Your Smartphone is Not Your Friend (or Why the Mona Lisa is Not a Selfie Opportunity)

My wife and I recently returned from an eight-day trip to Paris for our wedding anniversary. I had never been to Paris before, although I studied French in college and so I am very familiar with the various sites and monuments.  I know the L’Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde and Notre-Dame, and can repeat the names of those places with a pretty fair French accent.  I even remember all the words to the song about the Champs-Élysées that I learned in high school, and was prepared to croon them as I strolled along that most famous of avenues. Let’s say that I have experienced Paris pretty fully with my mind, but not with my senses.

So as our airport shuttle made its way from Charles de Gaulle to the heart of Saint-Germain, I experienced what no picture in any book could possibly have evoked in me: wonder.  From the freeway, we identified the Basilica of Sacré-Cœur erupting out of the skyline from its height in Montmartre. A little further on, La Tour Eiffel burst into view, dwarfing almost every other building around, ten times larger than our imaginations suggested.  Coming in sight of the Louvre, we were amazed by a palace so sprawling that it could not be fully viewed without turning one’s head.

It was in those moments that I felt “the impulse.” You know what I mean.  It was like there was a huge magnet in my pocket that was enticing my hand to reach in, my arm caught in a tractor beam that was slowing and inexorably luring me to plunge inside and draw out, of course, my smartphone…to snap a picture.

1) The Impulse

As I said before, I have seen many photographs of these places, and any picture that I could take would simply not do them justice, particularly from the window of an airport shuttle speeding along. I could not possibly capture the sense of wonder, and yet, that is exactly what I felt compelled to do.  My spirit ached to immortalize in some meagre way what I was feeling at that moment.  And strangely, it was a compulsion so very strong as to be almost irresistible.

Unfortunately, that impulse robs me of what I was actually hoping to do, which was genuinely and profoundly to experience something.  And instead of living in the moment and fully experiencing that wonder with my senses, I fixate on a little, iridescent screen that has dwarfed the experience to that of a postcard.  My whole being with these five senses has been redirected to an artificial sixth sense that I purchased at Best Buy, just a substitute for the real thing.  And my purpose in the moment has shifted as well.  Instead of reveling in the moment and soaking up all the sights and sounds, I am focused on getting just the right shot, with the proper framing and lighting and so forth.  I have chosen to be enslaved to a device.

Now, I understand that there are a variety of motivations behind this impulse. I know that some people want to document their trip in pictures, although a camera of better quality might be a wiser choice.  I know that some people are focused on posting to social media—we’ll talk about that in a minute.  But I think that the rest of us fall into an intermediate limbo, a sort of twilight zone where we don’t really know how to experience things with our senses anymore.  Taking a picture has become a substitute for living fully in the moment as a sensual human being.

2) The Voyeur

Having come to the city of museums, we were destined to visit quite a number of them, and we certainly filled out our dance card in this regard. We spent two days in the Louvre (where we might have spent two weeks), and that was in addition to the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée de l’Orangerie and any number of other monuments like Les Invalides or the Pantheon that are a different kind of museum.  But as I wandered through these places, what I experienced of the other visitors was intriguing.

Over and over again, I would see visitors walk up to a painting, take out their phone or Ipad and get the picture all lined up, take a shot and move on. As far as I could tell, that was the extent of their engagement with this breath-taking work of art.  They had chosen to limit their experience to that of an art voyeur, a peeping tom who goes about snapping seductive shots, gathering a catalogue for their private perusal, but never really finding satisfaction in the experience.

I don’t mean to be judgmental, because I completely understand the impulse. I have felt the same way.  Here is this beautiful or disturbing or evocative piece of art hanging on the wall.  How exactly am I supposed to experience this thing?  In the most concrete terms, what should I do?  Where do I direct my eyes?  Where do I direct my mind?  How do I know when I’m finished?  They don’t hand out those kinds of instructions in the gift shop.  We’re like perpetual virgins on our wedding night in front of a work of art.  We aren’t sure how to experience something like this, and so it happens that we allow our smartphones to usurp our senses.

Here is the problem with that approach. When you don’t really look at someone or something—when you don’t really experience something with your senses—then I must tell you that you miss out on the details that give it meaning.  You don’t truly understand what the painter or author or Creator was trying to say in that work of art, and so your understanding is reduced to that of merely a snapshot.  We gloss over truth when we don’t pause to experience beauty in the detail of something, and I believe that is true when we experience people as well.  When you don’t really look at someone, then you never truly meet them at all.

3) The Narcissist

I saw something else in the museums that was far more troubling than the art voyeur: the art narcissist.  All throughout the museum, I would see people taking selfies of themselves with famous works of art, inserting themselves into the work, making the experience all about them.  At the Musée d’Orsay, I saw the deep and troubled eyes of a self-portrait of Van Gogh pleading, crying out with each cheese of a smiling tourist, “Please make them stop.” It was a feeding frenzy.  Gathered around the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, a perpetual crowd of people never disperses because each one has to shoot a selfie with the enigmatic ingenue.  My wife tells me that there are blogs dedicated to how to take a good selfie.  Apparently one is supposed to practice taking selfies in order to do it just right.  Who knew?

Lest I sound judgmental once again, I have taken selfies.  I remember that my friends and I in college used to take selfies with an old manual camera on rides at Disneyland, mouth open and hair blown back.  And in Paris, my wife and I would shoot selfies along the Seine or at Versailles.  Honestly, I’m not saying that taking a selfie is somehow wrong in and of itself.  However, if we believe that the idea of a museum is to document our lives, then there is something seriously wrong.  We are not looking to be changed by art, but rather to add the weight of this famous work to our own portfolio.  Are we so insubstantial that we must steal glory?

Perhaps the best advice that I could give is to ask yourself when you feel that impulse, “Why am I reaching for this camera? Is it because I am so moved that I must record this moment?  Is it because I want to remember this particular item so that I can come back to it?  Or is it because I want to add glory to my profile?”  It makes sense to ask questions like this before you reach for that addictive phone.  Because if the camera has become a substitute for experience in your life, then please believe me:  you’ll be much more satisfied if you just put it away.

4) My Approach

I had a music history teacher in college who changed my life and changed the way that I experience the world. In music lab, we used to have to listen to these famous works of music and write down what we experienced.  At first, it was just absolute torture, and the reason was because I did not know how to listen.  Music was just a wall of sound that I could not pick apart with my mind.  However, my teacher gave us a list of questions that asked simple things like—what instruments did you hear?  Did the melody go high or low?  Were there a lot of instruments playing or only a few?  I began to listen three-dimensionally.  The same can happen with all of our senses.  The key is to begin asking questions—that opens up the experience.

When I go to a museum, I don’t wander by every work of art, as if I have to see everything. Usually, I study ahead of time.  If I don’t, then I’ll go into a room and walk up to whatever piece catches my eye.  Then, I will make three observations to myself and ask two questions.  The observations may be as simple as, “Look how he outlined everything” or as complex as, “Look where the eyes of that character are directed by the artist.”  I then try to ask some questions of the piece.  “What does the artist want me to feel?  What is supposed to surprise me?”  Maybe a fundamental question precedes all of these:  why am I really here?

And as a general rule, I never take out my camera phone in a museum. Never.  Why?  Because I know why I’m there.  Just say no to that impulse and I believe you’ll find that your experience in life AND in the museum is altogether new.

Daniel Radmacher © 2017

1 Comment

  1. Craig Allen · May 8, 2017 Reply

    You offer a trove of valuable insights here, written compellingly.
    Thank you for the journey and the challenge.

    (I’m going to screenshot your post as part of a selfie here in a moment.)

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