This weekend I visited the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. We were taking a relative to see the museum, but I was also hoping for something else from the visit. I was hoping to fill the well.
Anyone familiar with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way will recognize this idea of replenishing your creativity, and how a trip to the museum, or watching a play, or reading a book, or even taking a vacation –can open your mind to new artistic experiences.
As a writer, it’s especially important for me to take breaks because I always discover something important on every trip I make – a new setting for a new story, an interesting plot twist – all by stepping outside my door. But maybe I don’t take enough breaks, because I discovered something this time at the MoMA I hadn’t prepared for: smart phones. Smart phones and tablets, and other Internet-ready devices.
In front of one of the most famous paintings at the museum, there were crowds of people doing the same thing as the man next to me. In taking a picture of Van Gogh’s “A Starry, Starry Night,” I also took a digital picture of him capturing the same image.
This was because, well, I had brought my iPhone, too. It was my chance to record what I might see for only a few fleeting minutes otherwise. And anyone with young children will know just how much time you have to view a painting with a small hand tugging at you to keep moving.
Also, on Facebook, I often vicariously enjoy the pictures of artwork my friends share from their museum trips, and I planned to do the same. When I came upon “The Three Musicians” by Pablo Picasso, I took a picture immediately. Not only did it remind me of elementary school where a poster of the same painting hung in my art teacher’s classroom, but there were people on Facebook who had gone to the same school might remember the poster, too.
So then – what’s the harm? How does a smart phone or a tablet differ from an old-fashioned camera used by the well-intended tourist recording an encounter with a famous painting?
No harm, of course. If anything, smart phones are a way to bring the world to the rest of the world. In an instant, I can be transported to Rome, Tokyo, or the crookedest street in San Francisco – not with Googled images, but with custom ones that include friends and family, that make everything at once familiar and intimate.
But I can’t help wonder what this does for our artistic selves. The very act of visiting a museum is an exercise in slowing down, and to observe hopefully without expectation or purpose, but with a mindfulness that requires us to shut out the rest of the world. With the click of my phone, am I filling the well, or merely transferring a “Kodak moment” to someone else?
I do think there is a danger in allowing our phones to substitute a live encounter with a recorded one. For me, it puts off the hard work of having to engage with what I’m seeing in the moment. Instead of experiencing something right then, I’m opting for a cropped version of it later, seen through the viewfinder of my iPhone. Without my phone, I might have written about what I’d seen instead, or simply have remembered it, like the telephone numbers of my friends I had committed to memory back in those days before we could program.
With the inception of the camera, this is always an inherent problem – of the camera interfering in a live experience. But it was still a measured, private endeavor. The act of taking a photograph, developing it, and placing it in a photo album to see it again and again allowed you to interpret more slowly. The slowness was important – for me, it was part of how the experience became crystallized in my mind.
With the smart phone, the very speed of transmission has all but short-circuited my brain from the entire experience. The Musicians isn’t just a private memory of sixth grade anymore – of being twelve and clambering into the art room with the rest of my class, our voices echoing loudly as we settled in at one of the long tables, listening to our teacher with her myriad rules that would help us to create art in spite of ourselves.
But perhaps this is the new way of creating – of parceling ideas over the Internet and inviting a response from others. Maybe we fill the well with the voices of others in short 40-character responses. So many people “liked” The Three Musicians on my Facebook page. And that made me happy to connect my museum visit, with my memory of sixth grade art, and my family and friends all at the same time. But it also turned me into a casual observer, and a sense of mindfulness was gone. Because when you use social media, you invite others to join you, but you also bring your home with you. And to really experience something new, you have to leave home.
In the outside sculpture garden, my family and I took a break to rest our feet and enjoy the balmy outside air, surrounded by metal sculptures balanced precariously next to quietly gurgling fountains. It was serene and calming. Around me, a hundred people found it so, each of them looking intently into their phones. It seemed today’s weary tourist doesn’t need an outside garden so much as a wifi connection. The next time I visit a museum, I will make a deliberate effort to turn off my phone. I will try to see the world for what it is – real and fleeting, like water in a well, that can be contained but that can also run dry – which makes it all the more precious.
Sheela Chari is the author of Vanished. She is currently at work on her second novel.