A few weeks ago, I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While going through the galleries, I noticed something that first annoyed, then worried me. I found that it was difficult to get a good view of the paintings because other visitors kept walking in front of me.
At first I thought, “This must be a cultural difference”, assuming they were foreign visitors, but when I stepped back to see what was going on, I realized that while some were foreign tourists, many were Americans. They didn't notice that they were walking in front of people because they were always looking through their cameras.
As I watched this strange behaviour, I realized that the camera-holding folks were not pushing to get a better look at the artwork—most of them did not look directly at the paintings or sculptures at all. In most cases they would walk up to a work of art, look through the camera, select their shot, click and move on. Some never saw the art directly; rather, they used the camera to document what they saw or, more accurately, what they never saw.
What was most worrisome was that in addition to capturing proof of having not seen great art, the camera tourists were oblivious of the other visitors around them. Looking through their cameras, they were able to stay apart from the art and also from their fellow human beings.
Here is the sad aesthetic irony: Works of art are made by human beings for other human beings. An artist works to communicate the deepest connections, perspectives and ideas with other people. Great artists give deeply of themselves in creating their work. It seems that the least they can ask of us—who come to visit museums—is that we stop and look, repaying them with our attention.
In a museum such as the Metropolitan, where some of the greatest art is housed, we can assume that these works offer us some of the best reminders of our universal connections to other people, near and far, in terms of both geography and time. That is why the best museums attract us; we want to see what was created by artists and what they have to tell us. But maybe now, cameras raised in front, we prefer not to see but to have seen.
I left the museum wishing for a day without cameras. I invite you to try it. One vacation day with no camera. No digital, no video and no cellphone.
If you are camera dependent—as the Met visitors seemed to be—you may not remember that the human eye, using extraordinary technology called the retina and the brain, also records images.
Cameras are wonderful but they fool us into thinking we can “take” a picture—but we can’t really. We’re tempted to believe that we can capture an experience that is intended for the here and now, in the moment.
Yes, we all have that desire for a souvenir or a reminder. But most museums and beautiful sites have anticipated that need. They have arranged for the best photographer to take the best picture from the best angle with the best camera. You can take home that postcard for less than a dollar.
Art has the power to ignite our imagination, stimulate our thinking and provide enjoyment, but for that to happen there is an unspoken rule—kind of like at a casino: You must be present to win.
So for one day, lower the camera. There's no telling what you might see.
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
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