What’s wrong with this picture? Like the seemingly neglected art it captured, that’s up for debate.
Bette Midler posed this question to Twitter, sharing an image of three young girls huddled on a bench in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. She knew the answer before she asked for it – their backs are turned towards “Aegina Visited by Jupiter,” a painting by 18th-century artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze, as they focus intently on their phones instead.
They’re a far cry from the class-cutters in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” who spent their day gawking at paintings in the Art Institute of Chicago.
But people cared more that Midler shamed young people in a museum for appearing less than riveted by a 250-year-old painting of a nude woman.
“Nothing is wrong with this picture since we don’t know what the backstory is,” author Katrina Ray-Saulis countered. “They could be contacting their parents after spending hours there. They could be reading about the history of the art on the museum’s website. We assume too much if we’re upset by this.”
Her comment mirrored a wave of reaction that met Midler’s initial tweet.
Perhaps the girls tired out after spending a day in one of the world’s largest art galleries, are taking a much-needed reprieve in the European paintings gallery before heading back out to consume more art, one user suggested.
Or maybe they just weren’t that into centuries-old art in the first place? Comedian Jaboukie Young-White posited that the trio were on their phones because “classic art gets old so fast.”
Or maybe the star’s criticism was all wrong – those devices hold more information about the artworks in question than the labels stuck next to them.
A ‘metaphor for our age’
Midler’s criticism is one familiar to millennials and Gen Z-ers – young people spend too much time on their devices.
The image she shared is similar to one that inspired the same debate in 2016. In it, a group of schoolchildren are tuned into their phones, backs turned to Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Critics at the time called it a “metaphor for our age.”
It was later suggested that the kids were using the museum’s app to complete a school project.
Midler didn’t respond to the criticism, and it’s unclear if she took the photo herself. (She occasionally courts online controversy with her tweets, though they often take aim at President Donald Trump.)
The eye of the beholder
Sree Sreenivasan, a visiting professor of digital innovation at Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism, oversaw the development of the Met’s smartphone app during his tenure as chief digital officer there. He said complaints that phones sully the museum-going experience “mean nothing.”
It’s important for museums to give people room to relax, refresh and recharge – literally, he said. Letting people plug in their phones somewhere and connect to free Wi-Fi doesn’t guarantee they’ll use it to research the art in front of them, but then again, there are no rules dictating how people experience museums.
“There’s nothing saying that your visitors have to respond to your prescribed way of interacting with art,” he said. “As long as people are in your space, you have a chance to help them connect.”
The girls in the photo shared by Midler aren’t obstructing the view of the painting or taking pictures of it (that is sometimes against museum rules), Sreenivasan noted.
What’s more, he said, the phone-centric behavior isn’t limited to young people.
“I can show you plenty of boomers who do the same thing. I don’t see any problem with it.”
Museums betting on tech
The politics of museum-going have changed with the habits of visitors, and galleries are increasingly incorporating mobile devices into the experience. If audio tours provide one additional means of engagement, phones open up another.
Rijksmuseum’s app lets users map their own route through the museum, search images by artist or keyword and read the history behind every artwork. Smartify, an app that’s called itself the “Shazam of the art world,” lets users scan a work of art to learn more about it.
The Met’s website, meanwhile, provides more of an in-depth description of an artwork – raising debates over paintings’ subjects, for instance – than would be feasible on a museum label.
So while it’s uncertain if the girls in Midler’s photo were scouring the web for more information or not, it’s clear that there’s demand for more detail than a placard can provide.