Two years ago, when I was feeling unusually flush, I sent an email to someone we’ll call a “senior figure” at the National Gallery in London: “I’ll donate £10,000 to the NG, if you lift the ban on photography in the main galleries. Deal?”
I’d just witnessed an uncomfortable scene in Room 1, where a newly acquired Titian, “Diana and Callisto”, had been hung. A hapless tourist, caught in the act of raising her iPhone towards the picture, had been shouted at by a warden, his “No photos!” startling the room. The visitor, her moment of wonder at Titian’s painterly genius shattered, was visibly shaken, and left.
I felt for her, not only because of the brusque treatment, but also because, as an art historian and dealer, I recognised the urge to photograph a great work. It’s rare to find high-resolution images online, and small postcards won’t do. Usually, taking a photo on a phone is the discreet work of a moment, disturbing no one. It seemed ridiculous, too, that the public had just paid £45m for its new Titian, but wasn’t allowed to photograph it. I’ve been campaigning against the ban ever since.
Our tourist’s mistake was quite understandable because many major museums already allowed visitors to take photos, such as the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan in New York, and even London’s Royal Collection, a short walk away down the Mall.
These forward-thinking institutions, accepting that nearly all of us now habitually carry a camera in our pocket, grasped that smartphones were not something to be feared, but tools to be used to their advantage. An image of a painting shared on social media can be more effective than any marketing campaign, especially if you want to reach younger audiences. When Katy Perry recently tweeted a selfie in a Magritte exhibition to her 55m followers, she gave the Art Institute of Chicago the sort of publicity a British museum might kill for.
Although other UK galleries came to allow photography (including Tate and the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery), it always seemed that the National would hold firm, much to the relief of traditionalists who saw it as the last redoubt of museum civilisation.
So I was pleasantly surprised to break the news, on my blog recently, that the National would allow photography after all. It now spoke of seeking to “enhance the experience of our visitors and to engage a broader audience”. To do so, it would provide free WiFi and a mobile-friendly website. In one leap, the National went from lagging behind the museum sector to leading it.
For some, however, the news seemed little short of catastrophic. Two main fears were raised. First, headlines in the Times and the London Evening Standard spoke of a deluge of photographers ruining the gallery’s atmosphere and disturbing true art lovers. For the nose-holding culturati, there are few things more repulsive than a selfie. Second, the Guardian, always keen to tell us how to consume our culture, said photography should be banned in galleries entirely so that we may “look” at art more closely, in the “old-fashioned” way.
I have some sympathy with the first concern: it must be irritating being nudged by an iPad mid-Rembrandt. There have always been inconsiderate gallery users, though – even before photography was allowed – and we must accept that the scrum in front of popular pictures such as Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” will be just as deep as it always was. The use of flash, even though prohibited, does seem to be an issue at this early stage (though don’t believe the myth that it damages paintings).
However, the second objection to photography – that people must be forced to look at art in a certain way – is merely patronising and, much as I hesitate to use the word, elitist. Being told that your way of understanding art is wrong is like going to a restaurant and being forced to hold your knife and fork properly. And how long should we look at a painting for? A minute? Five minutes? An hour? From how far away? A foot, or a yard?
There is no right answer, and we can never know whether someone is seeing a painting for the first time, or is there for a repeat visit. Rubens, when he made his own copy of “Diana and Callisto”, probably studied Titian’s masterpiece more closely than anyone before or since – but I bet he’d have taken a photo if he could.
In fact, I suspect that photography will encourage close looking, especially if it is accompanied by an abolition of image reproduction fees. These have acted as a choke on the study of art history for too long, resulting in text-heavy books with few illustrations that hardly anyone reads (and certainly not much income for galleries, after costs).
The National Gallery never responded to my email. Maybe I now owe it £10,000. Maybe not. Either way, I congratulate it for coming through on its part of the deal.
Bendor Grosvenor is the editor of arthistorynews.com
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