THR Web Features   /   October 31, 2023

Art and the Smartphone

Shoot and move on.

Stephen K. White

( Stephen K. White)

Cellphones were the last thing on my mind as Pat and I prepared to visit museums and performances on a recent visit to Paris, but the entanglement of phones with art in contemporary life was simply shoved in our faces. The first night in the city we attended a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni set in the de rigueur present rather than the eighteenth century. In the first act, after Don Giovanni shoots the enraged father of one of his sexual conquests, the Don’s valet desperately tries to summon a doctor, running wildly about the woods seemingly in search of something. It was all a bit puzzling until the valet came upstage and announced to his master, “I can’t get any reception here.” Just a little smartphone humor to lighten things up, you might say.

Things turned darker the next afternoon, when we saw a modern dance program at the Palais Garnier. In the first performance, “The Last Call,” choreographed by Marion Motin, the curtain opened on a darkened stage to reveal a single piece of scenery: A public phone booth outlined in neon orange light. As the phone in the booth began to ring, a young man stepped across the stage to answer it, launching into a pantomimed conversation that became increasingly disturbing. Struggling to pull away from the phone booth, he became entangled in the now-extended cord and even seemed to be choked by it, at least until he was finally pulled away by two other men who appeared out of a crowd of dancers, all dressed in black leather and moving to the grating sound of incessant heavy metal music. Sometimes the dancers seemed to be saving the protagonist; at other times, they alternately shunned and beat him. This disturbing performance ended with the phone suddenly ringing again and the other dancers forcibly preventing the protagonist from answering it. The message, one might infer, was that for us denizens of the brave new world of smartphones, the age of landlines was definitively over—not that this represented a great leap forward for humankind.

The uneasy relationship between that new world and art was brought home to me during the following days at the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, and other Paris museums. The phenomenon I am referring to is not entirely new, but the current ubiquity of cell phones has turned it into something of a pandemic. You experience it most vividly at highly publicized special exhibits or in front of classics like the Venus de Milo. This was the case with a new Van Gogh exhibit at the d’Orsay. It was a stunning show about the last two months of Van Gogh’s life in a small village outside Paris. In that brief period, he completed, rather astonishingly, more than one hundred paintings and drawings. In the first room of the exhibit hung a famous self-portrait of the artist, before which stood a dense pack of viewers. Only they weren’t really viewing. They were capturing the image with their cellphone cameras. From the back of the crowd, I could barely see the painting, though less because of heads and more because of phones held high to record the image of Van Gogh. People were desperate to acquire a piece of the famous. It is the reverse of what some pre-modern indigenous peoples felt when they feared that photographs would steal their souls. Today, patrons of the arts are delighted to believe that they can do just that with the artworks they photograph.

Of course, some people were serious about Van Gogh and looked carefully at the paintings after taking their pictures, but they were a small minority. Most people spent more time lining up the photo than looking at the painting; in some cases, they spent no time at all on the latter. Capture the image and move on. Tarrying is for cultural tortoises.

The origin of this photo-philia for art predates the smartphone. I first noticed it a good thirty years ago in Paris museums. Then, it was mostly Nikon-armed Japanese tourists who were involved in the nascent shoot-and-move-on drama. Today, the Nikons are largely gone, but the Japanese are still in the forefront, only now equipped with smartphones. Coming away with photos of great art is, I sense, comparable to bringing home a top designer handbag. The same people you see in the Louvre can be seen later in the day on the nearby Rue St. Honoré, standing in line on the street waiting to be admitted to the toniest boutiques. But if you can imagine what uses the handbags will be put to, you have to wonder how the photos will be used. Perhaps to impress friends by having them swipe through your two dozen photos of Van Goghs, thereby certifying that you did in fact see the exhibition and thus earning the desired boost in status? So it would seem.

If the Japanese led the way, no nationality today has a lock on the smartphoning of art. It is a metastasizing way of creating a commodified experience out of a possible encounter with art. The commodity is a symbolic one in the exchange economy of social status. Of course, when rich and aristocratic patrons in earlier centuries collected art, their artworks also had a role in status enhancement, even if ultimately the works ended up in museums open to the public. Museums today certainly offer the public wonderful opportunities to experience great art. What does that mean? If we are not just seeking symbolic exchange value, what should we be seeking when we enter a museum? What is the “use value” of art?

Smartphones help us to be stupid in the face of art. When we went to museums before we had those gadgets, we were pretty much stuck just looking at the art, perhaps even thinking about it, playing with it in our minds, allowing it to take us out of our routines of seeing and appropriating. But for those of us who are unsettled by the shoot-and-move on phenomenon, perhaps there is a small upside to this blight. It might compel us to think more carefully about how great art attracts and holds us. It may even help us cultivate a greater depth in our relationship to it.

Could we ban cellphone photography in museums and at performances? Current experience is not encouraging. At the performance of “The Last Call,” right before the curtain was raised, a deep voice intoned over the public address system: “The taking of photographs during the performance is strictly forbidden!” As the curtain went up, scores of cellphones were held up to catch the opening scene. Clearly, threats are not enough. But imagine trying to prevent patrons from entering venues with their phones, with the nightmare of delays, bag searches, and tables piled high with mountains of phones. Perhaps the only solution is a technological one that would disable all phone functions within the confines of art venues. But would that even be possible?

Our last morning in Paris was spent at the Louvre. Looking for the gallery with archaic Greek sculpture, I noticed a commotion in an adjoining room, where the Venus de Milo stood, now surrounded by a massive, snapping throng that put the Van Gogh crowd to shame. What to make of this culture-consumption melee? As Hippocrates almost said, “Life is brief; art is what remains in your phone.”