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New Media is the New Museum, Part 2

Experiencing art is permission enough to break the rules

By Pamela Rutledge and Bonnie Buckner

In the last post New Media IS the New Museum, part 1, we wrote that Arianna Huffington overlooked two important points about the role of social media in culture generally and museums specifically. (Museums 2.0: What Happens When Great Art Meets New Media? ) The first point was how cultural shifts change the way media technologies are used to augment experience, not detract from it. In this post, we will talk about point 2: is there a right way to experience art?

Tourists taking photographs in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Tourists taking photographs in the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Ms. Huffington wrote about the potential for detrimental effects of new media in museums, arguing that it disturbs the quiet contemplation museums uniquely bring the individual. She cites Edward Rothstein, the New York Times' cultural critic-at-large, who believes that artifacts are to be observed, and that shamefully, today’s audiences with their smart phones and video cameras make memories out of artifacts before they’ve had a chance to contemplate deeper meaning. This implies that there is a right way to experience art and antiquity. Extended, it implies who is allowed to make and enjoy art. Defining how art is to be enjoyed and appreciated is rather an ethnocentric stance.

This raises an age-old question: What is art? Is art defined by who makes it? If a person is considered an artist and presents it to the public, is it art? How do we decide who is rightfully an ‘artist’?

Is it essential that we must observe something quietly, contemplate it in private, or perhaps discuss it over tea to achieve a deeper understanding or appreciation? We’re pretty sure Picasso hoped for a more rousing response to the raw emotion he portrayed in Guernica. What is the point of work like Diane Arbus’ influential and controversial photographs of “freaks” (her word, not ours) if we don’t share and act on new understandings of difference and image? For many, quietly contemplating art would be akin to showing up at a demonstration by Gandhi, clapping your hands politely and then going home to a nice dinner. Our view is that art is inherently social and political, representing and challenging aspects of the human condition. It is demanding and requires a response. So the real question is: who gets to decide what is the “right” experience or response?

Social media is personal expression shared en masse. Media communication was a one-way, passive receiver model for decades. This was not a choice because it was the “best” way; it was the available way given the affordances of the technology. That is no longer true. Communication is now many-to-many and participatory, as is art. Art and cultural artifacts are no longer produced only by an elite few. They can be, and are, produced by many. Even the art produced by rare and talented individuals finds new voice and expression through the interaction and leverage available through technology. Some art production is original and profound, but some art is additive and equally as powerful, as content is co-opted and personalized, synthesized, alchemized, and transformed into living culture.

Focusing on tools, laying criticism on museum apps, and devaluing the ability of accessing additional information on-demand or the dissemination of facts by tweeting diminishes the power and possibilities social media affords but it’s also a bit elitist. Who decides what information about a piece of art has meaning and relevance to the experiencer? Or how you should share it? How much technology is okay? Paints and paint brushes, cameras, film, books, video—they are all technology.

iPhone app in Rome that shows historical information about interior spaces

iPhone app that shows historical information about interior spaces in Ancient Rome

Before you look down on people who photograph a piece of art, ask yourself if that is more or less meaningful than buying an art book of reproductions. The photograph en situ embeds the experience of seeing the art and sharing the experience into the art itself. A photo is transportable, easily sharable, and may, in fact, be the seed to new creative production. (It is also available for contemplation later.) Taking a picture also costs a lot less than buying a book or revisiting the museum both in terms of time and money—not many of us have either of those commodities in excess. This makes it not only a richer form of information transfer, but also a more democratic one. The photograph may inspire new work, or it might end up incorporated into a mash-up, or re-contextualized in a piece that is on exhibit next month in the same museum. Revival is not a new concept in art history.

From the printing press to Elvis’ musical synthesis, people have resisted change. It’s a normal cognitive reaction. We all have our own lenses through which we view the world and our own beliefs about how things ought to work. The image of prolonged observation a great work like Monet’s Water Lilies is certainly a powerful schema about how we should engage with art. Museum scenes in movies and literature, not to mention behavioral modeling on class field trips, reinforce this approach. It may achieve a level of immersion, but it’s not interactive. (By the way, the Science Museum of London has over 18,000 Twitter followers and the Museum of London has a free iPhone app called Streetmuseum that allows you to see historical photographs superimposed over their current locations.)

We wouldn’t want to tell Mr. Rothstein or Ms. Huffington that they couldn’t quietly contemplate art. We just don’t want them telling others—who speak a whole different language because of technology—how to experience it, either. The whole point of art and artifacts is to achieve a deeper understanding of humanity and history, to feel a connection, and to be connected. The very fact that we’re even talking about art ought to be permission enough to break the rules.


Bonnie Buckner and Pamela Rutledge are the co-founders of A Think Lab.