If you’ve done any travelling that involved visiting museums and tourist attractions, you probably found yourself in one of two groups of people: those with cell phones in hand (or at the end of a selfie stick) taking photo after photo, or the people angrily seething at them.

Sure, people have been taking disappointing, poorly lit photos of themselves standing in front of paintings for years, but now that pictures don’t come with the burden of film rolls, and high quality videos are possible without a separate recording device, there’s nothing holding us back from our desire to capture everything.

It’s a common sight at museums and galleries to see people walking up to every work of art to quickly take a picture before moving on to the next. A whirlwind trip to Paris could easily include visits to ten museums, and if you’re also planning for the city’s other “must-sees” — like shuffling through the Notre Dame while being continually shushed over the loudspeaker, or trying to take a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower without getting any other selfie-takers in the shot — there simply isn’t time to look at all of the art.

Pilcrow Mona Lisa
Photo by Victor Grigas — CC BY-SA 4.0

Digital technology has changed the way we interact with everything, but the surrounding world has always had an impact on how art is viewed.

Those art lovers who can tell a Manet from a Degas with their eyes closed might even go so far as to declare that digital technology is ruining appreciation ofclassical art. All of these commoners preoccupied with taking selfies and updating their Snapchat stories cause a disrespectful disruption of a spiritual moment with the artists themselves.

When compared with people who touch paintings, hurl objects at sculptures, or even take damaging flash photos, how much harm is there in face swapping with a medieval painting of Jesus? This piece may have meaning in world and art history, but to most visitors it’s another painting on a wooden panel. For people whose lives are experienced through the digital lens, they’re interacting with art in the same way that they interact with everything. Isn’t it unrealistic for us to expect young people who were raised with digital technology at their constant disposal to forget these magic devices just because a Rembrandt is in the room?

Digital technology has changed the way we interact with everything, but the surrounding world has always had an impact on how art is viewed. Offensive paintings have signalled the end of careers, and even Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos were painted over after his death to cover up explicit nudity. When did we decide that art was untouchable?

Official policies in museums are mixed. Some welcome photography, but have banned selfie sticks as a safety hazard, while others adopt a strict no photo policy. In the National Archeological Museum of Athens, photography is permitted, but a “no posing” rule is strictly enforced by staff members who are more than willing to shout at you from across the gallery.

The urge to stop people from taking selfies with paintings or enacting poses in front of ancient artifacts is noble. If we allow people to treat history’s treasures without respect, soon won’t they be climbing over barriers at the Acropolis and littering at Giza’s pyramids?

Spoiler alert: they already do.

Our modern idea of art is that it’s meant to provoke thought, challenge ideas, or represent an experience. Some people don’t get it, and some people don’t care, but the rest of us should just put our own cell phones away, and spend more time looking at the art than the other people.

Pilcrow Smartphone Main