My wife and I spent two weeks this summer on a tour of Spanish museums, wherein an insightful art professor led twenty-six retired, worldly and under- employed people to places of their dreams. I could write about the art in the cities we visited- Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, Granada, Valencia and Barcelona- or the hotels or the heat (we arrived during a historic August heat wave), but those things are well covered elsewhere. What I want to write about is the photo-aggression committed by tourists, both American and otherwise.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not self-righteous about it. I took my Droid, with its swift camera, and shot one or two photos per museum. So I know the feeling people who love travel have, the feeling that you want to share something of what you’ve seen, to bring a bit of it back with you (and of course the more crass feeling of, “Look, this is where I went and you didn't”). Such feelings used to be expressed in journals and letters, but now, as the spoken word is increasingly demoted to short text expressions- these even freed from the syntax of sentences (Las Meninas, OMG!”)- the photographic image is the way we enhance our memories.
Fine, but how interesting can your memories be to others if they include every painting and sculpture you see? That’s right, everything. The goal of our group (who were otherwise congenial and intelligent- I hope they’ll forgive me for this little critique!) and of groups all around us from many countries, appeared to be to photograph each and every piece of art, along with its descriptive plaque. As soon as we exited the bus, an advance squad, mostly men, would fan out to snap the exterior of the museum, catching every column, angle and perspective, fighting for space with young couples holding out sticks like fishing poles with narcissism as bait. Some of the men, as they rushed the museum gates, appeared to have worked as soccer refs, coming to sudden halts before a piece, devices held out front, ready to inform the eye and make the call, knees slightly bent for speed in moving to the next target.
Indeed, the invasion of the image-snatchers broke free of museum walls. Any element of the environment with potential to be interesting, which was pretty much everything, was subject to photography: lampposts, signs in windows, graffiti, bad reproductions of Vermeer in restaurants, manhole covers, and, of course, each other.
How do tourists represent their countries when they commit photo-aggression? I learned, from the beautiful paintings of Joaquin Sorolla, who is making a well-deserved comeback, of the arresting custom at Spanish beaches of permitting young boys to swim nude (if you've never heard of Sorolla it's because he was nearly snuffed out by Picasso's gang). The scene I beheld at one such beach on the way to Salvador Dali’s house in Port Lligat was beguiling, and no tourist could be faulted for taking brief note of the glory of youth in a real-life Sorolla. That’s brief note. As I pondered whether to take off my shoes and wander over the stones to the gently lapping Mediterranean, a nude boy of about four walked past with his mother. Reasonably, a quick glance and an internal cultural note should have done it. But, you guessed it, several Americans from a nearby group spotted a Kodak moment and whipped out their devices, no permission to photograph having been requested or received. I wondered what the reaction would be on one of L.A.’s beaches if a group of Japanese tourists, cameras upraised, approached family groups to photograph the children. Maybe the Inuit were right that having your picture taken steals your soul (though I'm sure tourists are not trying to steal souls).
But if not for stealing souls, what’s it for, this compulsive creation of images? If you were the first person on Mars, you would certainly want to record everything you saw. Here on earth, however, everything is amply recorded. I found no work of art too obscure or counter-culture that I could not find its reproduction on my cell phone, for free. Archeologist of the future will love our age, which they might call, “The Age of Record Keeping.”
Maybe there’s some psychological need at work. Marshall McLuhan posited in the ‘60s that “the medium is the message,” meaning that the medium impacts the message and modifies it. Perhaps we feel that works of art need to be processed through a mechanical medium, like a camera, in addition to the medium of our minds, in order to be modern, or post-modern, or something. If that’s what people think, they’re just wrong.
"But," you might counter, "What’s so bad about taking pictures of great art in a museum setting if that’s what people want to do?"
For starters, museum photo-aggression destroys, for everyone in the space, the contemplative and peaceful state of mind required to appreciate art. How peaceful can you be when you have to be two feet from a painting before you can see it because, from further away, your view is obstructed by multiple hands raised high, positioning devices as if at a Stones reunion. When at last you're close enough to see the painting, it doesn’t help that, while you’re finally viewing, say, Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” which you waited your whole life to see, a chorus of whir/whir/click/clicks attends you, along with multiple red dots that move across the surface of the painting like targeting lights from snipers trying to kill art itself.
I saw the same behavior last summer on another museum tour of the Netherlands, Belgium and London (the only relief I found, in London, was in the Tate Gallery’s almost empty William Blake room, where I learned that no one cares about Blake anymore). It’s a puzzle to me why so many great European art museums tolerate unbridled photography, particularly in Spain, where museum staff are as alert to transgression as the TSA. That alertness to respect for the art of their country, though it can be off-putting at first, is ultimately beneficial to the viewer. In the Prado in Madrid, for instance, museum staff constantly monitor noise levels, emitting a harsh “Shh!” when decibels exceed a certain point- often a welcome service. Yet the only museum I visited that forbade photography was the Picasso in Barcelona. Why do most museums permit unrestricted camera use, which causes at least as much distraction as noise?
I implore museums to ban the use of cameras. People will be able to look at art again, and sales of postcards and prints will dramatically increase at the gift shop!