Is this really so bad?

Yesterday I came across this photograph on Facebook.

Are they more interested in their phones than the art?

Are they more interested in their phones than the art?

The photo was posted deliberately to provoke a reaction. The result was mostly, but not exclusively, negative comments such as:

‘So wrong…’

‘The LOST generation’.

‘Sad, so sad’.

‘Technology has stolen from us in more ways than one‘.

However, my reaction to this image was different to most (but by no means all) of the others who saw it. I find this picture oddly compelling. I don’t find it depressing at all. It is indeed a ‘sign of our times’ but not necessarily in a negative way. I think that in fact it is quite telling of how art is developing in the current century, in this so-called post-postmodern age.

I don’t judge this photograph negatively. I don’t see the point in waxing nostalgic about the pre-smartphone generation, concluding that images such as this mean that people no longer appreciate fine art. How on earth can that be proved? If anything, the opposite is probably true. When I did my A level art the only access I had to artworks such as this were through books which I couldn’t afford or visits to museums which I wasn’t able to go to. The art student today can look at an image of paintings such as this on their phone. That fact I find quite mind-blowing and wonderful. Of course it isn’t the same as standing in front of the painting but not many people will get the opportunity to do that. Second best: look at it on a computer or phone screen. Since becoming a 21st-century art student I have come across a huge number of artists and works that I wouldn’t have come across without digital technology. In fact, seeing their certain artworks in google images and reading about them on my laptop has encouraged me to seek them out in art galleries.

Going back to the photograph, the context of the image is unknown. There is no way to know whether these young people have not appreciated the beauty of this famous painting or not. It is a still image so does not tell anything about the before or after. We can create a narrative about the photograph but this is a fictional narrative. It is entirely possible that these young people have spent the previous half an hour looking at the  famous painting behind them and are now accessing the museum’s information via their phones. They look like students on a school trip so there is a good chance they have been instructed to do some research around the art in the art gallery and this might be what they are now doing. Or perhaps they are sharing their thoughts about the painting with friends: ‘Wow, I have finally seen The Night Watch up close. Amazing!’ How wonderful to be able to do that? What would Rembrandt think of that? I picture him smiling.

Art is about evolution. The definition of ‘art’ has changed over time. As has the definition of artist. Now an artist can be much more than a skilled craftsman. A person can call themselves an artist without ever picking up a 2B pencil in their life. Art covers so many areas and rightly so. If art is to survive, and if it is to reach people in new and interesting ways, then it has to ride on the smartphone digital wave rather than fight against it. I don’t think we should ever forget the importance of the basics but equally we should embrace new possibilities and that includes new channels for reaching people and new media for creating art.

As an artist, one of my aims is to make people think about the overlooked. Digital media is the tool of choice. My first love is drawing and painting. But even when I am engaged in those activities I use social and digital media to help with my projects: to get feedback, to influence the minds of others, to get recognition and of course to get ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’. I feel very much naive about the potential of digital technology for art creation. I would like to learn more. Digital art is still very much in its infancy.

I also love to write about art. Hence, writing this blog. I could have written this in a note book to be kept by my bedside and for my eyes only, but instead I chose to write it on a laptop and tweet and post it for anyone to see. Perhaps someone will even read it on their phone in that Dutch museum above after googling ‘Rembrandt The Night Watch’. Perhaps that is what the students are doing in this photograph. It would be nice to think so and they recognise themselves in the photograph. Rembrandt would certainly smile about that.


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