“No Photos” No More?


Taking pictures in museums may violate copyright, but the practice is becoming integral to art appreciation:

As a culture, we increasingly communicate in images. Twenty years ago, a museumgoer might have discussed an interesting work of art with friends over dinner. Today, that person is more likely to take a picture of it and upload it to Facebook—such as New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz, who, earlier this year, posted a photo of himself hamming it up in front of a Marcel Duchamp at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Or perhaps that museumgoer might remix his or her photo with other visual elements and transform it into something new. Every day, users on image-sharing sites such as Tumblr create their own diptychs, collages, and themed galleries devoted to everything from ugly Renaissance babies to Brutalist architecture.

This transformation in the way in which people digest visual stimuli—not to mention the rest of the world around them—is something that Harvard theoretician Lawrence Lessig has described as a shift from “read-only” culture (in which a passive viewer looks upon a work of art) to “read-write” culture (in which the viewer actively participates in a recreation of it). The first step toward recreating a work of art, for most people, is to photograph it, which, ultimately, isn’t all that different from the time-honored tradition of sketching.

Which is why the ban on photography directly undermines the very point of an art gallery. You have to make it non-flash, and you have to be discreet. But making rules for it should not be beyond most museums.

(Photo: Bernard Hasquenoph / Louvre pour tous )