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On the Joys of Looking at Artwork (and the pitfalls of photographing artwork) in a Museum

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One of the great joys of looking at artwork is that we can come ‘face’ to ‘face’ with alternative ways of seeing. To look at artwork is to encounter an interpretation of reality that may be different from our own. If we mediate this experience through a camera, we channel a unique way of looking at the world through the familiar technology of the 21st Century and as a consequence, we are not challenged to see differently or to empathetically engage with another worldview. Experiencing art becomes neatly reduced to a flat recording of light, and more recently, packaged into red, green and blue distributions of pixels and stored as data.

Photography is a remarkable information technology. In a very user friendly way, photography serves to enlarge, if not multiply, any given moment of time by recording reflected light – this, in an otherwise unrelenting continuum of experience. It is worth noting that photography uses a language of flat symbols, one that we in the west are well primed to understand given our rich history of making and viewing pictures made of pigment. But when we look at a work of art through a camera, take its picture and move on, how does this effect the ways in which we personally store and process information?

One way to understand the effects of photography is in comparing two different ways of recording visual information – 1) drawing a work of art and 2) photographing this artwork. The act of copying a work of art by drawing it is to construct a mental image over a period of time. The copy is the result of choices based upon sensory input and pre-existent mental models – where does a certain line fall relative to other lines, what does one value look like in comparison to another? How does this artwork differ from what I expected or originally thought? These questions become an active feedback loop with the work of art that is being copied, the copyist and the drawing that is being built.

To photograph a work of art, on the other hand, is a type of outsourcing of the mental models needed to make a copy. The storage of information falls upon the activation of pixels and not synaptic connections. Moreover, it takes time for humans to experience the mental process of empathizing. According to a study conducted by USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, MRI scans revealed that these processes are slow when compared with the more primitive pain centers in our brains. “For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow adequate time and reflection.” writes Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a member of the research team. “If things are happening too fast, you may not fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states.”1

Museums by their nature already remove artwork from their original context. When we walk through a museum armed with a camera we further distance ourselves from art’s challenging and stimulating potential. While we may increase our ability to consume data, we are missing an opportunity to project our selves into another’s shoes.

  1. Carl Marziali, “Nobler Instincts Take Time,” USC Web site, August 29, 2016, https://news.usc.edu/29206/Nobler-Instincts-Take-Time/

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