Photo by Connie Ma

Art museums, which once asked visitors to pocket cell phones upon entry, are now embracing what the New York Times calls a “digital first” mindset. No longer considered unwanted distractions, smart devices are being touted as vehicles for “multiple platform” museum experiences. “You want the way people live their lives to happen in the museum,” says the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Carrie Rebora Barratt. This mindset is self-defeating, however. Good art should challenge the way people live their lives.

The way we live and the way we view art have been in tension since the dawn of the modern age. From collapsible paint tubes to the printing press to photographic film, technology has transformed the way we produce and consume images. The transition is not always smooth: cultural critics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wondered how aesthetic experience would survive when art, aided by new technologies, was transposed from the sphere of ritual and religion into that of impersonal institutions for public consumption.

Today, social media and related technologies are once more transforming our relationship to images. But while social media encourages retreat into the self, aesthetic experience is not about the self; rather, it is about making demands upon, transporting, or going beyond the self and its preferences. Whether to exalt a world beyond the mundane, as in much classical and medieval art, or to criticize or perfect the mundane, as in much modern art, great works—whether the cathedral at Chartres, Picasso’s Guernica, or a Cy Twombly sculpture—challenge tastes, de-familiarize assumptions, styles, and perceptual habits, and inspire awe, reflection, or participation in historical and collective traditions and practices.

To be sure, art museums must strike a balance between meeting and exceeding current expectations, if they are not to become irrelevant. But the “digital first” mindset, under the guise of “empowering” the self, may actually be extending the cult of the digital self into the domain of the aesthetic. With the aid of technology, visitors can “connect with” or “project themselves onto” a work of art. Some envision “digital docents” that will tailor the museum experience to the visitor’s preferences, tastes, and interests. One museum will soon offer visitors digital pens that “give visitors explicit permission to play and to explore the process of designing for themselves.” Must we imagine ourselves the subject or creator of a work in order to appreciate it?

January 22, 2014, was worldwide “Museum Selfie Day.” Museumgoers were encouraged to share photographs of themselves in front of their favorite artwork, often posing like the subject in the background. In defense of this practice, the New York Times observed, without apparent irony, that “taking on the pose of a sculpture . . . is something the Met does with visitors who are blind or partially sighted because ‘feeling the pose’ can allow them to better understand the work.” One wonders: is the Times blind to the fact that the subject of a selfie taken in front of a work of art is the photographer himself, not the work of art? Do museum curators really want people looking down at smart phones instead of up at art?

Museums should certainly not be bereft of technology. Many contemporary artworks depend upon new technologies for their installation and viewing; moreover, when creatively introduced, technology can enhance museumgoers’ experiences. But the “digital first” mindset goes way beyond such innovations. Imagine if the media-centric work of twentieth century artists such as Nam June Paik, which led to the introduction and acceptance of video art, had also led curators to embrace a “television first” mindset. Would museums even exist today?

Curators would do well to remember how quickly new technologies grow old. The clunky audio devices and digital displays still in use at museums were once considered “cutting edge.” The technologically savvy young know this more than anyone. The generation that brought you the Museum of Endangered Sounds will not be seduced into attending art museums simply because they can use smart phones. Museums ought to challenge our preoccupation with ourselves and our devices. Art museums should offer visitors something that can’t be had elsewhere—a curated, intellectual, and aesthetic experience. For all their virtues, smart phones don’t do that.


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