Hating on Phone Culture

If you want to see real anger, read some of the comments in response to Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett’s Guardian piece Art, aura and the doomed search for the perfect selfie.  Although Cosslett writes that she has discovered that “even to suggest that to look at a painting through a phone is a lesser form of engagement provokes ire,” the ire in the comments section is exclusively aimed at people who view art in museums through the lens of their mobile phones.

The Guardian published six letters (in its print edition) on Saturday, 24 August, all agreeing with Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett that ‘selfie culture’ in art museums is a problem, and that, like Cosslett’s experience viewing the Van Gogh exhibition at Tate Britain, their pleasure at seeing great art has been ruined by people taking photos on their phones.

I hate to see people unhappy but I  wonder what is really at the root of so much annoyance?  If other people are in your way so that your view is restricted – of course that is irritating.  But isn’t that to do with the size of the crowd rather than what the crowd are doing?  Would  Cosslett have written her article if she’d been at the Van Gogh show with only one phone-wielding  person? And, if that was the case,  what would that say about Cosslett and the many who agree with her?  Maybe that they are more interested in observing how someone else is interacting with art than they are in engaging with the pictures themselves?  Because it seems to me that this is what people are criticising – other people’s behaviour – which doesn’t conform to some perceived acceptable – and superior – norm.

photo taken at the BP 2019 Portrait Award Exhibition at The National Gallery, London

Cosslett and her supporters seem to firmly believe that people looking at art through their phones are missing out – that they would gain more from the experience if they switched off their phones.   The picture painted (pun alert) is one of people spending every waking hour holding a phone in front of their faces.  But if you observe most phone usage at an art exhibition, it usually involves some looking down, looking around, looking at other visitors, looking at exhibits, lifting up the phone, putting down the phone, re-arranging the phone, carrying the phone, and so on.  Why the need to exaggerate?

And why do the detractors feel it’s acceptable to comment on and criticise the way that other people engage with art?  Why aren’t they focused on the art themselves?   I often lose myself inside the act of looking when I’m at an exhibition, so that I hardly notice people around me at all.  If someone stepped in front of me with a phone – yes, that would be bothersome but I wouldn’t go to an exhibition that was going to be so crowded (last day of the Van Gogh show? What was Cosslett expecting?) but if it was the only day available, I would go prepared to be tolerant.

I know that the comments section of any opinion piece comes with its own hazard-warning, so I’m not taking it all completely seriously.  However while I was there I saw an awful lot of lashing out at phone culture and selfie culture in general, and an opportunity for folk to express their  unhappiness with other people being on their phones the whole time.

I am trying to understand why this bothers some people so much and I think it might have more to do with those feeling bothered than those having fun with their gadgets. Possibly?

Taken at BP Portrait Award 2019 Exhibition at the National Gallery, London




8 thoughts on “Hating on Phone Culture”

  1. I think the real cause for concern should be those people who leave their phones turned on during plays and other live performances. This is rude and can impact on the ability of others to enjoy the performance. On the use of mobiles more generally, I remember being at a school performance and someone taking a call. Rather than saying “sorry, I can’t talk now” (or not taking the call at all), they proceeded to hold a conversation until the pressure of glares and a few muttered comments caused them to end their conversation!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I agree with your comments – which are about good manners and common sense, I think. Phones on at the theatre (and in the cinema) are distracting because of their light-emission and, obviously, any noise isn’t acceptable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Literally just watched a TED talk by the wonderful Karen Armstrong about the urgent need for simple kindness to others at this time. She spoke about seeking connectedness and tolerance rather than finding differences between people. I fear the author of the piece you refer to is identifying with differences rather than reaching for common humanity at a time when our house is on fire (as Tom Sastry might say).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What I object to is criticism about the way that someone else is engaging with culture. I fully accept that people should respect others and if someone gets in the way with a phone, they deserve to be told off. Yes, kindness above everything and good manners. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I am always annoyed by people who do not show the level of respect to a work of art that I believe it deserves. This is most likely because I am afraid that I am not giving the work of art the level of respect it deserves. In other words, “disrespectful” people are an annoying reminder of my own shortcomings. I should be happy that they are focusing on something else other than being in the way, but I cannot.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It is only when a gallery is empty, or almost so, that I can enjoy the paintings on display. A phone snapshot enables me to revisit those pictures.

    Furthermore, the supporting information about their pictures normally veers between non existent and negligible. A phone gallery pic enables me to research, and refer, more easily.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One can always wait until the crowd disperses and the art is able to be seen without someone in the way. There s always an alternative, rather than impatience and anger.

    Liked by 1 person

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