Sunday, 31 August 2014

A guide to the museum photography debate

Picture: MS
There has been a huge response to the National Gallery's unannounced about-turn on photography. I've been immensely gratified that there has been such passionate debate and so many thoughtful and intelligent arguments made on both sides. Initially some thought it beyond debate that photography should be permitted, but the Telegraph, Guardian and Evening Standard all editorialised against it. I've been struck by the comment sections of new reports, which are full of heartfelt protests against intrusive photography in museums. In the Independent 'PMcC' reports that he traveled specially to see a sculpture by Richard Serra in Bilbao, described as 'unexpected transformed as the visitor walks through and around them, creating an unforgettable, dizzying feeling of space in motion'. But he says:
Sounds good — unfortunately, what I visited was a backdrop for visitors to take photographs of themselves and their friends. It is bad enough having to edge round the camera's sight lines and peer round family groups assembled for their photographs when walking round a picture gallery but it's impossible to appreciate "space in motion" when it is diminished so profoundly by the camera and its requirements. [...] I am very sorry that the camera has been accepted into so many galleries.
Specialists will delight in being able to get their own high-quality pictures of details and displays, which is of course good. But very few people are doing more than taking conventional snaps of conventional masterpieces, and in doing so they are changing the museum experience for the rest of us much for the worse. Viewing art is not just about studying details and determining attributions, fascinating though I find that. It's also about a rare and precious experience of the transcendent, as PMcC expressed. We're gaining the ability to record a pentiment on Instagram, but we're losing sight of why those details matter.

In this post I've collected links to some of the key articles on this debate. A good starting point is this YouTube video of two minutes in front of Van Gogh's Sunflowers. Some people think this is just great - an example of well-behaved museum visitors engaging with art. I can't reason against that opinion, but regarding it as positive engagement with art seems utterly bonkers to me.

Supporters of photography haven't given enough weight to the problem of flash, which is endemic to all large museums that allow photography and won't go away. The strongest response so far has been to assert that it's mainly a problem in front of the most popular art. But that art is popular for a reason - often it's the most iconic and great works. Are we happy with a world where the best pictures are reserved for tourist snaps, and anyone wanting to look closely must move further down the pecking order? 

Bendor Grosvenor has been the most ardent supporter of photography on his blog Art History News, and summarised in the FT. He asserts that allowing photography is somehow 'forward looking', implying that new must be good. But the substantive arguments are that it's patronising to tell people how to look, and that engaged photography can represent a different way of looking rather than an alternative to looking. He takes that claim to implausible lengths in his latest contribution, suggesting that people might look more closely if they're taking pictures. That experiment has been running for a long time in many major galleries, and the evidence is all in the other direction. Michael Kimmelman spoke to the experiences of most when he wrote that 'At the Louvre, many stop to snap but few stay to focus'. The tourist taking pictures without looking is now a cultural stereotype, but I've never seen reports of people paying more attention to paintings because they are trying to set up the best photo shot.

The argument becomes even more hard to follow when he asserts that "if we liberate images, both in digital and print format, then we can begin to look at art in entirely new ways." I simply don't know what that could mean. I don't think the ways we've looked at art have actually changed much over the centuries, although technology has made it more accessible. Will having a few million online snaps of Van Gogh's Sunflowers through a crowd really transform the way we see art? Of course it's good to have more and better images, but at the moment finding good pictures on the internet often requires trawling through lots of identical tourist snaps of variable quality and still not finding what you want. High-quality images taken in good lighting with tripods and cameras with gazillions of megapixels, properly labeled, easily accessed and freely available online would be brilliant. But that's something that museums need to organise themselves. Allowing smartphone snaps won't help, and might actually be an excuse for museums to avoid taking their own proper photographs.

Didier Rykner also offers a strong defence of photography along similar lines. He has not been disturbed by photographers at the Louvre, but as many other people are disturbed we can't resolve that debate simply on the strength of personal experience. Both Bendor Grosvenor and Didier Rykner emphasise the libertarian argument that people should be free to take pictures in public museums, but I do not find this persuasive because public museums, like all institutions, rightly have rules that are agreed on to enhance everyone's enjoyment. Be it a dress code at a fancy restaurant or the injunction not to talk through a play, rules are set to enhance enjoyment not to repress. It is quite reasonable to debate what those rules should be, but the bald assertion that photo bans are wrong because restrictions are wrong is not tenable.

Even more forceful is John  Wyver's piece for Illuminations, which describes my post on photography as 'nostalgic, ignorant and elitist twaddle'. A key argument is that we own the pictures, so we should be able to take pictures of them. But he doesn't explain why the pro-photography owners' wishes should trump the anti-photographers' wishes. Everyone can agree that there must be some rules and restrictions in museums; we just need to decide what those rules are. More substantively he adds to the chorus of claims that museum selfies are just another way of engaging with art. That view is central to Sam Leith's argument in London's Evening Standard, and Archie Bland's in the Independent. But this is the shallowest of arguments, asserting that it's just different engagement rather than disengagement. When you look at the clip of snappers in front of Van Gogh, one's first thought isn't 'oh, look at the varied forms of engagement'. More meat is needed before this argument can be taken seriously. 

On the theme of selfies, Rebecca Atkinson of the Museums Association thinks objections to photography are just Selfie Scaremongering. And Zoe Williams went to take her own selfies. The Brisbane Times is less positive about selfies.

Neil Jeffares has written a thoughtful and balanced review of the arguments. Ultimately he decides in favour of photography, but he is attuned to the costs and shows a fair appreciation of the way that photography affects the museum experience. I place different values on certain elements of the museum experience, but I find little to disagree with in this analysis. 

This excellent post by Nina Simon identifies over-crowding rather than photography as the problem. I agree with all her points about over-crowding, but I still believe that photography does have a negative impact. It really is harder to see Van Gogh since the photo ban was removed at the National Gallery. And permitting photography really does affect the ambiance of museums. This is a key point that I will return to in another post soon, but do read Nina's post. Her blog is a must-read on museums. She is on the opposite side to me on many debates, but always thoughtful, interesting and open-minded. The internet can be an echo chamber rather than a debating forum, so it's refreshing to read constructive dialogue from 'the other side'.

On the 'photo-sceptic' side of the debate, I was particularly gratified to read this post by Christopher Moore, a teenager who resists the conventional and determinist narrative about his generation of 'digital natives'. Sarah Crompton in the Telegraph thinks you shouldn't take pictures in museums, saying that the NG is "betraying all those who want to contemplate rather than glance ... [it's] not a means of making art more popular or accessible. It is the surest path to depriving it of all purpose and meaning". Finestre sul'Arte gives us five valid reasons for not taking pictures in museums - an excellent piece, in Italian. And Tiffany Jenkins laments the distractions of technology and makes a case for focusing on art. Hers is one of the most important contributions because it recognises the context for the debate.

I think the wider questions are key. Several related stores about the place of technology have broken during the NG photography debate.

The Stage asks if theatres will buckle to the 'selfie generation'. I commend Richard Gresham's Theatre Charter in response. And Kate Bush asked fans not to take pictures during her recent performance in London. The comments left below the Guardian's report are worth reading. There's a lot of heartfelt support for her stance.

The Guardian also reports that PSV Eindhoven fans have protested against WiFi at games because it spoils the atmosphere and distracts from the game. In the Guardian's poll, 70% agreed with them. And the Chronicle of Higher Education carries an article on the benefits of banning laptops from lectures. It reports a study showing that not only laptop users, but also handwriters who could see others' laptops performed worse in tests.

In all of these instances people have taken a conscious decision to resist the intrusion of elements of modern technology, either because they want to maintain a special aura to certain experiences, or because technology is a barrier rather than a help. When mobile phones started to take off it took some time to establish appropriate etiquette, and we're still negotiating that question. But no one thinks we should be able to take calls anywhere, any time. We restrict them particularly from the situations that we value most, like wedding ceremonies, church services, concerts and meals out. Museums are welcoming photography at just the time when everyone else is starting to think about how to restrict it. It seems that museums have lost sight of their specialness and seek to promote themselves only as backdrops for selfies.

I am a passionate believer in the benefits of new technology, and politically I am a Millean liberal with views on personal liberty that some regard as unhinged libertarianism. I am not against technology,  and I am generally opposed to regulation. I do not seek to ban photography because I hate smartphones, or because I like restricting people, but because I believe they are harming our ability to appreciate art. It is because I believe in the specialness of art, the preciousness of the experience of visiting great galleries, that I want to prohibit photography. Much to my regret, evidence from the National Gallery shows that it has already regressed to a place where flash photography is normal, contemplation of art is interrupted by constant electronic shutter noises, and people line up to get the same snaps of the same paintings and then move on to the next obligatory photo op. I find that immensely sad.

Missing from the debate has been the National Gallery itself. For all its talk of 'audience engagement', it made the change without asking or telling. It claimed that it was too hard for guards to stop people taking pictures when they use smartphones for other purposes, but guards deny this. On the other hand, it really is impossible to stop flash once photography is allowed, so the same logic would see flash permitted soon. It already is in practice, so the rule will likely soon fall. The only response has been a quote from Susan Foister that there are six million visitors and six million different ways of looking, which wins the prize for vacuous relativism. As Neil Jeffares points out, scenes in the YouTube clip above show that she's providing a way to avoid looking rather than offering new ways to look.

Please let me know if I've missed any other links.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Recent books: collecting Dutch art in America, and Bernard Berenson

I've just read two edited volumes on the history of collecting and connoisseurship, one on Bernard Berenson's influences and one on the history of collecting Dutch art in America. Both have some excellent chapters and many interesting insights, but I thought both relied too heavily on familiar material and had too many chapters that were insufficiently developed. The topics fascinate me, and the nascent scholarship is fascinating, so looking on the bright side I see these books as tasters for more substantial research projects that might bear better fruit in another season.
Picture: Amazon
Esmée Quodbach Holland's Golden Age in America: Collecting the art of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals Penn State University Press 2014 £66.95

American museums and private collections are exceptionally rich in Dutch golden age pictures, which are still collected avidly. This handsome, well-illustrated volume is part of the Frick's series on the history of collecting in America, but despite its auspicious origins the chapters are rather mixed. Overall there is a good deal of repetition between various chapters, such as similar observations about John Lothrop Motley's History of the Rise of the Dutch Republic and the Hudson-Fulton exhibition in New York in 1909. And it's a regrettable gap that there are no chapters on dealers, notwithstanding Sutton's correct note that "the importance of dealers like Jacques Seligman and Charles Sedelmeyer and firms like Tooth and Co. and Rosenberg and Stiebel has yet to be adequately investigated", eclipsed by obsessive interest in Duveen and Knoedler (p. 15). There is also little on the minor museum collections of Dutch art, and on the collections that have been dispersed, such as Bordon's.

Arthur K. Wheelock writes on the collection in Washington, which began with a strong group of Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer and Cuyp from its founding benefactors, and which Wheelock himself has built into surely the strongest collection of Dutch art in America. But Wheelock's work should have been assessed independently, rather than allowing him to write his own puff piece (notwithstanding that much may legitimately be puffed!). Whilst his acquisition of Dutch art for the NGA has been outstanding, it has been at the expense of every other curatorial department and a more independent scholar might have probed the institutional politics further. Worse is Wheelock's discussion of the conservation of the collection, which is a shameful whitewash. He emphasises several times the dirtiness of the pictures when they arrived (despite, in many cases, recent Duveen provenance, which is a sure indication of excessively drastic cleaning), but says nothing about the furious restoration controversies arising from the museum's inept conservation department, which I wrote about in this review.

The chapter on W. R. Valentiner by Dennis P. Weller was the best of the bunch, a frank and balanced re-assessment of a controversial character. Valentiner made many bad connoisseurial judgments, but was lionised in his day (I would like to have seen a fuller account of how he came to win such a strong reputation on such a weak basis). But Weller balances due criticism with a fair assessment of his contributions. This chapter was a welcome balance to Wheelock's hagiographic account of, um, himself. Lloyd Dewitt's chapter on John G. Johnson is perceptive, and I'd like to have read more. The brevity of the chapters means that a lot of ground is covered, but many chapters don't go much beyond points that are already well-known. Catherine B. Scallen's chapter on Wilhelm von Bode is a good treatment of a fascinating and important character, and again I was left yearning for more. Walter Liedtke's chapter on the New York collectors whose pictures were given to the Met during the 'gilded age' is mostly familiar stuff, but redeemed by the liveliness of Liedtke's prose.

A couple of chapters cover ground that is already well-worn. The editor's own chapter on collecting Vermeer addresses a topic that is perennially popular, given the romantic tale of Vermeer's late rediscovery and belated appreciation. The chapter on collecting Rembrandt in Southern California reprises the author's widely-available eponymous book. She states that the Getty acquired Daniel and Cyrus Before the Idol Bel privately, but it would have been interesting to note that it was acquired a couple of years after it had failed to sell at auction - an unusual fate for an authentic Rembrandt.  

Peter C. Sutton's introductory chapter makes sweeping claims about the cultural context and significance of America's pursuit of Dutch art that seem to me tenuous. Surely the aesthetic qualities of the Dutch school are all that's needed to account for its popularity; Occam's razor is needed! He also claims that Frick acquired no still lifes or peasant paintings, but that's not true (they just didn't make it to his bequest). He also claims that Frick acquired a 'magnificently expansive Jacob van Ruisdael landscape', but the 'magnificently expansive' landscape in the Frick was acquired after his death. He owned a view of Amsterdam, which is poorly preserved and rarely displayed, and a superb waterfall landscape that his daughter donated to the Fogg Art Museum.

Peter Hecht's chapter is a defiantly off-topic (but excellent) discussion about collecting Dutch art in the Netherlands, tenuously justified because of its rivalry with the US. On the same basis, chapters could usefully have been added about collecting elsewhere, particularly in the UK and Germany, to produce a less parochial account. This is one of the most interesting chapters in the book, but again I yearned for more detail. Hecht claims that Vermeer's Milkmaid was acquired in 1907, whereas the Rijksmuseum itself claims it was 1908. The discrepancy calls for a footnote to explain. He references a newspaper article from late 1907, but it could have referred to an agreement not yet consummated. And I was surprised to learn from Quentin Buvelot that a Ruisdael that I knew well from its loan to Birmigham Museum and Art Gallery for over fifteen years, always attributed in full to Ruisdael, had been 'almost entirely unnoticed' until its sale in 2005 (p. 186). 

I've been rather critical of aspects of this book, but I enjoyed reading it and the research project is immensely promising. As these scholars' research progresses, I look forward to reading their fuller treatment of many of these topics.
Picture: Amazon
Joseph Connor and Louis A. Waldman (eds) Bernard Berenson: Formation and Heritage Harvard University Press 2014 £29.95

I was disappointed by this book, which sounded so fascinating. The trouble is that the chapter authors have their own agendas, which often have little to do with Berenson. Some are very good. Dietrich Seybold's chapter on Jean Paul Richter was interesting, but notable mainly for flagging his forthcoming book on Richter, which sounds excellent. It didn't give much insight into Berenson. Similarly the chapter on the dealer Gutekunst is notably mainly for its resurrection of Gutekunst's reputation, although most of its source material is familiar.

I liked best the chapter on Berenson and Warburg by Claudia Wedepohl, archivist at the Warburg Institute. Warburg described Berenson as an 'egocentric epicurean' (p. 168 quoting letter from Aby Warburg to Felix Warburg, 16 April 1925), which he meant as criticism but sounds like high praise to my ears! 

I also learned that Carl Brandon Strehlke and Machtelt Israels are cataloguing Berenson's paintings at I Tatti. The collection is off-limits to the public, alas. But I look forward to the catalogue. Strehlke's catalogue of Philadelphia's early Italian paintings is exemplary and I'm sure he'll do a great job on this collection, which I'd love to know better. 

I liked the chapter on Berenson and Kenneth Clark by William Mostyn-Owen, who knew them both. It includes one of my favourite passages from Clark: "We must believe that the frieze of the Parthenon, the West portal of Chartres and the ceiling of the Sistine are great works of art long before we have any idea how great they are: in fact we never shall know how great they are, but only that each time we see them we come a little closer to understanding" (in his Apologia of an Art Historian, published in the University of Edinburgh Journal vol 15 no 4 pp 232-239 1951, quoted p. 242). Mostyn-Owen over-delivers on his modestly stated objective of giving a personal perspective on this odd couple. 

Some of the other chapters relied much too heavily on well known material, but there are interesting nuggets throughout and, as with the Quodbach volume, some of the chapters represent the early stages of research that shows great promise.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

At the National Gallery, "anyone who loves art and wants to see it properly hasn't got a hope"

The Times reported that flash was being used about every ten minutes in front of the Arnolfini Portrait. In the Van Gogh room this afternoon it was about ten times each minute. It was easy to get the picture above, despite the flash being really brief, because this woman was using flash for all of her pictures. The guards occasionally shouted 'no flash', but it's impossible to tell who is actually using flash so it's ineffectual and they mostly don't bother.

Ironically the NG justified allowing photography because the guards couldn't tell when people were taking pictures and when they were just using mobile devices. The guards rightly denied that was a problem. But it really is impossible to stop flash once photography is allowed. Once the picture has been taken, it's just too late. I actually got another picture of Sunflowers illuminated by flash, purely by chance. I wonder how many people's photographs have been ruined by another person's flash. 

Poor Sunflowers is suffering most from photography. I asked a guard about his experience since photos have been allowed, and he lamented the routine use of flash and said "Anyone who loves art and wants to see it properly hasn't got a hope."
From behind you see a phalanx of little illuminated versions of the painting you want to see, a bright visual distraction from the original. A lot more people that I'd expected were using iPads, which create a huge visual distraction blocking the pictures. Dozens of people line up. Front rank shoots, then falls behind for the next rank to take their pictures. Sometimes people step back to allow some one else to take a photo posing with the painting. There is a tacit understanding that people will move aside for that, then draw back in when the picture is taken. 

Of course the entire gallery wasn't like this. There are still oases of calm. But popular galleries and popular pictures are off limits to a much greater extent than before, when it was merely pressure of crowds. Before it was understood that people would want to spend different amounts of time with a picture, so when you got to the front you could spend some time looking. Already now there is a strong social norm that you move on after taking a picture.

I saw this most clearly, and most sadly, in front of the Arnolfini Portrait. A man on his own got to the front to get a good look. He was leaning forward and looking quite closely. But all around him were people who wanted to take pictures. None of them were behaving at all unreasonably. No one pushed or jostled. No one said anything, or tutted. But he clearly felt the pressure to move on, looking around anxiously at people who wanted him to get a move on. He left quite quickly, and went up to the guard to ask when they started allowing photographs. 

In the Botticelli room, one person briefly lent on a cassone to have her picture taken, but was fortunately told to move by the photographer. Another person was getting ready to lean on the same cassone to steady her shot, but saw the guard and thought better of it. As the guard has to cover two rooms, it was 50/50 whether she'd have been seen. 
And in front of the Leonardo there's a line of photographers blocking the view of the people sat down trying to look.

Part of the problem is simply pressure of numbers, and there's no easy answer to over-crowding. But I've often been in the National Gallery when it's dreadfully crowded. Today was still a much worse experience. The prevalence of photography really does alter the experience of the gallery. Everyone recognises that; one the arguments of the proponents is that it makes people more engaged and interested. I think that's utter hokum. Of course some people who take pictures are highly engaged. But the bored tourist who takes a few snaps and then leaves isn't paying more attention because he has a camera. I saw the opposite; people using the camera as a prop so they had an activity to keep themselves busy in an unfamiliar environment. They were sticking to something comfortable and familiar rather than engaging in something new. And they're making it much harder to do anything except take pictures, because it requires real force of will to interrupt the lines of people waiting to take their photographs.

Is that elitist? I don't think so. I think the elitist response is the one that patronises people by pretending that a second-rate, disengaged experience is the real thing. The democratic response is to believe that anyone can come to appreciate great art. And it's easier to start that process if you leave the camera at home. 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Trivialising the National Gallery

Image of Photography to be allowed at the National Gallery? (ctd.)
Picture: Bendor Grosvenor
National Gallery director Nicholas Penny has ardently promoted the value of looking at art. He's lamented the obvious and regrettable fact that many who visit the gallery don't look at the art very much, and he's done what he can to encourage engagement with pictures. He has promoted exhibitions of single pictures, to encourage slow looking. He has objected to the mass spectacles of blockbuster exhibitions, and spoken of the need to cater to single visitors as well as families, children and the socially excluded. It was striking that the NG's latest press release, immediately following the end of its photo ban, didn't include a quote from Penny.

The new press release tells us that the National Gallery is introducing free WiFi, which is useful mainly for foreign tourists who don't have UK data on the mobile contract. I don't begrudge it, but we may wonder why that's the top priority from a cultural budget we keep being told is impossibly tight. More inexplicable is the hyperbolic claim that this trivial change will 'enhance the experience of visitors and engage new audiences'. We could already access the internet in the gallery, and making the NG's own excellent online images freely available would allow people to share on social media.

The only thing that's truly original here is that we can now take selfies in the gallery. It's not just a picture of a painting, which is already available online, but a picture of a painting with you in the frame. That's not engagement. It's turning the focus inward on the visitor rather than outward to the artwork. The excitement about 'fresh and exciting' ways of 'exploring the collection' is technological determinism on steroids. The exciting thing should be looking at pictures, not sharing your own on Facebook.

There's a lot of hyperbole about how social media has utterly transformed the way young people look and think, and how allowing museum selfies will engage vast new audiences. But it's all a world away from what we actually see in a museum like the Louvre. We've all seen some tourists who takes a snap of each picture in turn, without looking at a single one. Does anyone really believe that these people are really keen art lovers who will go back and study their grainy snaps at home, when they haven't been able to sustain enough interest in the gallery to spare even the meanest glance directly at a picture? Who can honestly look at the scrum of photographers in front of the Mona Lisa and find themselves swelling with joy at the level of public engagement? Will the crowds of Mona Lisa snappers and selfie-makers will really want to download the NG's app so they can check out the iconography of Titian's Allegory of Prudence? I don't think it's snobbish or elitist to say that snapping without looking is an impoverished experience of art. In fact it's quite the contrary. Recognising the limitations of that experience is the first step towards promoting a more egalitarian spirit of inviting everyone to engage with art rather than patronising people by validating their disengaged snapping.

In another context Tim Parks recently wrote about the myth of popular fiction as a gateway to literary fiction. He quite rightly points out that reading Fifty Shades of Grey won't lead people to Tolstoy. A similar point can be made about art galleries. Encouraging visitors who aren't much interested in art on the basis that they can update their Facebook status and take a selfie isn't going to encourage engagement with art. I suspect it will have exactly the opposite effect. It will discourage people from sustained engagement, and encourage the idea that visiting an art gallery is all about tweeting selfies. AHN's claim that 334,000 'likes' for a crass celebrity selfie in a museum will translate to new visits to said museum is likely to prove sadly deluded.

The irony is that the information that the NG is actually providing - the content - is getting worse. They've just sacked their brilliant information department. Their website is woeful, and they've announced no grand plans to enhance it. Information on provenance and condition is sadly lacking. Sponsoring a free online version of Hall's Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art would be a better use of resources. I've often wanted to consult that in art galleries. But instead museums are devoting vast resources to trivial online 'engagement', like re-tweeting the most gushing enthusiasm and promoting tawdry interactive games. The Met has 70 (yes, seventy) people in its 'digital team'. And the same source reports that 52% of users of a game created by the Brooklyn Museum were museum professionals, mainly from Brooklyn Museum itself. We have a vast choice of online entertainment. Games that happen to have a museum theme are more enthusiastically received by museum professionals rather than visitors. 

The most persuasive argument presented in favour of permitting photography is that people have the right to enjoy galleries as they please. Indeed, why not have a gym in the Sixteenth Century Italian room, and a bar in the English Gallery? But given the large minority voting against photography in the Daily Telegraph poll, and the strong feelings that many of us have against photography, it is clear that at least a minority of people snapping pictures in galleries are experienced as intrusive. You simply cannot avoid the debate about the kind of galleries we want. I'm often struck by the difference between the rather fanatical demand that people must be allowed to behave as boorishly as they like in art galleries, in case they seem elitist and people are offended, and the ordinary acceptance of standards of behaviour in similar spheres like theatres and concert halls. Even football stadiums are governed by more rules than art galleries. Recently Manchester United banned iPads from home games! 

This debate pits me against many people I usually agree with. But I think the proponents are debating in bad faith by refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of any concern about photography in galleries. Bendor Grosvenor even claimed on Twitter that the debate is over, implying that there's no legitimate objection and nothing further to be said. But the inescapable reality is that many people's visits to museums have been ruined by intrusive photography. A Daily Telegraph poll currently has a remarkably high 43% opposed to photography in the National Gallery. Celebrated critic Michael Kimmelman has lamented that 'At the Louvre, many stop to snap but few stay to focus'. And I thought AHN's illustration, which I've pinched for this post, unintentionally telling. This is indeed the view we'll have of Titian in future; a great painting with a bloody big iPad in front of it. A colleague recently complained to me that his view of an exhibition at Tate Britain was interrupted by a visitor who held his iPad right up against details of each picture in turn to take pictures. That really is more intrusive than a crowd of people looking at a picture.

There is a reasonable case to be made saying that's tough, and the benefits of allowing photography outweigh the costs. But that debate cannot be closed down by diktat, and people's very real concerns cannot be rejected as false consciousness. I can recognise the benefit of being able to take pictures of frames and displays and details that aren't otherwise available. But the Panglossian claims about people going to the gallery for the first time because they want the change to get a selfie with a Van Gogh and becoming ardent art fans is, to put it mildly, unproven. And the costs of photography are clear to see in places like the British Museum and the Louvre. 

Monday, 11 August 2014

Make it awful: Five Bad Things at the National Gallery

Over at Art History News, Bendor Grosvenor reports that the National Gallery now allows photography. The last bastion of quiet contemplation is now to become selfie central, where noisy clicking smartphones and intense flashlights will prevail over any eccentrics who want actually to look at art. The trustees must have looked at scenes like the one above at the Louvre and thought that this is just what's needed at the NG. But it's only one of a number of major changes announced recently by the National Gallery. Each is bad individually, but no one has yet joined the dots to see just how bad it's become.

The first and most obvious Bad Thing is photography, which I've criticised previously. A robot at the NG provided a statement to Art History News that is so blandly bureaucratic it would make the Inland Revenue jealous. It claims that they're allowing photography to 'improve the welcome we provide' (sic). I don't care about the 'welcome' you provide, dear robot. I just want to see the art. The robot is excited about social media interaction and providing a 'welcome', but the purpose of the NG is simply to provide access to great works of art. The artists are the creators who should be celebrated, not the robots who brag about the 'welcome' and the 'social media interaction' that they provide. 
The robot is either a liar or a fool in claiming that the use of flash will be prohibited. There is no gallery that allows photography but effectively controls flash. At the bigger museums like the Louvre and the British Museum flash is freely allowed, unchallenged by guards. I appreciate that some people are not sensitive to bright light, but I find that a flash bulb dazzles me for several minutes if it catches my eye. That makes some parts of the Louvre literally un-seeable for me. And I often hear about gallery visits ruined by people barging past to take pictures, or holding iPads right up to the picture surface to get the best detailed shot. Everywhereist reports people touching the surface of paintings with their camera lenses, and I've seen people at the National Gallery in Washington backing up against paintings to get the best photograph. The risk of damage to pictures is one of the more neglected costs of permitting photography.

Bendor Grosvenor's case for allowing photography focuses on supposed differences in the way young people think. But his reported claim that the average attention span of a 'younger person' is seven seconds is utterly nonsensical. Does it mean they can only do one thing for seven seconds? Or that their minds wander? Does it mean that they cannot manage to get through a single page of a book? Is a three hour exam really one and a half thousand times too long for an average young person to manage? 

The human mind evolved over thousands of generations, mostly on the African plains. The idea that brains have suddenly been re-wired after a few years of Facebook is just daft. There are of course cultural pressures militating against longer engagement. But engagement has always required effort; we have different distractions today, but there have always been distractions. Worthwhile things require effort. Education cannot be reduced to seven second chunks; a lecture or a book chapter cannot be digested in seven seconds chunks. Even more ephemeral entertainments require more focus. A football game lasts at least ninety minutes (771 times too long?). And meaningful human relationships demand that we pay attention to the people in front of us. It speaks to the trivialisation of art that we assume that museums cannot or should not expect more than the most ephemeral attention. 

A contrary point is that people - and especially young people - have more leisure time and more money than in the past, opeing up new opportunities for sustained engagement. Most worthwhile things require a degree of effort and sustained engagement, but never before have we had so many opportunities to lose ourselves in deep engagement with things that inspire our passion. I'm a great believer in the variety of ways of experiencing art. Sometimes I visit briefly and flit between pictures. Sometimes I stay all day and linger excessively in front of my favourite Rembrands and Poussins. But surely if you care anything for art you can recognise that stopping and looking carefully is a better and more worthy experience than taking a selfie without turning to look at the art at all. The NG used to be a haven where looking at pictures was prioritised. Now it will all be about taking your own pictures.

The second Bad Thing is that the NG's director, Nicholas Penny, is leaving. He has long been a lone voice of sanity in the art world. He has stood up for old fashioned ideas about the virtues of simply looking at art, sceptical of trendy ideas about audience engagement. His departure was announced at almost exactly the same time as the unheralded change to the NG's photography policy, and the other Bad Things that have leaked out. Penny is a great art historian, but he has clearly failed to hold the line; the NG is to be sacrificed at the altar of mass tourism. 

The third Bad Thing is that the NG will now be made available to rent for parties. Precious and delicate pictures will become a backdrop for wedding receptions and corporate entertainment, with all the drunkenness and debauchery that accompanies these events. Champagne corks will pop, drunks will fall against the pictures and rich philistines can enjoy the right to run their hands over the Rembrandts or poke the Piero della Francescas because, well, they can. Opening hours will inevitably change. The Victoria and Albert Museum is notorious for unheralded early closures for private events. In future the NG's opening hours will be dictated by the requirements of paying guests. 'You traveled from Timbuktu to see our Rembrandts? I'm sorry, but we need to set up for a private party tonight. Try tomorrow, unless our restorers need longer to fix the mess'.

The fourth Bad Thing is privatisation of ticketing, security and information. The guards in the NG are truly excellent. They're often extremely knowledgeable about the collection, and always helpful. You can tell they're doing a good job by the number of people who complain that they've been shouted at. Every art lover must prefer that there are a few undeserved telling offs rather than a few unchallenged pokes at the pictures. They are to be replaced by contractors, as are the supremely helpful staff on the helpdesk who have often gone beyond the call of duty to field my requests. Allowing photography will make things easier, because guards in future will rarely need to challenge visitors at all. I've noticed that at museums that allow photography, guards are less likely to intervene in any kind of visitor behaviour. 

I'm no dirigiste opponent of the market; quite the contrary. But this is one point where the quiddities of the accountant should have no place. Profit maximising contractors shouldn't be invited to reduce service to the cheapest level they can get away with and provide the minimum possible contractual protection. The NG's trustees are behaving with unforgivable recklessness. 

The final Bad Thing, and perhaps the change that affects me most, is that season tickets for temporary exhibitions have been abolished. The season ticket made it possible to see even the most crowded shows, by going little and often. A show like Late Rembrandt, which I'd been looking forward to for years, will simply be impossible to see now; I won't be able to go at all. In a typical major exhibition people have to line up two or three deep for the merest glance at a picture. The contrasts and comparisons that exhibitions are supposed to provide are simply impossible for the average visitor to appreciate, as you move between the shortest queues. I used to go first thing in the morning, because opening time was reliably quiet. Now it is the busiest time, because the galleries are always already packed with private tours. These are not advertised; I presume it's a mix of the great and the good, plus people who pay through the nose for the privilege.

They are replacing the season ticket with a membership scheme, but they refuse to provide any details and the Rembrandt show is already starting to sell out. Smart marketeers that they are, they realise that it's easier to sell a premium product if you make the standard fare worse, as airlines have discovered. Ruining the experience of visiting the NG by imposing flash photography, prioritising selfies and making it impossible to avoid exhibition crowds makes any kind of premium product more attractive.

A new ethos pervades the biggest museums. The crowds go to see a handful of favourite highlights, take a few pictures (and ideally a selfie or two), and move on. If you go to one of these museums for the first time, you pick up signals from the environment about how to behave. At the old NG people went to look at pictures. At the new NG they will go to take selfies. That is as coercive as banning photography, but it is much more damaging. AHN has adopted that ghastly art administrator phrase, 'building audiences', which is a bizarre requirement given that visitor numbers are booming even without photography (2013 was the first year to exceed 6 million visitors). I wish museums would focus more on quality than quantity.
The experience of art is to be bifurcated. The hoi polloi, despised by the NG and patronised by the robot, will have an awful time as the apparatchiks intend. The benefit of making the 'normal' visit unbearable is that it creates demand for the expensive private experience. Us commoners will be expected to line up, take a selfie and move on. Art professionals don't notice, because they enjoy the privilege of private views and elite early openings. The very wealthy can buy access. The rest of us will have a miserable time in the new conformist National Gallery, which has fallen in with the worst practices of the tragically conformist modern monied art world. I think the art lovers who were in favour of photography will come to rue this decision. Unless, of course, they can afford the private experience that can be yours for a price.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Silliness Competition

Two people whose views are anathema to me are having an argument. Both are daft and wrong, but the debate is instructive. Jake Chapman, idiot vandal who defaces old paintings and prints (see above) to the delight of the Tate, says children should be kept away from museums because they won't understand. Dea Birkett, who campaigns to let children run wild in museums, frets about the effects of too much learning and believes that a baby's burbling is the best response to art. She seems to think that knowledge is corrupting, and the only true response is emotional.
Both views are snobbish and didactic. Chapman myopically neglects anything too old for Tate Modern, so he fails to realise that not all art is about ideas. The small picture of a dog by Gerrit Dou, above, is simply an exquisitely painted image. Maybe some symbolic message was intended, or maybe not. You might appreciate it more if you know that it's by one of the 'fine painters' from Leiden who delighted in painting precise minute details of different textures. Or maybe you'll just relish its beauty. The best way to learn about pictures like this is to look closely at lots of them, and start to appreciate their varied qualities. You'll certainly get more out of a visit to the National Gallery if you know a bit of background - the social and intellectual context, the biblical and mythological stories being told. But simply looking closely can take you an awfully long way.  

Unfortunately Chapman's angry critics are even worse. They make art seem so banal. The National Gallery's spokesman said, "children benefit a great deal from visiting art galleries and museums … it widens their horizons, can develop inquisitiveness and curiosity about the world, boost creativity, and foster craftsmanship and storytelling". A worthy list of instrumental ends tailored to middle class parents and tick-box bureaucrats. Yawn, yawn, yawn. At least Birkett has a sense of the wonder and passion that art can inspire. But she is bigoted in her insistence that there is only one proper way to look at art, and philistine in thinking that anyone who brings knowledge to bear is doing it wrong. In a recent article she even mocked people who might admire Tintoretto's brushstrokes. But going back to the doggy picture above, I'm in awe of Dou's skill, but it doesn't produce much of an emotional response. The point of the picture is precisely to admire the brushstrokes, how ever much that might discomfort Dea Birkett.

It's not for Birkett or Chapman to tell us the one true way to respond to art. But although I disagree with Chapman, I'm glad he spoke up. The Dea Birkett view of the world is too dominant. Too often museums see their job as simply getting people through the door and letting them do as they please, as if taking a selfie with the Mona Lisa or burbling at a Bridget Riley is all there is to it. As with any activity, the more you learn the more you get out of it. As you develop the ability to discriminate, Thomas Kinkade and Jack Vettriano will please you less and you might come to appreciate artists like Poussin or Guido Reni more. Art appeals to the emotions, but also to the intellect. And the emotional pull can be deeper when you have more knowledge. Shakespeare seems alien at first, but with a bit of application you come to see a greater depth of emotion than you get from a soap opera. 

For me the main reason to bring children to museums isn't to let them express themselves or to use the building as a creche, but rather to introduce them to a facet of the adult world. It's wonderful if they respond emotionally, but I hope that response will be the start of their engagement with art and not the end.

The future of museums?

There's been a 'controversy' about the photographer who dressed up the Riace Bronzes in a thong and boa for a photo shoot. The photographer should, of course, be shot along with the morons who gave permission for the shoot (apparently not expecting quite this). It's an especially insulting, degrading and harmful prank, but also one without the least trace of redeeming visual interest. But it's so in keeping with the times, trying to make things hip and fun and relevant. The idea that art should be protected, still less revered, is redundant. 
Rodin / Parker
Picture: Guardian
The Tate allowed Cornelia Parker, an 'artist', to bind Rodin's Kiss in rope. A public-spirited visitor cut the ropes, an act that was ironically called vandalism. The Family Friendly Museum award in the UK is being judged by an author who boasts about ignoring 'Do Not Touch' signs, which he thinks is fine because kids like to handle things. My visit to the Koninklijk in Antwerp was ruined by loud and intrusive video installations, and in one case a hyper-realist 'sculpture' of a man leaning against the glass in front of an old master painting.

But who actually goes to a museum to see sculptures obscured by rope wrappings, or to watch a video? The irony is that it's often museum officials rather than visitors who are most enthusiastic about this nonsense, because they misjudge their audiences and under-estimate the power of art (real art) to move people, without need for sensational pranks.