Yesterday I was wandering around The Met (though this same story could be told with almost any other gallery or museum as the example) and I was struck by how fleeting the encounter with the work of art so often is. Sure there are still some people who sit or stand with one painting for more than thirty seconds but it seems to me that most people aren’t interested in spending more than five to ten.
Now I know that art, and cinema, is subjective and that the experience is different for us all. I also know that there are some works we’re only interested in glancing at while there are others that we really want to see. The Met is also an enormous building and I don’t doubt that many people are speeding through because they’re lost/hungry/aimless/fatigued/looking for a toilet – I was all of those things by 5pm.
But even if we take these things into consideration there is a definite trend that refuses the encounter taking place. What I most often bear witness to in a gallery is someone pausing, checking whether or not the work or artist is famous, taking a pic with phone/tablet/device if it is and moving on, or just moving on if it’s not. In these instances artwork itself becomes incidental to its own notoriety or the stature of its creator. Abstracted from itself, it becomes a mere cog in our social media cycle of photo sharing.
Whether or not it’s my business, this always fills me with sadness. If you take a picture of a Van Gogh you lose the texture, if you snap a Rothko the colours never pulse and if you capture a Degas you don’t have his tension between precision and softness. Short of discussing the work of Walter Benjamin here (which I won’t do because I’m talking about my own sadness), it seems to me that the digital copy, no matter how good, can never compare to the original.
Though I am pleased to see remastered and restored digital versions of films we no longer have prints for, I would always prefer to see a print. Often prints have degraded or are lost, but in many instances they’ve been junked (destroyed) by the studios and any time I see a DCP of a print I know was in good, runnable condition, chucked out like refuse due to the vulgarity of rights restrictions, I am overwhelmed by sadness. Consumer culture doesn’t care about authenticity.
Last week I visited The Museum of the Moving Image where two ‘Behind the Scenes’ galleries display a dot point history of movie-making and cinema projection. Knowing these galleries were frequented by school groups made me think about how people outside of the film industry would view the dot points on display. Most of the elements from acting, make-up, costume, cinematography, lighting, sound, editing and projection had exhibit description labels that all finished in acknowledging that the techniques and equipment on display have since been replaced by computer generated or digital counterparts.
If the film print, like the canvas, ceases to engage us then does an encounter even take place? Have we stopped having a relationship with the work of art in favour of consuming it?
I finished my incomplete tour of The Met (five hours isn’t nearly long enough if you actually do wish to look at anything) with the thirty minute installation ‘The Refusal of Time’ by William Kentridge. The work is set on a loop and, in theory, a group of ten or so people enter every half hour to experience it. It’s a five-channel video installation and the seats are nailed to the floor in different positions to give a number of experiences, each of them slightly skewed and therefore unique. As hoards of people wandered through the space, catching a ten second glimpse of a thirty minute work of art, I couldn’t help but think that they were missing out. Amongst other things, the work muses over the idea of controlling time, rejecting the idea completely. There is no right or wrong pace at which to look at or engage with a work of art, but there is a difference between experience and consumerism.
I don’t personally believe that the encounter can take place as you scroll through the camera roll on your image capturing device, nor do I think that the digital copy can replace the movement and grain of celluloid. What troubles me most, though, is that there’s no place for authenticity at all if we don’t at least try to engage with it.
Written by Tara Judah for The Astor Theatre.