The National Gallery of Art tastefully complements Washington, D.C.’s brutal summers. It’s cool, quiet, and houses some of the finest pieces of Western art—a welcome retreat from the humid swamp outside.
But thanks to Snapchat, the outside has barged its way in.
Inspired by the internet’s seemingly boundless classical art meme stash, eager Snappers rush around the halls in their free time, kitsching up the exhibits with emojis, filters, and (usually) tasteless captions. Just last week, I saw Thomas Gainsborough’s portrait of Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan overlaid with a perpetua filter and the caption “MILF.” Emojis bounced around Turner’s seas. Raphael’s Alba Madonna told the infant Christ the novus ordo mass must go.
If you run with an arty crowd, you’re probably already familiar with Snapchat’s prominence at art galleries. The whole affair has a postmodern charm about it, but the practice cheapens the experience of going to see great paintings. Galleries should exist so visitors can wonder at man’s ability to depict the world’s beauty through art. Snapchat twists this purpose, shifting the focus of wonder from the artwork onto the snapper’s aptitude for irreverent wit.
But there should be no room for irreverence. The best art galleries are like churches: places where people go to step outside of themselves—if only for an hour—and peer into the eternal. Snapchat acts as an impediment; you can’t get a very good look into eternity if you’re marking up a picture of a painting with a doodler. You could only play the cynic, or worse, the boor.
True art appreciation occurs only once you’ve discarded your camera. I’ve seen people stare at Albrecht Bierstadt’s “Among the Sierra Nevada” at the National Portrait Gallery for up to ten minutes without distraction simply because they’re overcome by its colossal depiction of the American West. His incredible attention to detail captures everything from Colorado’s billowing clouds, to the craggy mountains, to the deer wading into the gigantic lake. It’s almost as if he transmuted an actual landscape onto his canvas.
But once photographed, “Among the Sierra Nevada”’s clouds seem drab, the mountains flat, and the deer Bambi-like. The photographer can’t crane his neck backward to drink in the whole canvas. And the Snapchatter can’t focus on the painting at all. That’s the downside of an app designed for a million distractions; you’ll always fall prey to one—hopefully it won’t be ruining Bierstadt with heart emojis and an #AmericanEden caption.
Snapchat’s assault on art is just a more absurd iteration of an ongoing problem with photography. Once photographed, life becomes a static moment, disconnected from real experience. There’s a funny scene in Jim Jarmusch’s Elvis homage movie, Mystery Train, where a young Japanese couple touring Memphis discovers this fact. The boy has a camera, but he refuses to take pictures of the tourist sights like everyone else. Instead, he photographs his hotel bedroom. When his girlfriend asks why he won’t photograph the Elvis places, he tells her, “Those are the things I will keep in my mind. The rooms and the airports I will not remember.”
It should be the same with a visit to the art gallery. Looking at paintings and sculptures up close engages the eyes in a way that a photograph never could. The art gallery lets us see color, texture, depth—a full panoply of human craft that elevates a still image to an object worthy of wonder. Photography cheapens that experience. Snapchat paupers it.
So do yourself a favor the next time you go to the art gallery: Ditch the camera. Just look at the paintings.
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