Modern Art Room, National Gallery

Teens dressed in urban street gear take pictures of the art while asking the security guard how much it’s worth. They’re photographing (and so not really looking at) an all-white Rothko or somesuch, about the worth of which the security guard says, “More than we could earn in a lifetime… priceless.” (I should point out that those two statements ought to contradict each other, because if something is priceless, no amount of money earned would matter, but since nowadays everything seems to be valued in terms of money, well, blah blah blah.) Then the photo-taking teen’s all “I could do that,” about Rothko-type art in general. Anyone could paint that, the teen insists to the security guard. And maybe he’s right.

But the teen is still taking a picture of it, to get developed and then probably throw away or leave in the bottom of a box of unused photos. The taking of the photo gives the art a kind of worth, or maybe the declared worth of the art makes the photo “worth” taking. But what does that have to do with art? People who photograph art in museums don’t really see it. The camera isn’t an eye, it’s a barrier between the eye and the world. Looking at the photo of the art later, does the photographer see it? The referent “it” is left ambiguous on purpose: do we see the photo? Well, yes. But do we see the work of art in the photo? Perhaps, but I’m leaning toward probably not. And do we see the photo in terms of what it has done to our seeing of the work of art? Not usually. A photograph can be a work of art, but it cannot capture one. —FC