Photography in the @NationalGallery – Art Appreciation or Desecration?

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The National Gallery has decided to allow photography of its many masterpieces, and it has divided people as to whether it was the right call – with most thinking it’s an abhorrent idea. But is it really? And is there a positive aspect to it?

Firstly, the choice by the National Gallery has nothing to do with art appreciation and more to do with pragmatism. There is now free Wi-fi in the gallery and it will be impossible for staff to know who is taking a snap and who is just using the internet, imagine the embarrassment and complaints should staff stop a smartphone user only to find the visitor is searching for information on the painting.

But leaving aside the logistics, surely it’s wrong to appreciate a Raphael through a lens when there are better reproductions in the gallery shop on a postcard? These people should be admiring it with their own eyes else how will they take in the true beauty of the painting?

Taking a photograph is never about getting the perfect image, it’s about creating memories and sharing these with friends and family. Now you may think they”ll remember it better if they actually looked with their own eyes and retold their experience but sadly that’s not the world we live in, where people share their breakfasts on Instagram and take selfies in front of famous buildings. What this says about society is a trickier question to answer, so I won’t even try.

Now before everyone jumps on some sort of anti-technology bandwagon about how it’s ruined our attention spans and our patience, it’s worth noting this is just an extension of what people have been doing for decades – asking for signatures from celebrities. If I should ever meet a celebrity I’d like to think I would shake their hand and say nice to meet you and maybe ask them a question, but I fear I’m in the minority here.

But it’s not anyone’s place to tell you how to engage with art, it’s the equivalent of me trawling people through the supermarket and telling them what to buy because it’s better value for money or healthier.  I’m not a fan of camera wielding gallery goers but as long as it’s not damaging the paintings then who am I to tell people how to appreciate a Titian.

The stuffy and insular art world will tell us this is all wrong and there is a right way to appreciate art, and to ensure this they ward off the uneducated with dismissive stares from behind a desk and with gallery spaces that scream ‘you can’t afford any of this’. It’s possibly one of the most class dominated industries and despite efforts to break this trend in the major institutions by making many galleries free to enter, the portion of upper and middle class visitors to most major galleries is still disproportionately high.

But the National Gallery doesn’t belong to the art world, it belongs to the nation – the clue is in its title. People should be free to appreciate these masterpieces however they choose – whether it’s with a quick snap or through hours of contemplation.

About Tabish Khan

Art Critic for both FAD and Londonist. See as many exhibitions as possible and write reviews, opinion pieces and a weekly top 5 for FAD.

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