Some would argue that the intrinsic value of a piece of artwork diminishes with every attempted reproduction. Walter Benjamin first popularized this theory of artistic devaluation during the 1930s, arguing that reproduction destroys the work’s “aura”. Applied to modern times, Benjamin’s theory suggests that the authenticity and integrity of a piece of art is compromised with every iPhone snapshot, poster print, and social media upload.
Yet, museum-goers worldwide are allowed, even encouraged, to photograph artwork (many museums have well-managed social media accounts featuring works in their collections). I have scarcely seen a museum or gallery devoid of selfie stick or camera-wielding visitors. This phenomenon is especially visible in legendary museums like the Louvre, the British Museum, or the Met, in which visitors dash between masterpieces, spending just enough time with a painting or sculpture to capture a worthy picture. It is almost as if one seeks out a piece of art only to say, “I’ve seen the Mona Lisa” or “I’ve seen a Caravaggio.”
Beyonce and Jay Z pose with artwork at the Louvre.
The Met’s newly-opened exhibit “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” seems to reject this “crash course-style” viewing experience. The exhibit consists of 133 drawings by Michelangelo, including drafts of the Sistine fresco, sketches of paintings, and architectural drawings. The fragile nature of media on display—ink and chalk on paper—is averse to photography. It is for the viewer to see and admire with his or her own eyes the texture of the pages, and the lines, shades, and shadows created by the hand of a legendary artist. The drawings themselves also create an eerie, undeniable intimacy between artist and audience: to see the very lines and curves drawn by a man of mythic fame is to peer into the mind of a genius and see his thoughts materialized. A quick snapshot could not do them justice…
The Sistine Chapel ceiling, painted by Michelangelo from 1508-1512. On the altar wall is the Last Judgement, painted by Michelangelo from 1536-1541.
Of course, one is free to experience the exhibit, as well as the museum, however he or she wishes. I understand completely the desire to memorialize an aesthetic experience. I would not deny having sneaked a photograph of a voluptuous Venus or a dynamic Delacroix every once in a while. I have even, totally hypocritically, snapped a picture of the Mona Lisa myself. But, I am inclined to think that the experience of viewing artwork is enhanced without interference from the iPhone. For years audiences confronted art, whether it be painting, sculpture, or performance, directly rather than through the lens of a camera phone. While it is undeniably hard to resist the temptation, maybe we could all keep our phones in our pockets the next time we visit a gallery or museum. Who knows what we might discover.