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If you visit an art museum today, chances are you will find throngs of visitors huddled around some famous oil painting or a provocative piece of sculpture, taking pictures of it with their smartphones or posing with their buddies for selfies to post online.
There is nothing inherently wrong about documenting one’s visit to an art museum by photographing an artwork one found to be particularly memorable. But many visitors today seem more interested in taking photos of a cool-looking Miró, or smiling with their friends for a social media post with a Monet, than in standing back to contemplate and enjoy the artwork for its own sake.
For one, the rise of museum photography reflects a change in our attitudes toward the exhibition of art. Rather than considering the enjoyment and experience of art as an end in itself, art has merely become a means through which we broadcast our tastes, our values, and our personal lives to the world. This is noticeably the case with the advent of social media. An Instagram post of a Botticelli fresco or a Picasso mural says as much about one’s love of Western art as it does about one’s tastes and one’s social class. It reflects the ability to appreciate and partake in what is considered “refined” and “cultured,” as opposed to what is kitsch and commercial.
Of course, today’s visually saturated, digitally-mediated social media culture is not always detrimental to fine art. Often, it can be a powerful tool to bring a greater appreciation of art to the general public. Unfortunately, however, uploading the details of one’s visit to an art museum also easily comes off as an implicit demonstration of cultural capital. The danger lies in the fact that, in the realm of social media, personal life becomes an enormous exhibition, one that others can access at the tap of a screen. In such a realm, the smaller artworks that surround us become relegated to the rank of secondary exhibits and status symbols.
Museum photography, more importantly, also poses an issue for the value of art itself. This argument was first brought up by the German social critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, who noted that the widespread photography and dissemination of art damaged what he called the “aura” of the work of art. The aura was the unique historical and cultural context within which the artwork was situated — the original, irreproducible facet of the artwork that lent it its intrinsic value. Benjamin claimed that the mass reproduction of an artwork degraded its aura, making it ubiquitous and valueless like a currency undergoing depreciation.
In today’s museum photography culture, Benjamin’s claim that photography is deleterious to aesthetic experience can be extended beyond the concept of intrinsic “aura” to encompass our personal experience of the work of art. At first glance, this notion might seem counterintuitive. After all, by acting as a form of external memory, photography might actually be considered a means to enhance our engagement with art, since it allows the artwork to take up residence with us in our private albums and collections.
Nevertheless, art derives much of its beauty, its power, and its value from the fact that it can be forgotten. It is the transience of aesthetic experience — the fleetingness of our experience of beauty, the impermanence of our encounter with something magical — that gives our interaction with art its depth and meaning. After all, why should one take a long, close look at the lines of brushstrokes on a canvas, or the play of light and color on the surface of the artwork, when one could just snap a picture of it and look at it sometime later? Why should one feel compelled to pause before the bold geometric forms of a De Stijl painting, or gaze deeply at the smoothened contours of a West African mask, or marvel at the detailed textures of a portrait by Rembrandt, when one can distill the entire experience into an image on a tiny screen?
This is not to say that one cannot both enjoy the artwork in the moment and take a photograph of it as a souvenir. Rather, we should value a brief and intimate moment with the work of art over a picture we will merely glance at a few years down the road. This is why the culture of museum photography might ultimately prove to be detrimental to our ability to enjoy and value art. The problem is not that photography is inherently harmful. The problem is that we should not be afraid of forgetting art.
Woojin Lim ’22, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Philosophy concentrator in Winthrop House. Daniel Shin ’22 is a Philosophy and Math concentrator in Quincy House. Their column appears on alternate Fridays.
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