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And That's Me With the Mona Lisa!

Surprised museum researchers find many visitors snap photographs of themselves with the masterpieces.
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(Photo: aleluerti/Flickr)

(Photo: aleluerti/Flickr)

An art museum is built for contemplation, exploration, and exhilaration. It's a place to lose yourself as you're transported into a wondrous world of color and light, a journey that can leave you dazzled, disturbed, and deeply moved.

Or, you can just take a selfie while standing in front of a masterpiece.

The surprising popularity of that option was discovered by researchers at the Art Institute of Chicago, when they set out to replicate a 2001 study examining how much time people typically spend looking at individual works of art.

They found time allotment has remained remarkably stable over 15 years. But for many patrons, the way they utilize those precious seconds with Picasso has shifted significantly, with more than one-third snapping shots of themselves in front of the work of art.

For many, the focus of a museum visit has apparently shifted from viewing the art, to letting others know that you saw the art.

In the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, a research team led by Lisa Smith of the University of Otago labeled these Monet-and-me images "arties."

It seems many museum-goers "want to quickly 'consume' the work without actually engaging (much) in its content," the researchers write. "That is, they seem to take it in quickly and then move on to the next work."

But not before creating a visual record of the fact they were there.

Smith and two colleagues quietly observed visitors to the Art Institute during one week in April 2015, noting specifically their interaction with nine works, including Grant Wood's American Gothic, Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, and Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. They noted the behavior of 456 people, a sample nearly evenly split between men and women.

They found the total amount of time people spent looking at one of the works, and reading the descriptive label, averaged 28.63 seconds. That's remarkably close to the 27.2 seconds reported in the 2001 study at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (For whatever reason, they tended to linger longer at the famous image of American Gothic.)

But how people spent that half-minute did shift over the past 15 years. "What was striking," the researchers write, "was the number of visitors who took selfies with the art."

"On the first day of the data collection, after approximately 100 observations had been completed, we gathered to compare progress. We all commented on the selfie phenomenon and coined the term 'arties' to denote a selfie taken at a work of art."

Over the next two days, they noted how many people took "arties," and found it was 123 out of the 356 they observed—approximately 35 percent. They were taken at all nine works, by people of both genders and all ages.

The researchers did not approach the patrons, so they can only speculate on why they chose to take these photos. "Perhaps taking 'arties' was an inexpensive way around buying a catalog, with the added bonus on having oneself in the picture," they write. "For some, we suspect that the 'arties' went onto social media, with a 'look where I was' type of message."

While Smith and her colleagues don't go there, one can make the case that this trend is indicative of our ever-increasing narcissism. For many, it seems the focus of a museum visit has apparently shifted from viewing the art (an act of intellectual and emotional engagement), to letting others know that you saw the art (an act of self-advertisement).

On the other hand, it might be effective marketing: A Facebook friend intrigued by the shot may decide to make a visit. It also implies certain works have achieved something akin to celebrity status; just as you might want a selfie with, say, Hillary Clinton, you take pleasure in sharing an image of yourself and van Gogh.

For museums, the results suggest that attempts to get people to slow down and focus their attention, such as guided walking tours, are more important than ever. We may be living in a short-attention-span, show-off society, but surely arts institutions should offer—and even encourage—a different kind of experience.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.