In Jaipur, we visited the Albert Hall, an ostentatious Indo-Saracenic pile built by the British and now housing the state museum of Rajasthan. While we were there, I noticed a phenomenon occurring which I’ve often wondered about before. A young man was walking around the museum exhibits, scanning each cabinet and shelf with a digital video recorder. He wasn’t taking any time to look at the exhibits himself, just watching the swivel screen as he quickly passed from case to case, to make sure he captured every object in his sweep.
Now, let’s establish some basic truths. This video would be completely unwatchable. Not just because of the sickening motion of the camera (have you ever noticed how in television and film, almost all filming is done with static camera shots? And ‘tracking shots’, where the camera moves, are used only very sparingly, by expert directors? There’s a reason for this) but also because of the awful tediousness of the subject. I’m willing to bet that no-one in the entire history of humanity has ever sat down and watched one of these videos after their holiday. After all, if you don’t find the exhibits interesting enough to actually look at them while you’re there, you’re hardly going to want to watch them on a shaky, blurry video afterwards.
The video would be no good as reference material, either. You couldn’t decide which objects you were interested in, freeze it and zoom in to inspect them: the still frames from a digital video are no good as detailed photographs. If you want those, you should take actual photographs in the museum, after deciding which objects you’re interested in by – oh, I don’t know – looking at them.
So why on earth do people do this? It’s puzzled me for years, the tourists you see walking around viewing their entire trip solely through a tiny screen, and missing out on the entire experience themselves. It’s not sight-seeing; it’s sight-recording, and presumably sight-filing-away-never-to-think-about-again.
Previously, I thought that people must have inflated ideas of their own photography and filming skills. They imagine that they’re creating great works of art with their holiday recordings, and since they never get around to watching them again, that fantasy is never disproved. They believe that the value in visiting all of these places, which they barely see while they’re there, lies in the collection of undiscovered visual masterpieces they’re building up at home.
Or, the point of the videos is to torture other people. It’s the old cliché of forcing someone to sit through a slideshow of your holiday snaps. The modern equivalent is uploading all your unwatchable sightseeing videos to your YouTube channel or Facebook profile, and sharing links with your family and friends, again with a delusional assessment of the work’s quality, and the audience’s level of interest.
My recent ranting about idolatry (here and here) has given me an alternative idea about what’s going on. To recap, certain religions like Christianity, Islam and Sikhism set themselves up in opposition to the idolatry of tribal practices which preceded them. But the vast majority of a faith’s followers are not as sophisticated as their prophets, and just want to bow down and pray to something, hence the veneration of relics, icons and holy books to which those religions quickly succumbed. Each was founded with the fundamental purposes of promoting a pure, direct relationship with god, and improving human behaviour. And every one turned into yet another set of idolatrous proxies, allowing people to think they’ve ticked their spiritual boxes while continuing to be utterly beastly to each other.
I have a hunch that mindless video-touring is the same phenomenon at work in a different sphere. Museums are founded and curated by people with deep knowledge and passion for their subjects, who want to pass it on. Great works of art and architecture are designed by geniuses with superb senses of the aesthetic, who want to create beautiful things for others to appreciate as much as them. But 99% of the human race are not operating on the same level as those scholars and artists.
A few people might visit a museum and closely study its artifacts, trying to gain a deeper understanding of the topic. A few people might truly appreciate and be moved by the beauty of an artwork or a building, and stop for long enough to savour the experience. But most people – most people of course won’t even visit museums or works of art in the first place, but most people who do – don’t seem to be doing this, as far as I can tell.
I noticed it, for example, at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Every single other visitor in the place did the same thing: follow a circuit around the gallery, at a constant distance of about two metres from the wall, pausing briefly in front of each painting before moving on. A Van Gogh painting from two metres away is a collection of discrete brushstrokes. You can see what the painting is of, but that’s all. The real genius and wonder of Van Gogh’s work is the way that the individual blobs of paint come together to form the overall scene, the way they seem to mingle and vibrate, the way he captures the essence of light and makes it radiate out from the canvas into the room. You can’t possibly get any of that from two metres away. You have to be at least five or six metres away before the brushstrokes start to dissolve into the overall image, more for the larger canvases. The best way to appreciate a Van Gogh is to start up close, studying the granularity of its construction, and then back away slowly, enjoying the effect of it melting together. At a certain point – you’ll know it when you’re there – the painting suddenly comes alive and glows. You don’t need to be a pretentious art critic to do this: anyone with eyes and a brain can appreciate the effect, and Van Gogh is known for the shimmering quality of light in his paintings, it’s what he’s famous for. Why are you even in the Van Gogh Museum if you don’t know why the paintings are so good? Why are you bothering to look at them when they can’t possibly be moving you in any way?
I think the reason people go to the Van Gogh Museum is because they think it’s a cultural experience they should have, and they think that by whizzing around and spending 10 seconds staring at each picture, they’ve had it. The fact that they haven’t really seen any of the paintings properly or had any emotional experience at all is unimportant. The feeling of “having done the thing” is the aim, not the thing itself, which is superfluous, even detrimental to it.
The advent of cameras and video provides an even more efficient and direct method of achieving this aim. By walking briskly around the museum and recording every display on camera, you’ve created a totem, a piece of incontrovertible proof that you were there, you did the museum, you had the educational experience it represents. It doesn’t matter that you’ve had no such experience, and haven’t learnt a single thing. That was never what you wanted anyway. Real experiences, especially educational ones, are difficult. They take effort to achieve, and they might force you to question some of your cherished beliefs and assumptions. Basically, they put you outside of your comfort zone. On the other hand, tokens representing experiences are much more convenient. You can build up a collection of them, giving you the satisfaction that you’ve lived life to the full, without any of the hassle of actually doing so. The tokens don’t need to be good quality, they don’t need to be reviewed, they don’t even need to be seen by anyone else. They just need to be there.
It’s the new idolatry of existentialism: you don’t need to choose your own path in life, you just need to have a video recording showing that you did.