Technology and the death of civilisation
José Picardo

One should also remember that a part of culture or education and civilisation, are the skills of interpreting different kinds of messages, e.g. texts and images, in a given context and possibly advancing for some higher or deeper meanings and questions especially when dealing with art.

So, what do we have here? A photo of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch and some young people tapping their smartphones, not looking at the painting. Yes, it is a photo, so it does have a real (causally linked) context, i.e. the situation where it was taken. But if the real context is not revealed, the viewer is left alone to make up an interpretation from the fact that this particular photo was taken, deliberately chosen, possibly slightly edited, published in the web, shared in social media, and left without explanatory comment (at least at some point the context will be lost due to the nature of social media), and all this in our contemporary society. So, given *this* context, which is quite different from the original, what would be a probable interpretation?

It is quite easy to take a photo that does not cover the whole situation and gives, rather obviously, a wrong impression of it: a picture in constant need of explanatory comments. But if one chooses to share such a picture in social media anyway, knowing that it is a forum or a stream of media where people tend to make quick judgements of what they see, well, it should be no surprise what happens. So, no, I don’t think there is really a strong case to be made, where one is able to be outraged of the outrage. Rather, it seems to me, that sharing such a picture is careless and ends up reinforcing the bias (whether the bias is concerned with the smartphones and technology, the youth, the social media, the “screens”, the worry of allegedly growing disinterest of “real” art, or all of them). So the original publisher of the photo should have some responsibility of reinforcing such a bias too, or admit at least that s/he’s the first one that got caught up in the nature of social media, i.e. publishing content without giving it a second thought (or more so, if s/he did it knowing what will be the first impression of the photo).

Furthermore, saying that people were too hasty in their interpretations ignoring “the real context”, is also claiming that a visual composition itself, i.e. a picture, cannot construct a full message to be interpreted, and that the textual background information is the sole source of meaning of images. This renders the pictures something inferior. And that is hardly the desired message, given the fact that one seems to have great respect for art.

Art museums are places to learn at least this: how the choices in the picture and the given context or lack thereof, make up the meaning of the picture. It is precisely not merely the background information that “explains” pictures fully. So, although those young students are learning some information and possibly some expert interpretations of the painting, it is not enough, because one has to go through the construction of meaning by oneself. This photo does not say the students would be doing that, because they are all doing the same thing, i.e. what they are told to by the teacher (or if the real context is not revealed, by the apparent lack of interest in older art). It would have been possible to take a photo that is able to reveal how meanings are constructed, e.g., if it followed the example of Rembrandt’s Anatomy lesson of Dr. Tulp, where there are several stages and means of scientific understanding represented in the form of various gazes and positions of the students. But here, in this photo, they all seem to be doing the same thing and thus not experiencing and interpreting art individually.

I’m not saying, the assumptions of the “adults” are not hasty. The outraged comments or the like leave little room for the possibility that there might be something else going on in this photo. The photo however is somewhat too obvious for this kind of interpretation and one should be able to suspect something else, e.g. that the photo was set up or framed somehow if the obvious meaning is intended. However, these comments are texts in their own right, and when interpreting them one has to interpret the context as well, i.e. the nature of social media commentaries and the photo’s obvious message (if the original context is lost). So, there are several reasons and factors why the comments end up being “hasty” and “outraged”, not only the adult assumptions of youth spending too much time with smartphone apps.

So, having said all this, this photo (and its unceasing contextualising) does succeed in being “a metaphor of our age” or representing the need for better cultural and interpretative skills of how the meaning of images are constructed and deconstructed. But it does do this on many levels pointing to different directions, which cannot all be determined, controlled or narrowed by the “original” real situation. So deal with it: a picture does produce interpretations by itself and apparently we all should be able to interpret them better, before making hasty judgements — or hasty judgements of “hasty judgements”.

(And no, I wasn’t one of those who shared the photo with outraged comments. As an art historian, I am simply “outraged” of the apparent lack of interpreting different kinds of pictures and their contexts.)

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