No, I’m sorry, One: Number 31, 1950, a classic wall-size drip painting by Jackson Pollock that hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, in New York City, is not like a person roaming Times Square dressed as Spider-Man: you should not be taking a selfie with it. The painting is not just a prop, like a fanciful cocktail, for you to use as an excuse to post another image of yourself online. The painting is not a mere tourist attraction, like the world’s largest thimble, that you may wish to show you have visited. Rather, One: Number 31, 1950 is a magnificent work of art that, when we commune with it, puts us in touch with the Sublime. But when people stand in front of the painting taking selfies, as they seem to constantly, sublimity goes out the window. The selfie-takers block our view, they disrupt our concentration, they offend us with their vanity, and, worst of all, they diminish the power of the work by reducing it to something banal: the background in a snapshot of themselves on vacation. The selfie-takers must die.
I don’t mean to be harsh. God knows, I have been guilty of insensitivity myself as a tourist: wearing shoes in a mosque, speaking English to a Frenchman. Visiting Third World countries, I have taken pictures of the inhabitants in their colorful native garb, treating them like exotic animals in a zoo. Moreover, I don’t lightly exercise my power over life and death. It’s just that people are now endlessly taking selfies in all the great art museums of the world, and I believe that someone must put a stop to this, no matter what the human cost.
I have been guilty of insensitivity myself as a tourist: wearing shoes in a mosque, speaking English to a Frenchman.
Unfortunately, it’s not just selfies. An epidemic of bad museum behavior of all kinds seems to have spread worldwide. There is no excuse for this, because the rules for how to act when visiting a museum are as simple as they are obvious: first, respect the artworks; second, show consideration for your fellow museum-goers. In this age of social media, globalization, and shirts specifically designed to be worn untucked, is it possible for these norms to be upheld?
Apparently not. It is now a common practice for museum visitors to walk up to a painting, take a photograph of it with their phones, and move on without actually looking at the painting. This disdain for the painting’s purpose is aggravating to witness; rather than having an aesthetic experience, these visitors seem to care only about obtaining some token to prove that they were in the painting’s presence, and this may be why it is the works by the very top brand-name artists—Leonardo, say—that most often receive such treatment. Meanwhile, when scores of tourists, who have debouched from buses, go up to a painting, photograph it, and hustle away, it is impossible to stand before the work in a properly contemplative state of mind. And, as such tourists tend to come and go in waves, even standing there at all may not be possible.
The System Has Broken Down
The system for waiting your turn to look at a painting seems to have broken down. Under the traditional protocol, a clutch of people would be gathered before a painting, and you would stand at the back of them. As those in the first row departed, those behind them would move up, and, eventually, you would be at the front, with an unobstructed view. It was uncomplicated, and it worked. These days, a person, invariably a man, will just stride in front of everyone and plant himself there. A variation on (let’s call him) the Planter is the Drifter, who gets close to a painting by just sort of easing in from the side of the group that’s looking at it. He acts as though, if he is casual enough when he oozes into place, you somehow won’t notice that, rather than seeing the painting, you are now staring at the back of his head.
Just as people no longer speak only in whispers in libraries, they no longer speak only in whispers at museums, and you are forced to overhear the most distracting conversations. Young women, for example, wander aimlessly from painting to painting, not really paying attention to any of them, and talk about their relationships, with intimate details, using their normal voices: “He swears that he only slept with my roommate twice.” You are standing there in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at Velázquez’s infinitely subtle masterpiece Juan de Pareja, but you are thinking about a complete stranger’s dirtbag boyfriend.
So: Can you please allow me to read the wall label without conjoining your head with mine? It will take me only a minute. Can you, who think pentimento is a kind of pepper, please not expound loudly on the artworks? Can you please not point your finger one centimeter from a painting’s surface? Can you please stop harassing the guard? Or … how about you just don’t go to a museum at all? How would that work for you? It works for me!
There is a way to avoid all these problems, which is to visit parts of a museum that are relatively obscure—the art of Cambodia, the art of Oceania, the art of the Hephthalite empire. You will find tranquil, empty galleries, filled with beautiful objects that, because of their unfamiliarity, are potentially life-changing. Spared bad manners, bad taste, and bad faith, you may actually experience the quiet rapture that you sought when you went to the museum in the first place.
Still, it is galling to be deprived of the Pollocks and Leonardos because others won’t obey the simple rules of museum etiquette. If putting the culprits to death is going too far, maybe they could at least be made to suffer from a rare, little-understood, rather painful disease with no known cure?
Jim Collins is an Editor at Large for AIR MAIL