by Jennifer Steensma Hoag
Professor, Calvin College
During ArtPrize last year I visited the Frederick Meijer Sculpture Gardens, one of the few venues that adhered to strict photography policies during the event. In the gallery I overhead an interesting exchange between a museum guard and a visitor. “Photography is not allowed, sir” the museum guard asserted. “What do you mean?” responded the incredulous visitor,
“That’s the whole point!”
Those words have stuck with me and I’ve been turning them over in my mind. Is that the point of ArtPrize – the construction a citywide photo-op?
In some ways, it’s a valid perception that you go to ArtPrize to take pictures. At times it can impossible to obey one of the basic rules of photo etiquette. Unless you are photo bombing, you are not supposed to position yourself within the photographer’s frame. The congestion at ArtPrize can make that impossible. There are simply too many photo-snapping people present to follow that guideline.
I wonder why people need these pictures and what function the photos serve? It certainly is a cultural trend to excessively document. This facet of our consumer-driven culture means we can now easily turn everything we see into an object to consume.
Perhaps it is a time management strategy so one can move quickly through the venues, capturing images to review later from the comfort of one’s home. This certainly isn’t a new notion or particular to Grand Rapids. Years ago while at the Louvre, I witnessed a man whose eye was glued to his camcorder the entire time he walked the exhibits. Already watching his screen, this would truly be his memory as he could watch a screen again later.
Could the images possibly function as a reminder of what was considered the best artwork? To be able to judge something fairly, however, one must fully experience it; it is an investment of time, concentration, and energy. To experience anything through the lens of a camera is to experience it in a different way than to approach it directly. When the camera is between the viewer and the artwork, it becomes a mediated experience. Considerations of portrayal and depiction override direct experience and interpretation. When ArtPrize is experienced only with (or through) a camera, what is perceived as photogenic that will dictate what captures the photographer’s attention before the photograph is made.
I think the reason so many photos are taken at ArtPrize is that it is an easy and acceptable cultural response to the unknown to take a picture of it. It’s what we do as tourists, we take superficial records of the things before us, but it doesn’t lead to understanding or engagement. It is easier to take a picture than to consider what something might mean or to evaluate its merit. This takes time and energy and in many cases of contemporary art, the knowledge of context – art historical context – which many of the ArtPrize audience members lack. Unfortunately this gives few options for any other response than that of making an image.
Taking a snapshot is, of course, an entirely appropriate response to works that are superficial and mainly concerned with spectacle. Spectacle encourages the snapshot, and snapshots (and the sharing and dissemination of them) are a form of recognition and celebrity that encourages the generation of more spectacle motivated works. So until venues are discouraged from displaying works that are primarily concerned with superficiality and spectacle, plan on seeing more cameras.