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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The world's worst therapist in Gypsy had me reaching for the off button

How did this Netflix series, with its portentous Seventies vibe and implausible plot, come to be made?

In Gypsy (30 June) Naomi Watts plays Jean Hollo­way, possibly the world’s worst therapist. You should see the notes she makes while she is with her patients. “Boundaries,” she’ll write, glasses perched on the end of her nose. Then, for ­emphasis: “BOUNDARIES.” In her Manhattan consulting room, the interior of which resembles the lobby of a uniquely unexciting boutique hotel, she communicates with patients using a grisly combination of 21st-century cliché and self-help ­mumbo-jumbo.

“It’s a process,” she’ll tell the lightly ruffled types who find themselves on her books. Or: “You were in a serious codependent relationship.” Usually, this kind of thing works a treat. Should it fail to do so, there is always her gently whispered last ­resort: “This is a safe space.”

But there is more. Jean has a creepy habit, which is that she likes to dabble in her clients’ lives. Call her a stalker at one remove. Her latest adventure, in which she calls herself Diane and poses not at all plausibly as a journalist, involves a young woman called Sidney (Sophie Cookson), whose drippy ex-boyfriend Jean has been counselling for some weeks. It started with a coffee – Sidney is a barista – and proceeded swiftly to a warehouse party, where Jean danced uninhibited alongside hipsters half her age.

I thought her Eighties moves might have been the result of the Clonazepam she kept swallowing, pills she mostly filched (why?) from the bathrooms of friends. But I was wrong. The disco hands were supposed to be a sign of her burgeoning liberation. Sidney, moreover, found them really hot. Later, the pair of them snogged like teenagers.

What on Earth is Gypsy about? Its creator, Lisa Rubin, has said that she thought it would be interesting to write a series in which a fortysomething woman is portrayed as both desirable and desired, “because the world is full of these women, and yet we so rarely see them on television” – a statement that sounds vaguely laudable in the abstract. But along the way, a car has crashed and left a mess all over the road.

I understand that Jean is suffering from a bad case of first-world ennui, what with her gorgeous lawyer husband (Billy Crudup, struggling manfully with the banalities his character must utter), her charming young daughter and the awful Connecticut soccer moms she must deal with whenever the aforementioned kid wants a play date (though one does wonder why, given that Jean has what purports to be a career, she doesn’t just opt out of the mommy race and hang with women more like herself).

And why shouldn’t she have a little extra-curricular sex with a younger woman, if that’s what floats her perimenopausal boat? What I don’t get is the pseudo-stalking and the stealing. I’m not sure that Gypsy’s somewhat antiquated feminist message – is Rubin aware that Betty Friedan has been dead for a while now? – works in a context in which her behaviour also dictates that she should be struck off.

According to Rubin, Sam ­Taylor-Johnson, who directed the first two episodes, was “really important for establishing the language of the show”. And what a language it is. So easy to learn! Taylor-Johnson fell out with E L James when she directed the film of Fifty Shades of Grey, but you would have to be blindfolded (red velvet, black lace) not to see that this series comes with a powerful whiff of that film. Its aspirant soft-focus gaze cares as much for status refrigerators (the size of a ranch) and winter coats (think Jil Sander) as Jean’s masturbatory fantasies. When, in one inexplicably drawn-out scene, she asked an assistant in an upmarket store whether it stocked Chance by Chanel, her voice was so earnest that she might as well have been asking for the selected écrits of Jacques Lacan.

How did this series, with its portentous Seventies vibe and implausible plot, come to be made? I guess the ravenous maw that is Netflix must be fed somehow. A more interesting question, as you reach for the off button, would be why so many ostensibly intelligent women have come, in 2017, to confuse feminism with shopping and a particularly mindless kind of self-love. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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