Photography at the National Gallery (ctd.)

August 13 2014

Image of Photography at the National Gallery (ctd.)

Picture: Katy Perry

Katy Perry (a pop star, m'lud) has 6.7m followers on Instagram, and earlier today she posted this 'selfie' from the Art Institute of Chicago (in front of Grant Wood's American Gothic). It's already generated 334,000 'likes'. In other words, if she took a similar photo in the National Gallery this week (as opposed to last week, when she'd have been shouted at), it would probably encourage more first time visitors to the Gallery than any amount of money spent on 'outreach' or advertising.

Anyone wanting to send in a (discretely taken) selfie from the National Gallery is more than welcome!

Update - In his latest contribution to the debate, The Grumpy Art Historian says I'm 'sadly deluded' that images like Perry's above will translate into new gallery visits.

But just in time, a reader writes:

Regarding the National Gallery photography campaign, you deserve much thanks and congratulations for raising the debate.

Your point about Katy Perry is terrifically important; as a forty one year old teacher I am well aware of how many light years away from the teen-culture-zeitgeist I exist, but the simple act of a pop star like her showing an active interest in visual art is genuinely having an influence on a younger generation of people who are already motivated and inspired by, as well as engaged in, music as an art form. When she toured England in May, she posted selfies she had taken in the British Museum, talked about her visit there when she was on stage at the O2 Arena, and encouraged her (predominantly) early-secondary-school-female demographic to go and explore the place themselves. Her recent visit to the Magritte exhibition in Chicago resulted in this heart-warming Facebook post [which encourages people to see the Magritte exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago]:

She's also supported local gallery shows by American 'Lowbrow' artist Mark Ryden. After all, in my own shallow experience, it was a simple comment by a singer in a band I liked which made me decide to go to see the Munch exhibition in London back in the early 1990s, and to which I owe my consequent life-affirming delight in art. The education departments at institutions like the NG, RA and British Museum could learn a trick or two from potent cultural 'mavens' such as Ms Perry when considering how to motivate the country's adolescent constituency.

Update II - this is still quite a media story: I've been asked to be on BBC Breakfast and Sky News so far today. Alas, I can't do either.

Update III - a reader writes:

Me, I want to have my cake and eat it too: no crowds to block my view, wide access to and popularity of art, and the right to take photos too. Is a partial compromise the setting by the museum/gallery of half-days or blocks of hours when no (guided?) groups are allowed? I don't know how wide-spread this practice is or isn't, or whether it works...

Update IV - in The Daily Telegraph, arts editor Sarah Crompton decries the National Gallery's decision:

[...] there is a distinct difference between learning about the art on the walls, and recording it without giving it a moment’s reflection.

As a parent, I try to get my children to stop, look and listen, without a screen in front of their eyes. There are so many distractions, that it is difficult for all of us to pause just for a moment and listen to the birds sing – both literally and metaphorically.

For centuries, art has been a way of making us slow down, and taking a moment to examine something in detail. This is not a plea for silent or empty galleries but for more thoughtful ones. One of my favourite moments in a gallery not so long ago was when I heard two women, in front of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon making up their own story for the events depicted.

The exchange was both loud and hilarious. But it was entirely engaged and committed. Something from one place had reached into another and prompted a reaction. To me, that is what art does.

By allowing photography, galleries are betraying all those who want to contemplate rather than glance. Surrounded by the snappers, they may come to think that this is the acceptable way to consume art, a kind of constant grazing without any real meal.

That’s not a means of making art more popular or accessible. It is the surest path to depriving it of all purpose and meaning. It is a trend that the National Gallery should have been committed to fight.

So another case of we must make people look at art the way we want them to. It's like telling diners at a fancy restaurant; you can only eat the food if you hold your knife and fork properly.

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