A never-ending tide of humanity in t-shirts, trainers and cagouls surges ever onwards, sweeping up the grand steps of The Louvre – the one-time Parisian Royal Palace that is now one of the largest and most famous art museums in the world. These tourists – just a few thousand of the 10 million people who visit here each year – are heading for the first floor of the Denon wing, home to an exquisite collection of French and Italian paintings. They are intent on finding La Gioconda, Leonardo da Vinci’s early 16th century masterpiece universally known as the Mona Lisa. It’s not difficult. It’s sign-posted every few metres.
As they draw close they prime their phones, iPads and cameras as a team of security guards usher them into a cordoned-off, makeshift pen. Finally in front of the relatively diminutive painting – a portrait in oils on wood-panel measuring just 30 by 21 inches and protected by bullet-proof glass – they strain to get a clear enough sight-line. Many turn their backs on this painting that once hung in Napoleon’s bed chamber to take selfies of themselves, grinning faces with the enigmatic Mona Lisa playing second fiddle in the distant background. Few appear to have any opinion about the painting. They simply have to have it on their hand-held device before returning home. They don’t really look at the Mona Lisa at all, just view the image on the screen of their phone. They don’t discuss it either or even consider buying a postcard.
It’s difficult to imagine how life during the first decades of the 21st century will be viewed by our descendants. We are living in an era of visual self-gratification. We look but we rarely see. Despite this we obsessively record our leisure time in an unedifying series of bad images snapped on smart phones, iPads, Go-Pros, selfie-sticks and occasionally even conventional cameras. A couple of years ago someone calculated that a tenth of all photographs that had ever existed had been taken in the previous 12 months. Since then our appetite for pointlessly snapping everything we see has continued to grow and there’s no sign of our digital gluttony abating anytime soon.
In the days of photographic prints our rejects were often shoved in a drawer and forgotten, sometimes for many years until a chance rediscovery revealed their true worth. Some of my favourite photographs are the self-same prints that once seemed rather dull and nondescript. Sadly, those images – the ones that take us time to appreciate – barely exist anymore.
In Paris we visited not only The Louvre but many other favourite art museums including Musee d’Orsay, the Picasso Museum, the Orangerie, Musee Rodin and the Pompidou Centre. Now people have always taken photographs in these amazing centres of culture, us included. Something has changed though. The sheer mass of phone-toting snappers traipsing through these world-class galleries methodically collecting an image of every work they see has grown enormously. As we witnessed with the Mona Lisa, few people actually look at the painting or sculpture they are photographing and they certainly don’t stop to study it. They just want to acquire proof that they have “done” Manet’s Olympia, Degas’ Little Dancer, Rodin’s The Thinker or Monet’s Waterlilies.
Intriguingly somewhere along the line the perceived etiquette of gallery behaviour has changed. Standing in front of a painting without photographing it is now considered by many to be simply getting in the way. I was studying a rather splendid Cezanne still-life in the Orangerie when three different people simply walked in front of me and took pictures with their phones. There were no apologies. In their eyes I was standing around doing nothing. Yet when I raised my own camera people ducked out of my way, raised their hands in apology and frantically skirted round me. How strange! For a start I would have been more than happy to wait and anyway I wanted people in the picture. That was the point of taking it. If I simply wanted an image of an artwork I would have bought a postcard.