The galleries of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) were bustling with people on the last day before the museum closed for renovation. All my senses were stimulated the instant I walked into the space. I was hit by the choir of conversation and laughter scented by a lingering current of perfume and sweat from the summer heat. The cool, gentle palette of Seurat’s seascapes offered a refreshing relief to my eyes despite the warm skin pressing into me as visitors rushed past to try and view everything the massive collection had to offer.
Amidst the dull hum of chatter, pops of excited exclamation and shrieks of delight sounded from behind the central partition. I peered around the wall to see a circle of raised cellular devices encircling a weary security guard next to none other than Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. Seeing the painting in real life for the first time was a strange sight. Mostly because I always forget to anticipate the dozens of electronic screens between me and the painting, each displaying a slightly different version of Starry Night as visitors aimed for the best angle for a photo.
The circle shifted constantly. The screens melted back into the meandering crowd as quickly as they appeared. Occasionally a line would form by visitors trying to capture a fleeting pose in front of the swirling blues and yellows. Amidst the pulsing and reshaping assembly, a few individuals lingered at the frame, peering intently at the painting and analyzing each sweep that graced the canvas. The dynamic painting seemed to churn in swirls, mirroring the flux of the MoMA visitors hurrying by.
Waterlilies by Monet was a similar scene. The triptych of indigo, purple and gold became a mere backdrop to the most Instagram-worthy portrait picture. The dimensionality of waterlilies bobbing on the pond of reflected sky and willow trees became a flattened blur in the frame of iPhone’s Portrait mode. However, photoshoots shared the space with excited discussions about Monet’s painterly brushstrokes, composition and perspective among other interesting observations of Waterlilies.
As throngs of people shuffled past the work of Monet, van Gogh and Picasso, a vibrant painting hung quietly in a side gallery. Street, Dresden bathed in the dull glow of the space dotted with few visitors. I couldn’t look away from the hollow eyes of the women depicted. Despite the rich pinks, oranges and neon greens that begged to tell a story of vibrant cosmopolitan life, the jarring emptiness of their eyes seeped through the frame. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner sought “to capture the psychological alienation wrought by modernization” through this painting made during the early 1900s, but I couldn’t help but feel the relevance of his message in today’s world.
I thought back to the prominence of technology in the visitors’ experience of Starry Night, Waterlilies and countless other artworks in the MoMA. The visitors ultimately still viewed the paintings through a screen, and I wondered if the experience really differed from searching up the artwork at home. I also wondered how many opportunities for engaging observations and enlightening conversations between people were lost in the attempt to document a snapshot to upload later onto social media. In a way, technology has alienated the viewers from the paintings and the messages the artists tried to share through their creations. The potential for intimate emotional and intellectual engagement with the physical art itself was stifled by an obsession of uploading our daily life onto the Internet. Like Street, Dresden, these pictures seemed to capture a vibrant, enriching visit filled with brilliant colors and desirable lifestyle. However, we might be just as removed from reality and those around us as the ladies with the empty gaze.