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.

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