Pictures at an Exhibition

The crowd of cameras around the Mona Lisa is more interesting than the painting itself

Are you in NYC?? a friend texted me one Thursday morning this past August. Ahhh no, I wish! I texted back, then followed up with the question, Instagram? Only minutes before her text, I had shared a lightly edited photo of Vincent van Gogh’s A Wheatfield With Cypresses, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She confirmed that yes, my Instagram made her think I was in the city. In lieu of a caption suggesting otherwise, the image naturally seemed to announce I was in the same place as the painting itself.

But I’ve never been to the Met. I’ve never been to the Louvre either, despite having shared a photo of the Mona Lisa. For about a month this summer, I deliberately misled my Instagram followers, periodically sharing photos of artworks I hadn’t actually seen in real space, using images I found online. I was prompted to this deception by a recent trip abroad, when I was taken aback — perhaps naively — by how many people using phones I saw in the museums I visited. This should not have surprised me, but going to see artworks in person that I’d only ever seen in reproductions was so removed from my everyday life that I had lost sight of the fact that other aspects of everyday life, like phones, would be there as well. The sea of screens surrounding me, doubling and redoubling the works themselves, seemed suddenly uncanny. I had imagined myself sharing a space and time with the works, uninterrupted (if only for a brief moment) by other people, let alone other tools of representation. So it was disorienting to me to be standing in front of a painting, see someone’s phone pop up, and then find myself imagining what their Instagram image was going to look like, what its caption would be, how many likes it would get.

The regular interruption of photography reminded me that in a sense my experience had already happened

This ran counter to my idea of why one would take the trouble to be present with works of art. A quiet and contemplative attitude seemed more appropriate to access whatever they had to show us, rather than what seemed to me an active and reactive souvenir-grabbing approach. To try to confirm to myself that such photo-taking was a needless distraction, I set out to fabricate the kinds of social media posts I assumed were being produced, proving that they could be easily faked and were therefore superfluous. But ultimately I found I was largely missing the point. Relatively few people seemed compelled or convincingly taken in by my posts, which suggested to me that the relationship between art appreciation and its extended life in social circulation was not either-or but one of mutual enrichment. What began as an experiment to bolster my commitment to conventional ideas about how to view art instead painted for me a more complex picture of how social media and other new technologies have changed the texture of experience, participation, and perception in museum spaces.

Teju Cole, in his essay “Memories of Things Unseen,” writes that photography “is at the nerve center of our memorial impulses: We need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.” It’s this crowding that stuck with me after I’d returned home to Louisiana after my trip abroad. At the museums I had felt an imposing closure when I did not expect it; the regular interruption of photography reminded me that in a sense my experience was always already a thing that had happened, one that I would might show my friends pictures of after the fact. Surrounded by memorialization in real time, the present life of my experience felt abruptly shortened by dozens of strangers rather than by me.

Although the material presence of the phones didn’t differ much from the audio guides that have been in use for years, the recording and sharing capabilities of phones seemed to disperse what Walter Benjamin described in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” as an artwork’s aura, which he traced to a work’s specificity in space and time. It was that sense of aura, which can seem frail and endangered, that I wanted to encounter in the museums I visited. But the people around me holding up their screens seemed to have different projects in mind. Rather than adopting a deferential pose toward that aura, they homed in on the potential of “mechanical reproduction” to appropriate and rework that aura into something else entirely, something personal and valuable in ways not tied solely to exclusivity. Phones have made a work’s aura subject to repurposing in real time, and with that, the function of art museums seem to shift: They become less about safeguarding the aura of unique, discrete objects, and instead stage a more social approach to access and meaning.

Since the late 2000s, as this Atlantic article points out, museums have become more permissive in their policies regarding camera use, and many have responded to the ubiquity of phones by developing supplementary informational apps and virtual reality experiences or, as an article in Newsweek notes, using social media to expand their reach, grow their audience, and generally make their collections more accessible.

These steps reflect a shift in museum strategy: As Claire Bishop reflects in Radical Museology, the 20th century was marked by a move from a “19th-century model of the museum as a patrician institution of elite culture to its current incarnation as a populist temple of leisure and entertainment.” Instead of trying to maintain the exclusivity that once defined them, Bishop argues that museums can “enable us [curators and visitors alike] to access a rich and diverse history, to question the present, and to realize a different future.”

But in shifting away form elitism, museums may veer too far in the other direction, bringing on what critic Rosalind Krauss describes as a Disneyfication of the museum in “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum” (1990): “It will be dealing with mass markets, rather than art markets, and with simulacral experience rather than aesthetic immediacy.” In the turn away from its traditional approach, the museum broadens access but risks flattening its holdings solely into product. This flattening was, I thought, echoed in the phone use I saw. My assumption was that these images were like T-shirts with The Starry Night screen-printed on them. What I didn’t account for was the way the social expression they served exceeded the capitalistic impulse that otherwise conditioned them.

Roland Barthes asserted in Camera Lucida that “photographs, except for an embarrassed ceremonial of a few boring evenings, are looked at when one is alone.” He assumed that the primary purpose of photographs was to document and memorialize, but social media have made for other possibilities. Images shared on social media evoke a different kind of privacy and a different sort of ceremony: Rather than inviting friends and family to watch a presentation of photographic mementos in our homes, we now make those mementos available for viewing anytime, in the privacy of our friends’ screens. While the memorializing impulse may remain, the social impulse has changed shape — the ease of sharing means the how, what, and why of sharing take on new valences.

There are fundamental differences between a photo of Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield With Cypresses posted on social media and the winter garden photograph Barthes finds of his mother, or even the image of Michelangelo’s David broadcast to millions of television sets that John Berger describes in Ways of Seeing. Barthes’s photograph of his mother maintains a specific meaning for him alone: It functions for him as a way of seeing and knowing his mother in a way that is unique, specific, and inherently auratic in its exclusivity. The David disseminated through broadcast television undergoes a change in meaning as it travels: Viewed by a mass audience, the work is no longer inaccessible and insulated, but rather a democratically consumed representation of the original. The shared photo in social media of Van Gogh’s A Wheatfield With Cypresses, however, is recognizable and meaningful not just for the work it displays but for the story it seems to tell about the one who shares it. It operates as social communication about the art itself, yes, but also about and for countless other things.

Evacuated from their context, these shared images become signs that one can imbue with as much or as little meaning as one wants; they can be the traditional memorial of a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or pictorial representation of commentary, reactions, moods. (For example, one Friday evening I shared a photo of Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette with a caption about looking forward to the weekend.) The artwork depicted is simultaneously an object in its own right and a piece of a larger self-fashioning mechanism, one that not only involves but depends on a consideration of other people beyond our solitary perceptions in a museum. The meaning of an image becomes indelibly collaborative.

These shared photos aren’t about the art object so much as the phenomenon of being seen seeing

As Patrick Nathan wrote earlier in an essay for Real Life, the photos we take and present to a public audience help us tell stories about ourselves. “We can broadcast our own personal advertising campaign: This is what I’d like to be … Whatever we share may be viewed through the context of what it might say about us, and the envy that might provoke.” Photo sharing in the museum can make text subtext by way of subsuming a claim — I am a well-traveled and cultured person — into an image presented as subtler testimony: I was there (you know where) and here is proof! The success of that testimony, though, depends on a canny understanding of audience. To make an image-based claim that is legible to our audience, we must first be fluent, to some extent, in that audience itself. Meaning is no longer derived strictly from our bodily experience while sharing space with a particular work; it now also comprises all the potential uses of it we can conceive of for the various audiences we can reach out to in that moment. This double vision of individual and endlessly shared consumption shows us both the original and its reproduction at the same time.

This broadens the implications of Berger’s observations in Ways of Seeing about how art’s authority is being redistributed from museums to the mainstream. Rather than detracting art’s value by diminishing its aura, social media multiplies its potential meanings and the ways its aura can refract among a potentially limitless number of different audiences, and not just “elites” or “the masses.” With the awareness of sharing surrounding us, we encounter an artwork not only in its isolated and distinct aura — which can prompt a kind of fetishization of isolation itself that the museum’s onetime mandate of exclusivity encouraged — but also in the myriad potential routes of its circulation.

This can change the criteria shaping our engagement with a work. When sharing is part of experiencing a work, its fame can take on more significance: This became clear to me in my experiment, when I found that the more recognizable names garnered much more social media engagement than more relatively obscure works, for the same reason a photo of a sunset over the Grand Canyon will attract more notice than a generic photo of a sunset. Such images are familiar and aspirational at the same time: They say both I am like you and You would like to be like me at the same time.

The successful social media post often invokes both likeness and difference, a relatability that is at the same time tinged with a kind of envy. Posts that merely convey information typically generate far less engagement. My falsified photos — which came from museum websites and were likely more “accurate” in their documentation of an artwork than any image I might have taken with a phone —  generated far less engagement than the images I shared that expressed an aspect of my everyday life: An image of my cat making an especially silly face or a photo of a Broad City magnet in my new apartment. My blurry, distant, off-center photo of the Mona Lisa that included many other tourists’ heads drew way more notice than any of my other stolen images.

Famous artworks can’t necessarily live up to their notoriety on their own isolated merits, but their aura produces a social happening that social media is well equipped to document — not the art itself but the ability to be a part of its aura, by taking or liking the image. Aura, I learned, was still important, but it mattered in relation to my ability to both demonstrate my participation in its specificity and rareness and to invite others to participate in that rareness with me, even if only imaginatively, vicariously, and in their own private, scrolling ritual. Decontextualized images of less recognizable works lacked both the fame that inspires a productive envy and the contingency that allows for vicarious experience.

These shared photos aren’t about the art object so much as the phenomenon of being seen seeing. Mark Hansen’s New Philosophy for New Media follows philosopher Henri Bergson in regarding the body as image-creating, tracing the way the body itself plays a vital role in the creative process, filtering information and selecting which data to enframe. It turns out that, despite warnings that the rise of digital media might privilege data and information above all else, context, perception, and physical presence still matter. “A renewed investment of the body,” Hansen argues, can serve “as a kind of convertor of the general form of framing into a rich, singular experience. One might even characterize this properly creative role accorded the body as the source for a new, more or less ubiquitous form of aura: the aura that belongs indelibly to this singular actualization of data in embodied experience.”

What we look for on social media, this suggests, is the implied body and presence of those taking and posting images: phones held by otherwise disembodied hands in those images from packed museums, strange angles that speak to the difficulty of getting a perfect vantage point amid a never-shrinking crowd, poor focus, awkward framing that implies a wayward hand or head or shoulder that had to be cropped out. There’s an aura at work here, but it is not tied solely to the art work itself; rather, it is in the being near or with the work, and inviting others to join us.

The images that pique interest and hold attention on social media present a space that appears as though it can be occupied not only by the documentarian but the spectator as well. Images that serve only as a record of information, the sort of documented proof I had been faking, fail to arouse the same interest. The images our audiences become attached to are the ones with frames wide enough to accommodate their own hands slipping through and holding up the camera themselves.

Mary Pappalardo is a PhD candidate in English at Louisiana State University, where she writes about the contemporary novel and the internet. She is also the fiction editor at NDR magazine.