Looking and Seeing

5 Aug

This past Monday, the New York Times had this beautiful article about how people walk through museums, and how few actually stop to look at anything. I think it’s a great piece, and about something that has driven me nuts for years. Specifically, on the brief triplet I took to Paris a few weeks ago. At the Musee D’Orsay, they allowed photos to be taken, and it seemed that everyone there was just taking photos. Literally, I walked into a gallery with two teenage girls, and in the first five seconds one of them went ‘I like that one! I’m taking a snap.’ And it hurt my very soul, because what had just happened in her head? Her eyes must have scanned the room for a half a second looking for something she liked, and as soon as it registered for a second, she thought ‘I’m taking a photo’. And then she probably looked through the viewfinder, and then maybe she’ll flip through it later when she shows people the photos, and that was it for her and that painting, whatever it was. Worse were the people who would have their photo taken next to a piece of art, as though to prove they were there. And while I completely get that, as famous art is as much a landmark as a location, I wondered if those people had actually looked at the thing itself at all.

Now, I don’t want to get all up on my high horse here and say that aaaahhhht should be appreciated, that one should sit in front of it for many long minutes and drink it in with your mind and heart (I sometimes wonder about the people who sit in front of a piece of art for twenty minutes, because really?) Nor am I saying anything about the majority of tourists or museum-goers or whatever being uncouth or uneducated or not knowing how to go to a museum, or anything like that – I’m not.  However, I do find it disturbing that those people take the photos. Because it makes me wonder if we have gotten to a place in the world (gross generalization ensues) where we are becoming unable to enjoy something we cannot possess.

The point of art (well, one of them) is that it is unique. Most of it is entirely one of a kind, a feat of a single artist’s talent that cannot be duplicated, and its rarity and specialness is what has to be appreciated. But you can also not remove a piece of art, tuck it in your bag, and bring it home with you. It has to stay on its wall, and that moment that you have with it is just between you and it. You can’t document it, you can’t duplicate it, and you can’t put it on a tee shirt. You just have to sit tight, take a look, and respond (whether you like it or not), and then remember.  And when I looked at that girl taking the photo, what it seemed like to me was that she knew she liked it, so she had to have it; it was more important to her to own the photo, her own image of the painting, then it was to actually look at it, and go away with no proof of her experience there. We live in a stuff world, and it worries me that we are becoming unaccustomed to dealing with things we cannot have.

I don’t think this is entirely true yet – theater itself is an argument against it. For people still will pay money for tickets to what is by definition a passing experience; you have no choice but to sit in your seat and just listen and watch what’s happening on stage. You can buy the CD after, but that’s about it (no comment about youtube); you have had the experience, now it lives in your head and nowhere else exactly in the way you experienced it. Although perhaps even that is changing; tourists always seem to want to come see shows that are the shows their neighbours have seen, or at least heard of; it’s as though a recognizable show is itself a label, and who wants some small designer’s beautiful bag when you can have one of those horrible black Prada things? At least then everyone on your street knows what it is, right?

In any case, I hope this doesn’t stick, this tendency to photograph and leave, to want only what you can take away from something in tangible form. I know it’s not new, and that there will always be the devoted watchers, happy to have an experience that’s just between them and the art. But it seems like it’s getting worse (call me a fogey).

And dude, who wants to look at your photo of a painting? At least with a postcard they light it right.

Grumble.

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