Are smartphones ruining art?

Videos on social media sites are merely dumbed-down replicas.

Earlier this month, James McAvoy stopped a performance of Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios to ask a member of the audience to stop filming it. A bold move that risked ruining the show for those who chose not to view the live event through a 2D screen. And, arguably, any actor less sure of his status as one of Britain’s best wouldn’t dare be so impertinent. But, in principle, McAvoy has a point.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs cottoned on to the annoyance of phone-viewing and posted a pre-emptive notice to their fans banning the use of phone cameras and filming. The Guardian’s Michael Hann has argued that cameraphone footage is infuriating and pointless. Using mobiles and tablets to document a live event is not only annoying to those around them – judging from the comments on Hann’s article, many agree with this point – it’s also detrimental to the production itself.

When you see an iPhone or iPad set to camera-mode during an event, it’s rarely so the owner can enjoy the show over and over again at home: it’s for sharing on social networks. And for artistic productions, this kind of exposure is damaging. Posting self-shot videos and photos of gigs, productions, performances and art exhibitions undermines the integrity of the original. Production teams work hard to create an image for their show, often selecting specific moments during the production to be shown to the press, while reserving others as surprises. Inevitably, if someone documents what they deem to be the best moments of a production and strew them over Twitter, you would be less inclined to bother spending money on going to see the show live.

Take No Fit State Circus, currently performing at the Roundhouse, as an example. Type their name into Twitter or YouTube (followed by the word “live”) and a barrage of pictures and videos taken on smart devices will flood your newsfeed. These aren’t produced by the company, they’re snapshots posted by viewers wanting to share their experience of the show with friends and followers – a fragmented portrayal of the production.

Arguably, footage posted on social media could be deemed as publicity, providing the show with free exposure. Social networks are now well-known for their ability to generate ‘hype’ about a certain product or event. But there’s a reason why institutions like The Southbank Centre have a no filming policy: the joy of seeing a play or visiting an art installation is in the physical live experience.

Your peripheral vision soaks up your surroundings. The sound design creates a three-dimensional scene and you feed off the atmosphere in the space, reacting in real-time to other viewers or participants. None of this can be sufficiantly captured on film. Instead, you’re presented with a cut and paste job, left to make your mind up about whether or not to visit a production based on someone else’s selected clips. Plus, they may well have exposed you to the most climactic point of the piece – this has happened to me – which thoroughly ruins any appetite you once had of going to see it.

I’m not averse to technology fusing with the arts when it is complimentary, as this advert for a new robot demonstrates. We may not be far away from a time where remote viewing becomes the norm and viewers can “visit” exhibitions using robots with iPad conectivity. It may not be the same as physically attending a gallery, but as least you will create an interpretation of the art based on your own experience of it.

However, until the majority of performances and installations are created with smartphone technology in mind, pictures and videos published on social media networks are merely dumbed-down replicas of the original cultural product. Unrepresentative and misleading, they devalue the original production. I would love to see technology further incorporation into the arts, but otherwise, smart-phone filming has no place in artistic performances. In my internet utopia, our cultural spaces would be camera-free, allowing the genius behind every piece of art to remain a mystery.

Put your camera up in the air. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide