I spent a couple weeks this summer museum-hopping. Art museums, mostly, and while I don’t know much about painting or sculpture, I know what I like, and I know what I don't like, and I don't like people who go museum-hopping. Present company excluded.
When I first started going to museums, decades ago, the rap against museum-goers, especially in art museums, was their pretentiousness. The places were crawling with snobs and blowhards, clogging the Early Renaissance rooms, pushing into the Northern European gallery, spilling outdoors into the sculpture gardens. You couldn't avoid them. They appeared to be variations on a theme. It was usually a guy wearing a cable-knit turtleneck sweater and a feathery beard in the company of a tall, mysterious woman standing a bit too long in front of an Ingres painting of a lady taking a sponge bath.
"The light," Turtleneck would say, cocking his head.
"Mmmm," Mystery Woman would say, biting her lip.
"You see how it trifurcates the composition arbitrarily," he would say.
"I see it, yes. It's so … so tactile."
Then she would laugh through her nose, and he would turn away, smiling, and they would move to assume their position in front of a David portrait of a dying French patriot, and with a vague look of amused condescension he would mumble something about the brush technique's impact on the chiaroscuro.
I would look from them to the pictures and back again and I would think, What're they smiling about? What's so damn funny? And I would think, I cannot stand museum-goers.
The good old days! I assume the Turtlenecks and their Mystery Women are still around, still sniffing their way through the galleries, though the decline of higher education and the diminished aspirations for the middlebrow have probably cut their number. Not many people aspire to be pretentious anymore. And even if they're still around, they have been overwhelmed by the hordes of Selfie Takers.
Selfie Takers are not snobs, at least as far as I can see. In fact, they seem pretty indiscriminate in their appreciation of works of art. And their way of appreciating art is to approach it aggressively. I mean aggressive in a physical sense. They lurch toward a painting, register its existence, and then, by way of appreciation, turn their backs on it. They raise their cellphones aloft and adjust the camera's position to take in themselves and the painting. They mince, they pout, they grin, they tilt their heads and part their lips in a way that is meant (I'm guessing) to be seductive. The photo is snapped and the Selfie Taker lurches forward without a backward glance, to further appreciate man's deepest yearnings as expressed through art. Civilization is really terrific.
Most of the Selfie Takers are women, from my observation, but young men do it, too, and when they pose as a couple with their backs to, let's say, a van Gogh self-portrait, their conversation is different from that of the museum-goers of decades past.
He: [Adjusts baseball cap and mugs]
She: Eww! Don't stick your tongue out!
She: My mom's probably going to see this.
He: I said okay. I'm not f—ing sticking my tongue out.
She: Get closer! Smile!
He: There. Let's get the f— out of here.
She: One more!
Van Gogh, meanwhile, stares at the back of their heads, contemplating suicide.
It was inevitable that the Selfie Takers would draw the attention of our social scientists. Disguising their value judgments in a meaningless flurry of regressions and algorithms, social scientists get to serve as the culture's go-to moralizers. A recent study, analyzing an online survey of 1,200 men and women, revealed that Selfie Takers score high on tests of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy—that is, self-centeredness, manipulativeness, and obliviousness. Social scientists, the sly moralists, condemn this combination of personality traits as the "Dark Triad."
Harsh. I dislike social scientists almost as much as museum-goers, so between them and Selfie Takers I'm reluctant to take sides—a feeling I remember from the Iran-Iraq war. Any resemblance between the real world and a finding of social science is likely to be mere coincidence.
In this case, I'll buy it. Go to an art museum and see for yourself. The self-absorption, the disregard for other people, the sheer tastelessness—why, it's tactile.