“But the King said…’The fact is that [writing] will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it’s not a recipe for memory, but for reminding.'”
I’ve been going to art museums more lately, attending the Hopper retrospective at the Whitney, and more recently, the Magritte retrospective at MoMA. Not having been to many art museums in the last decade, I was surprised to see a behavior familiar from concerts: a seeming greater focus on capturing just the right picture or video than on experiencing the thing being recorded.
Museum patrons would frequently stop to take pictures of the art they saw, sometimes with themselves in the picture, sometimes just the art itself. The experience was previously about contemplatively engaging with the art, often attempting to approach the art as closely as possible (at least in theory). A visit to an art museum seems for many to have become about seeking moments to interpose a camera between the viewer and the viewed. The age of mechanical reproduction made it easier than ever for the public to experience a facsimile of art, but the age of electronic reproduction may make it harder for us to experience the original.
To clarify, my concern here is not generally with mediating the experience. There is certainly a valid path for discussion in that direction, but art is never perceived in its platonic form. The perception of a work is influenced by everything from the lighting to the other patrons, as well as the context into which it has been placed by the curator. Rather, I worry about the “purpose” of being at a museum as it becomes a scavenger hunt, more concerned with acquiring the perfect set of JPGs than with understanding what is seen.
“I don’t keep a travel diary. I did keep a travel diary once and it was a big mistake. All I remember of that trip is what I bothered to write down. Everything else slipped away, as though my mind felt jilted by my reliance on pen and paper. For exactly the same reason I don’t travel with a camera. My holiday becomes the snapshots and anything I forget to record is lost.”
― Alex Garland, The Beach
New research by Linda A. Henkel shows a further problematic dimension to this trend: when patrons use cameras in museums, they are less likely to remember what they see (Alex Garland was apparently a bit prescient when he wrote the above passage in The Beach). Previous research showed how technology could be harnessed for types of transactive memory that had previously been social. The diminished memory of the photographed art and diminished memory of what can be retrieved through a web search are likely two facets of the same phenomenon.
With a shift towards more pervasive life-logging—from Google Glass to Evernote—there may be a risk of having more memories at our fingertips and fewer in our head. This is not inherently negative, particularly if off-loading the cognitive load of some memory storage and retrieval permits more high-level thinking, but it is something that should involve deliberate decision-making with a more complete understanding of the trade-offs.
Perhaps the most significant unresolved question is what happens to the high-level reasoning involved in making novel connections between facts when those facts are not stored in “bio-memory.” Having digitally recorded a Magritte painting concerned with connecting the written word with an object, and knowing that Ong wrote about the disconnect between the written word and an object, how many specifics do I need to know personally to bring these two data points together? Will seeing the Magritte remind me that I need to do the web search to find the relevant Ong passage, or will I fail to make the connection? Just how much memory can be offloaded before it impacts the creation of novel ideas.
Finally, as Sherry Turkle recently discussed in the New York Times, the taking of the photograph interrupts an experience. Interrupting an experience is not always detrimental, but museums have typically been designed to increase ones focus on the exhibited work.
Attending a museum exhibition with a friend will also lead to its share of interruptions, but such interruptions will typically focus on what is being immediately experienced. As taking a photograph so often means reaching for the phone (and its embedded camera), the action potentially exposes the photographer to a host of notifications unrelated to the experience. The art in front of the patron becomes one more tab in a figurative browser, with the patron encouraged to multitask between Facebook comments, Instagram “loves,” and tweets. The cognitive costs of this type of multitasking have been well documented and seems detrimental to the deep focus needed to appreciate many works.
All of the above should be taken with one tremendous caveat. Many of the people at the museum do not take pictures of the art. The average museum-goer notoriously spends little time looking at individuals pieces (the Detroit Institute of Art found visitors were spending an average of less than three minutes in a gallery, even after omitting data from any patrons who spent less than a minute in the gallery). Obviously, there is a high standard deviation here, with some people spending considerable time viewing a piece. Are the photographers generally people who would deeply engage with pieces rarely regardless of the camera, or does this cut across styles, with more serious devotees of art creating an inspiration book that undermines their memories and potentially their connections to that which is meant to inspire them?
Are my concerns overblown? Is there research out there relevant to these concerns that I haven’t included here? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Taking Pictures (Caillebotte) captured by Nicholas Knight