Jenny Hjul

In the iPhone of the Beholder

Art exhibitions are more popular than ever but are we seeing things properly?

Lorena Huerta /

Isn’t it great how crowded art galleries are these days? Especially when there is a blockbuster exhibition, and you have to pay to get in. Then it becomes a scramble to book a timed slot, like buying a hot theatre ticket. The image of a lone art lover seated on a bench before an old master in quiet contemplation is more often seen in an art film (possibly French) than in the flesh. If culture is measured in footfall at museums, we are cultured indeed. For all the hand wringing about the arts being elitist, it seems the public does find art, or at least paintings, accessible.

This is an international phenomenon, one that applies wherever there is famous art hanging. From London to Paris, New York to St Petersburg, there are long queues outside the landmark galleries, queues inside their cafes, for their cloakrooms and at their gift shop tills – just like other big tourist attractions.

For all the hand wringing about the arts being elitist, it seems the public does find art, or at least paintings, accessible.

And just like at other tourist attractions, in art galleries people take photographs on their phones. Although rules about photography were relaxed relatively recently – five years ago in the National Gallery, for instance – the practice is now commonplace. It is much more acceptable than, say, clapping between the movements of symphonies in the concert hall because art is light years ahead of classical music in terms of accessibility.

And this is good, isn’t it? Art appreciation should, of course, be a mainstream activity in an advanced society and not the preserve of a scholarly minority. But why do people take pictures of the paintings? Visiting the Degas at the Opera exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay in November, I saw more people, of all nationalities, look at his dancers through the intermediary of a mobile than with the naked eye.

It was so normal it was catching. I’ve just checked my own phone and found two photographs from that day: The Ballet Class, depicting ballet master Jules Perrot and dancers after a rehearsal; and, from another room in the museum, Monet’s London, Houses of Parliament. The Sun Shining through the Fog.

My sister was there too and she said she took photos of the little dancer sculpture and a couple of Van Goghs, the latter to show her daughter, though two weeks later she admitted she hadn’t.

We are both lightweights. At the Hermitage two years ago, I was nearly knocked over by fellow tourists as they sprinted to snap the Impressionists and post-Impressionists in their entirety. Were they planning on speed viewing the whole Winter Palace, all 400 rooms and three million paintings of it? And were they capturing the images to show back home, as proof they were there? But then why so many? Or were they taking photographs because they wanted to own the art, or own the experience?

There is scant evidence that this behaviour deepens insight or that increasing accessibility is accompanied by better understanding. Gallerists try hard to engage an audience that knows nothing at all, said Michael Savage, of the Grumpy Art Historian blog, harking back to previous generations when there was more ‘connoisseurship’ - the ability to tell which artist painted a painting, when they painted it, and how - among the general public. There is a growing divide between the professionals and the people on the street, he argues: “How do we talk to them, how do you go from one to the other without doing an art history degree? You can do some internet research… But I do think we have some duty to try and tell people a little bit more and let people develop a bit further.’

The art critic, Jonathan Jones, called the avoidance of unclothed Tahitians “an act of prudery – and even censorship” in a “nervous cop-out of a show.

Arguably, the connoisseurs still exist as they did before, but they don’t reflect the mindset of the majority of the gallery-going population, who might know what they like even if they don’t know what it means. However, there seems to be a consensus, within museum administrations anyway, that ignorance is a price worth paying for broadening access. Success is gauged by sales not sagacity.

Consuming the visual arts is less challenging than sitting through a two-hour recital or a play because fewer demands are made of the consumer. This helps get more people through the turnstiles but there is a risk. If we don’t know anything about a painting we will interpret it literally. This may not be an impediment to enjoyment, but there is the danger that without historical context we will impose our own context on it.

What is lost is the capacity to see beyond the picture to what the artist saw; it is processed just as an image, and filed as an image, on the phone perhaps, along with the thousands of other images. Michael Savage says museums could be more helpful if they taught connoisseurship rather than “pushing political agendas.”

The public, in all its art-devouring enthusiasm, is at the mercy of the gallery, which decides what we see. And alongside the imperative to promote art to a wider audience comes heightened awareness of the cultural climate, and acknowledgement of the curators’ responsibility as custodians. Decisions are influenced by the loudest voices but these are not necessarily the best informed. Art scholars would never admit they are bullied into political choices when they hang their pictures, but recent events prove otherwise.

Feminist campaigns have long focused on the over-representation of female nudes as subject matter in art and the under representation of female artists in galleries. But constructive or not, this has not relegated our favourite masterpieces to storerooms – until now. Against the backdrop of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the art world cannot escape the gaze that is forcing a re-evaluation of how women are treated across the arts - in film, television, music and theatre.

Jumping on the bandwagon, the Royal Academy introduced a gender quota in its Renaissance Nude exhibition, which displayed as many men as women when it opened earlier this year. At the Gauguin show, currently at the National Gallery, the famous naked Polynesian girls are mostly excluded in favour of those dressed in the high necked frocks that were supplied by the missionaries in Tahiti. The art critic, Jonathan Jones, called the avoidance of unclothed Tahitians “an act of prudery – and even censorship” in a “nervous cop-out of a show.”

But getting people into the gallery is only the start of enlightenment. What we mustn’t do now, or let galleries do in our name, is hide these works from view.

Our age is not the first to censor art, or literature, that we consider inappropriate to contemporary sensibility. The Victorians had their fig leaves and handkerchiefs, and other, less savoury, epochs have resorted to vandalism.

The Manchester Art Gallery has gone further than the Royal Academy, removing John William Waterhouse’s painting Hylas and the Nymphs in 2018, because it was deemed “uncomfortable” viewing by the curator, portraying the female body as a passive decorative art form. Postcards of the painting were also banned from the shop.

This decision, soon reversed after protests, was made for highly subjective not artistic reasons, but they were wrong-headed; as classicists pointed out, Hylas is the victim in the myth that inspired the picture, lured to his death by the predatory sirens. Naked they may be, powerless they’re not.

Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia, which hangs in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, could be seen as presenting rape as a form of entertainment, said the gallery’s director, Luke Syson. But this is a “deeply current issue” - in Game of Thrones, 50 female characters have been attacked in the course of the series. Context is crucial: Lucretia killed herself after the rape and became “one of the Renaissance’s repertoire of virtuous women who put their chastity and virtue above their lives.” Her death also kicked off the Roman republic and the overthrowing of the tyranny of Tarquin which everyone would have known when they saw the picture in the 16th century.

“Unless we think about how each of the three figures would have been viewed in terms of the gender politics of the day and the broader politics of the day,” Syson adds. “we’re not understanding what Titian was fighting to achieve.” Can the modern punter be bothered to delve that deep? Ticking off a Titian on the “to do” list by storing it in your mobile’s memory is one thing, reading up on the man and his milieu is another.

But getting people into the gallery is only the start of enlightenment. What we mustn’t do now, or let galleries do in our name, is hide these works from view. As Jonathan Jones said: “If we can’t see art, we can’t debate it. And there is so much to debate.” How ironic it would be if just as we discover art en masse, it is taken away from us. Maybe there is a point to those photos after all.

Nick Jensen

This World is on Fire