Paintings or pictures: why Instagram might be ruining museums

I’ve seen the shot dozens of times. It’s a young girl standing in front of a painting, facing away from the camera so that all you can see is her back (and her high waisted light wash jeans). We’re meant to think she’s contemplating the art, that she was so enraptured by the Degas or the Andy Warhol that she didn’t even realize a picture was being taken. I’ll admit, there was a time when I wanted my instagram followers to think I was a museum-going stick-n-poke kind of girl more than I was content internalizing my love for art. I have my fair share of back-shot museum photographs buried deep in my camera roll.

Recently though, seeing some of these pictures again has got me thinking about the way that we view art. Going to a museum, you’ll see people snapping shots of their favorite works, group pictures in front of Jeff Koons’ latest pink panther mashup, videos of video art installations. Is this an appropriate way to view art? Does snapping a photograph allow infinite visual experiences or does it actually detract from the original one?

On a whole, we’re increasingly becoming over-sharers. With the proliferation of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, we have the ability to document our hobbies, our likes and dislikes, our daily routines. It’s a system of cyclical instant-gratification, where showcasing snippets of our lives yields likes, leading us to post similar content in the hopes of receiving similar affirmation. Taking pictures of art is in some ways no different than a picture I post at my favorite restaurant or with my soccer teammates. It’s a way of conveying my interests, of showing my friends and followers what I was doing last Sunday afternoon.

Where this becomes problematic, though, is when instant gratification starts to dictate action. Rather than seeing an art museum as a creative experience, the walls of paintings and sculptures become a quick photo op, a chance to contribute to your already curated profile. Viewing art should be performed purely for the act of viewing, rather than with the intent of appearing ‘artsy’ or ‘cultured’. To me, art is valuable because of its innate value. When you take a picture of a particular piece, you’re suggesting that the work is not valuable in and of itself-- rather, you’re attaching value to it by showing that you consider the work important enough to photograph and share.  

I see taking pictures in museums as problematic because it detracts from the immediate experience. There’s something to be said about approaching a work with the intent of simply looking--taking the time to explore the visual and contextual nuances. When you view a work with the understanding that you’re going to take a picture of it, you’re already dulling your attention levels, because you know you’ll have a photographic reproduction to look at later. At the same time, there’s beauty in forgetting. Part of having an individual visual experience is distinguished by the details you remember and the elements of a work you choose to focus on. By taking the same picture of a painting, going to a museum isn’t a unique experience; in the end, what I remember about a painting becomes increasingly similar to my peers because of our matching digital memories.

On top of all this, a photograph distances you from an artwork. By staring at a painting in an iPhone screen, you lose a sense of depth and color, the craftsmanship, and the artist’s presence. Many works are best appreciated in person, especially when they contain interactive or multi-sensory elements. The context of a piece also contributes to the way that it is understood and received. A gallery suggests formality and is often used to add value to a particular work, but when I take a picture of a piece, I am viewing it in the same cheap way I might scroll through my Instagram feed.  

Seeing work in a museum is a dynamic process, filled with emotional responses and visual analysis. In the same way that everything from clothes shopping to dating is becoming digitalized, to many art viewers, photography has become synonymous with visiting a museum. To me, a picture of a painting represents more than what you see. To me, it often signifies that a person was more focused on future experiences than the present one, that part of traveling to the museum was to snap an insta-worthy shot, and that the person wants to share their experience rather than have it just for themselves. Maybe I’m a purist. But maybe we need to begin considering our own actions and mentalities when we’re in a gallery and have the urge to pull up the camera app.  

Keira Seidenberg is a Montreal based writer.

Photo by Jennifer Nguyen