Looking, or not
Michael Kimmelman’s essay on the front page of the NY Times today talks about the way people behave at great museums, the Louvre in this case. He is struck by the fact that many don’t seem to look at the art but are content, if they stop at all, to take a quick photo and then move on. He writes:
Cameras replaced sketching by the last century; convenience trumped engagement, the viewfinder afforded emotional distance and many people no longer felt the same urgency to look. It became possible to imagine that because a reproduction of an image was safely squirreled away in a camera or cell phone, or because it was eternally available on the Web, dawdling before an original was a waste of time, especially with so much ground to cover.
We could dream about covering lots of ground thanks to expanding collections and faster means of transportation. At the same time, the canon of art that provided guideposts to tell people where to go and what to look at was gradually dismantled. A core of shared values yielded to an equality among visual materials. This was good and necessary, up to a point. Millions of images came to compete for our attention. Liberated by a proliferation, Western culture was also set adrift in an ocean of passing stimulation, with no anchors to secure it.
So tourists now wander through museums, seeking to fulfill their lifetime’s art history requirement in a day, wondering whether it may now be the quantity of material they pass by rather than the quality of concentration they bring to what few things they choose to focus upon that determines whether they have “done” the Louvre. It’s self-improvement on the fly.
I’ve noted the same phenomenon with regard to monuments or natural vistas: how many people don’t stop to look and to admire, but are content to take a quick photo or two and then get back on the tour bus for the next stop. Everything has to be framed within a view-finder. (Could this be the influence of television–the framed shot?) I saw something symbolic the last time I was in Rome. When I stopped by the Trevi Fountain, I watched a man with his back to the fountain, arm outstretched with his cell-phone in his hand, taking a photo of himself in front of the fountain. A photo of himself looking away from the fountain somehow sums it up.