Share and Share Alike (Part II): Sharing and Liking and Lacking



Simon Dybbroe Møller, Untitled, 2013.

Simon Dybbroe Møller, Untitled, 2013.


Smartphone photographs and social media have undeniably changed how (and maybe even why) we perceive and interact with art. The museum experience of most visitors now includes cell phone documentation and sharing, and this is part of larger trends permeating nearly all facets of contemporary life.


Yes, the urge to capture beauty and meaning is legitimate and has precedents in the classic tradition of sketching a work of art, or the touristic tendency to photographically document artworks, which is as old as the advent of portable cameras. But today, social media is playing a central role in determining the popularity of artworks (and maybe even which artworks get made and exhibited at all), based on an acute awareness of what kinds of images are most likely to transmit successfully on the web. This phenomenon is the museum-audience complement to the issues I explored in my last post on this blog.


If people are more motivated these days to visit exhibitions for social reasons or to think of art as spectacle, and this is defined and validated through social media, then technological constraints are clearly having an effect on the way art is being seen. This is partly because of how smartphone photography has a tendency to flatten space, and also because most image-sharing technologies present images in thumbnail versions. Another part of this change is because we so often see things secondhand before we experience them ourselves. And we tend to view an artwork more superficially when we know we can snap a photo or find one online later.


I would make the bold assertion that because of this, we are not only seeing art differently, but actually being shown art in a transformed way. Yes, artists and curators are consciously designing artworks and exhibitions for an audience that looks at and experiences things in this new manner, and who very likely have smartphones in their pockets. I would call many recent art-world attractions (I choose that word advisedly) meme-worthy publicity machines that emphasize spectacular views, even if they do not officially allow photography in their galleries (usually because of copyright restrictions).


Basically, museums have caught on and realized they’ll strike attendance gold by showing anything that will titillate (#mikekelly @MoMAPS1; #rainroom @MuseumModernArt), is funny (#christopherwool @Guggenheim), is big (#chrisburden @newmuseum), or will make for a good #artselfie (#kusama @davidzwirner; #turrell @Guggenheim). Of course, it also doesn’t hurt if your art project involves a celebrity (#picassobaby @PaceGallery).


I’ve also noticed more moments within exhibitions that seem crafted to encourage visitors to reach for their phones and take a shareable picture. This is evident in the almost scrolling arrangement of works, with a few choice show-stopper moments, that has been the de facto standard since the advent of Contemporary Art Daily and intensified since Instagram. This kind of moment reached an apogee in the grand finale of PUNK: Chaos to Couture (2013) #costumeinstitute show @metmuseum, which gave viewers an irreverent middle finger to unquestioningly relay to their followers.


The question I really should be asking is: “Is this a bad thing?” I am certainly glad that technology is making art more accessible, and Jillian Steinhauer has written thoughtfully about smartphone photography as a way for museums to reach broader and more diverse audiences. But her final sentence in that post gives me pause: “Sure, I miss the quiet sometimes, but now I have the satisfaction of looking around a crowded gallery and knowing that at least some of these people are finally seeing what I see.”


Sure, we’re all looking at the same things, but what I’m wondering is: Are we all actually seeing?


What I’m calling “changes in perception brought on by digital technologies” often serve to obfuscate art historical meaning. Smartphones have intensified a process of not just visual, but also conceptual, flattening that has been going on for some time. Paintings and other artworks that are frequently reproduced become understood more abstractly, as icons. The popularity of an over-shared or famous image creates a type of blindness that precludes close reading. I call this the “starry-eyed Starry Night effect.”


The scientist Linda A. Henkel of the Department of Psychology at Fairfield University has demonstrated that taking photographs of an artwork has a detrimental effect on memory (she uses the term “photo-taking-impairment effect”). The caveat of her finding—that taking a detail photograph of an artwork does not have the same negative impact on memory—still does not engage an even more central problem: the fact that people often examine these details or even entire works of art through their screens, rather than actually viewing the art object in front of them in an unmediated manner.


The flatness and image-sharing acceleration on our backlit screens and smartphones strips artworks of richness and meaningful information. This over-documentation (or “mechanical reproduction,” to use Walter Benjamin’s term) allows viewers to contently imagine that they are “getting” everything that an artwork has to offer, when in reality they couldn’t be further from it.


As many techno-utopians have argued, people like me are purists for resisting smartphones and other incursions that reduce a museum visitor’s experience to a touristic checklist of snapping a picture and moving on to the next attraction. This is even more problematic when these pictures are shared and encourage vicarious or superficial browsing of otherwise extraordinary artworks.


Eric Gibson pleads for a rarified “art experience” in his recent screed against smartphones in museums. But something much more profound is happening with regard to how we see and experience the world around us. The willingness of museums to embrace #museumselfies and other effects of social media promotion certainly encourages higher attendance and younger crowds, but I worry whether these audiences actually know how to really look closely at art . . . or anything in the physical world. Sure it’s fun to share pictures of things you enjoy with your friends. But please look—and think—long and hard before you share or like that photo.


– Daniel S. Palmer (@ddotpalmer)

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