Skip to main content

'Looking' at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Musée du Louvre. (Photo: Kosala Bandara/Flickr)

Musée du Louvre. (Photo: Kosala Bandara/Flickr)

“Beyoncé and Jay-Z Take Selfie With Mona Lisa!” headlines all over the Internet blared. BuzzFeed went so far as to call it “the best picture of our generation.” And it’s true, the first couple of American pop culture did take a photo of themselves in front of one of the masterpieces of European art history. But in the instantly iconic image, the two musicians aren’t even looking at the famous work of art that they knowingly appropriate. In fact, they have their backs turned to it, with the Mona Lisa’s face poking out over their shoulders like a photobomb across the centuries.

Sure, Renaissance painting isn’t the most popular form of culture for American audiences. I admit that it’s an acquired taste. But is visual art in such a dire state for mainstream audiences that the best thing to do with an immaculate rendering of humanity in oil on canvas is to take a picture with it like it’s your long-lost cousin rather than just take it in?

Art can easily be intimidating. Sharing the experience, whether online or off, can make it less so.

As a sometime art critic and a lifelong fan of art museums, the Mona Lisa selfie makes me cynical because it fails to emphasize any focus on the actual art. Jay and Bey’s trip to the Louvre, where the painting is usually surrounded by hoards of onlookers with raised cameras—though of course the gallery was empty for the two celebrities—was exhaustively documented. There’s a photo of Beyoncé giving the Mona Lisa a peace sign. Then the pair mimic the poses of various classical statues, including one that looks eerily like it’s taking a selfie. Then a shot of their daughter Blue Ivy sashaying in another empty gallery while Beyoncé snaps a photo on her phone. Nowhere do they appear to be thinking about what’s on display.

This series has the look of a propagandistic clothing advertisement with the brand wiped out. It communicates a simple idea: Art is cool and stylish! Celebrities you obsess over like it! But what you look like while looking at art is not what the museum viewing experience should be about. It should be about actually looking at art.

The viewing process has become harder as the smartphones that Jay and Bey use to take their selfies have become omnipresent. The phone gets in the way of contemplating a single work on a blank wall; it creates a constant temptation to document your surroundings or check your email, Twitter, and Facebook. The white cubes of museums are designed to encourage a sense of quiet isolation and create a space in which new ideas can be encountered and dissected through the medium of art; smartphones turn them into playgrounds to practice posing instead.

In the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott recently published a helpful guide to viewing art. His suggestions include “take time,” “seek silence,” and “study up,” as well as “leave all your devices behind,” advice that Bey and Jay clearly didn’t follow. The major lesson here is that a museum-going experience won’t be worth much if you don’t approach it with a sense of intention and a desire to consider the art on its own terms.

So should we ban smartphones from galleries entirely, maybe install technology coat-checks in the lobby of every major museum? I don’t think so. When I worked as a guard in a contemporary art museum, the questions I got most often from visitors were simple, but important: When was a piece made? What is it made out of? Did the artist always work with this medium? This information can usually be found on a wall label, but smartphones also provide an opportunity to add even more context about a work. Many museums produce custom-made apps to heighten the exhibition experience—no need to even find a docent. The phone is an art-historical dictionary in your pocket, if you choose to use it that way.

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over, and it should always be in support of the art rather than an interruption. Sharing #artselfies on Instagram might help you connect with friends who also know their Matisse, for example. Art can easily be intimidating. Sharing the experience, whether online or off, can make it less so.

But posting an Insta-brag from a museum or a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa is not the same thing as working to understand an artwork. Like reading a difficult novel or binge-watching an entire season of Mad Men, art requires commitment. In the end, the payoff will be better the more effort you put in to the experience, not to mention longer-lasting than the latest round of pop star music videos.

Art has the benefit of maintaining its relevance no matter what might be going on in the world around it. In fact, I’m willing to bet that the Mona Lisa will prove to be a far more enduring celebrity than both Jay-Z and Beyoncé, for all their current popularity. Let’s show her some respect.