Jones (2009) reflects on how the Louvre’s open photography policy has “killed” the Mona Lisa:

…at least people should be prevented from ruining others’ pleasure with this incessant electric lightshow. The museum seems to have given up enforcing its own rules. It lets the bullying snappers do their worst.

Crowds taking photos around the Mona Lisa

Most museums and art galleries around the world have succumb to public pressure and abandoned efforts to enforce policies on photography that have become increasingly hard to police (Crompton 2014). This is summed up by Carolyn Murphy, head of conservation at the Art Gallery of NSW:

People do those things so quickly, the guard might just be turning the other direction and it’s done.

By allowing photography, art galleries and museums have turned into tourist traps instead of places of reflection and calm contemplation. For centuries, art has been a way of making us slow down and take a moment to stop, think and examine something in detail. After all, do you think Cameron could have had his moment standing quietly, pensively, privately in front of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte if he were amid jostling camera-snapping crowds? Art is serious. It is not light entertainment.

On the website of the Vatican Museums in Vatican City, Italy, the second oldest museum in the world and home to the world-famous Sistine Chapel, an important warning is emphasised in bold type font: “the use of telescopic “selfie sticks” is forbidden”. Indeed, protecting these sanctuaries has now become more important than ever before.

Check out a collaborative research project I undertook on this subject here:

https://social.shorthand.com/GivernyW/j2kwuMIXTf/from-mona-to-mona

Reference List:

Crompton, S 2014, ‘Why you shouldn’t take photos in galleries’, Telegraph, 13 August, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/11030975/Why-you-shouldnt-take-photos-in-galleries.html>.

Evans, MH 2013, ‘Amateur Photographers in Art Galleries: Assessing the harm done by flash photography’, University of Cambridge, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://people.ds.cam.ac.uk/mhe1000/musphoto/flashphoto2.htm>.

Furness, H 2014, ‘National Gallery relents over mobile phones’, Telegraph, 12 August, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/11028015/National-Gallery-relents-over-mobile-phones.html>.

Jones, J 2009, ‘These tourist snappers are killing the Mona Lisa’, Guardian, 9 March, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2009/mar/09/mona-lisa-tourist-snappers-louvre>.

Korey, A 2014, ‘What people are photographing in the Uffizi’, ArtTrav, weblog post, 6 October, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://www.arttrav.com/florence/uffizi-photos/>.

Palmer, B 2014, ‘To snap or not to snap?’, Musedia, weblog post, 11 November, accessed 27 September 2015, <https://sites.tufts.edu/musedia/2014/11/>.

Simon, N 2009, ‘Museum Photo Policies Should Be as Open as Possible’, Museum 2.0, weblog post, 20 August, accessed 27 September 2015, <http://museumtwo.blogspot.com.au/2009/08/museum-photo-policies-should-be-as-open.html>.

Simon, N 2010, The Participatory Museum, Museum 2.0, Santa Cruz, California.

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7 thoughts on “Art galleries: An opportunity for self-reflection or selfies?

  1. “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” People seem to apply this idea to themselves. This was an interesting reflection. I learned something new, thanks to your explanation of the woodblock print process and I hope that one day I can try one myself. Best wishes for further explorations of fine art. x

    • Thank you for your comment. Social media has certainly led to the rise of the ‘Attention Economy’ (I actually wrote a blog post about this phenomenon here: https://givernywitheridge.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/desperately-eeking-followers-the-rise-of-the-attention-economy/).

      If you ever get the opportunity to visit a Chuck Close exhibition it will certainly be worth your while. I was amazed at the range and breadth of techniques he employed including etching, aquatint, lithography, handmade paper, direct gravure, silkscreen, traditional Japanese woodcut and reduction linoleum block prints. ‘Emma’ may in fact be the largest Japanese style woodblock ever made. Close’s commitment to his artistic process was certainly evident in his prints, with some works taking up to two years to complete. It was truly incredible and I loved being able to see the progressive step-by-step evolution of his printed works rather than just the final print.

  2. Dear Giverny
    Thank you for citing my article. It is true, as I mention in my post, that it is a selective and non-scientific analysis, but it’s something I’ve been working on for years and continue to do so, and I still back up my conclusions on the matter.
    I’m not sure I agree with your conclusion that “Art is serious. It is not light entertainment.” Some years ago, in graduate school, I would have said this. But after a decade of working in museum communications as well as social media and blogging for the arts, I’ve realized that we need to evolve, the way we interact with art needs to evolve, and that art shouldn’t be taken nearly as seriously as the 19th century thought it should.
    If you don’t believe me, take it from the director of the Tate: https://www.facebook.com/tategallery/videos/10153696347818993/?pnref=story

    Alexandra

    • Hi Alexandra,

      I appreciate your thought-provoking comments. I really enjoyed reading your article and I found it intriguing how you have used Instagram photos of the Uffizi to understand the personal connection gallery visitors have with artworks. I agree that, for some, taking photos is very much a “I was here” moment on a once in a life-time trip. Yet does the use of social media to showcase this ‘life accomplishment’ affect the way people engage and appreciate works of art? As one blogger writes, (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/q/schedule-for-oct-23-2014-1.2926036/do-gallery-selfies-ruin-the-experience-of-museums-1.2926041) it is no longer “‘Hey look at this Rembrandt” but “Hey look at me with this Rembrandt”.

      Instagram studies are a fascinating new area. I find it interesting that Instagram is used as a marketing insight tool by businesses everyday, and yet its potential value for conducting academic research still seems undiscovered. I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts, given you have completed a PhD, on whether you think Instagram can be used as a research tool to conduct an academic study in this area.

      I agree with your comment that art itself is changing, and the video you linked to clearly demonstrates this idea. Audiences nowadays expect to be actively involved in exhibits, to learn informally and to be entertained simultaneously, meaning galleries can no longer exist solely as warehouses for artefacts. In saying this, it is crucial that art institutions recognise that not all people are suited to this way of viewing art, with some people more interested in the meaning or value of works rather than their interactivity. Audiences are the arbiters of art and society needs to cater for the diversity of people’s motivations and interests to view art. Perhaps one way this can be achieved is through developing a “photo-free” hour for those really interested in the art itself.

      Thank you very much for your insight Alexandra.

      Giverny

  3. I’ve been reflecting on the common sight in art galleries of art students sketching famous paintings. My assumption always was that they were sketching to learn, as artists, from the composition of the work. When i’ve taken photographs in galleries it’s been for three reasons, all connected to my own learning and reflection. I photograph the text that accompanies things because I want to remember it; and I photograph details of things that I want to go on thinking about. Thirdly I’m interested in the social space in front of famous works of art in particular. But I always feel very self-conscious when I do it, as if it’s the wrong thing to do.

    • Hi Kate,

      Thank you for your comment 🙂

      I think that for some people, taking photos in art galleries is very similar to the practice of art students sketching. Just as art students sketch to learn and reflect on artistic techniques, photo-taking allows visitors to make meaning from museum experiences later on. With photography, however, the concern is that people are taking photos, not for purposes of learning and reflection, but just to “Insta-brag”. People have different motives for taking photos, and the issue for art galleries is how to regulate between those taking photos for purposes of deeper reflection and those wishing to “see and be seen”.

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