Why do we go to art galleries? The standard answer is to look at the art. And in theory that ought to be the end of the matter. Except that in practice it is not the whole story – and never has been. Ever since galleries have existed, visitors have flocked to them not just to see but to be seen in the act of seeing. As anyone who has got close to the Mona Lisa will know, the most famous galleries have long been secular cathedrals of mass pilgrimage. But increasingly, today, many people prefer to photograph and be photographed rather than to look. In some galleries, the fuddy-duddy human viewer is fighting a lonely and losing battle with the hordes of smartphones, tablets and selfies that besiege the most celebrated exhibits. This week, the National Gallery in London quietly bowed to such pressure and abandoned efforts to enforce a snapping ban that has become increasingly hard to police. This was an understandable official cringe in the face of public expectations, but nevertheless a regrettable one. The world’s great galleries divide on whether to allow photography. The Louvre and the New York Metropolitan allow it. The Uffizi and the Prado do not – and nor does the Sistine Chapel. To protect vulnerable art, many try to draw the line at flash photography, not always successfully. But it would in fact be simpler and better for both the pictures and the public if no photography was allowed at all. Looking at the art may be an old-fashioned priority, but it ought to be the essential one, all the same.
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