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Camera phones at the National Gallery stoke fears that technology is leaving us incapable of deep engagement with anything – News – Art – The Independent

Photography is now allowed at a collection that is visited six million times each year. But will the Great Masters make selfies look sillier than ever?

By Archie Bland for http://www.independent.co.uk

How long do you need to look at a painting to really appreciate it? There are many answers to this question. As long as you like, is one. Longer than you think, is another. The art historian James Elkins wrote that it took him about 100 hours, over three years, to learn to really see a Mondrian painting. He recounts meeting a woman who had spent an hour looking at the same Rembrandt work four times a week for at least two decades – or about 3,000 hours.

Bendor Grosvenor, who runs the influential arthistorynews blog, takes his estimate from the late Kenneth Clark, the museum director who is now best known for presenting the landmark BBC documentary series Civilisation. “Clark had a good line,” he says, “that the time it takes to look at a picture properly is roughly the time it takes to peel and eat an orange. I think that’s about right.”

There’s no right answer; but there is some evidence of what most people do in practice, much of it quoted by Elkins in a 2010 essay on the Huffington Post. In summary, if museum-goers are eating oranges, they’re eating them bloody fast. The Louvre says that the average visitor looks at the Mona Lisa for 15 seconds. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art found people looking at each work for 32.5 seconds. Another study, conducted by Rutgers University, found that the median time spent on each work was 17 seconds. On the universal fruit-attention scale, this is more like the time taken to eat a grape.

There’s another point, too: it’s not just a question of how long we attend to a painting, but of the quality of that attention. This is, of course, much harder to quantify. But there’s a common hunch afoot that over the past decade or so, this has changed radically, and for the worse.

Technology gets the blame, and you know the argument: the rise of social networks and the smartphone have made us fatally incapable of concentration, and nowadays we are more interested in telling people what we are doing than doing it.

So, we share our dinner with the internet, instead of with our date. Our novels go unfinished as we flip through finely crafted 140-character miniatures. And when we go to a gallery, we don’t look at the art: we take a selfie, with it. Even if you are left cold by art, your view of this contention matters: if it is true, then so is the broader claim that the 21st century is leaving us incapable of deep engagement with anything.

Those who fear that this is true would have been distressed, last week, to hear of a couple of radical developments at one of our greatest museums. The National Gallery was introducing WiFi throughout its public spaces, it explained, so that visitors might be better able to access information about the pictures that they see, and to “interact with us more via social media”. Because that development would necessitate the greater use of smartphones and tablets, it would become all but impossible for gallery attendants to keep track of who was looking up details of a painting and who was taking a picture of it. And so it would give up its status as a valiant defender of the gallery as a screen-free zone, and join many other museums in letting visitors snap away.

Not everyone is delighted about this. “On the one hand, museums should do everything they can to make themselves accepting and accessible,” art historian and broadcaster Dr James Fox observes via email. “On the other hand, few things irritate me more than seeing some doofus staring at a painting through his iPad in order to take a bad photo of a picture that’s been photographed much better many times before.” More worrying still is the fact that “photographing artworks more often than not comes at the expense of actually looking at them.” Fox quotes Robert Hughes’s observation that people nowadays don’t go to museums to look at artworks, but to have seen them.

The artist, writer and publisher Jasper Joffe takes a similarly trenchant view, except that to his mind the situation is so awful that a bit of photography could hardly worsen it. “I am in the final stage of grief: acceptance,” he says, also via email. “Already people go around galleries in a state of anaesthetised indifference to the objects on display. Headphones on, piping in the canned thoughts of audio guides, eyes only on the wall panels telling them what to think, so what difference will the jostling of selfie-seeking Facebookers make?”

Those involved in the National Gallery’s decision are not so pessimistic. Instead, they say, they are simply exercising their responsibility to make the collection as widely accessible as possible. “I spend a lot of time watching how people look at the art, and I don’t think I’ve seen any great change in approach,” says Dr Susan Foister, the gallery’s director of public engagement.

“Yes, you always want people to be drawn in by a single work – but we have six million visitors a year, and probably there are six million ways of looking at the art. We think it’s important to offer lots of ways in. The National Gallery has always been a public space. You have to consider that other people may not enjoy it the way you do.”

 

Just a touch of Archie This is me gracing a Nativity by a follower of Sodoma (1540-60)
Just a touch of Archie
This is me gracing a Nativity by a follower of Sodoma (1540-60)

 

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