My mission — an anthropology field study to examine whether teenagers can be prised from their phones for more than five minutes at a time, if shoved in front of art. Could it work? Or are they permanently welded to their handsets?
Many of us will have seen that photo of the group of teens hunched over their phones, as Rembrandt’s Night Watch hangs behind them in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, abjectly ignored. (http://bit.ly/1tcoppj). Is it a tiny bit unrealistic to expect a bunch of 21st century teens to engage with a 1642 painting of men in silly hats waving swords? Or are contemporary teenagers a bunch of digital philistines?
Selecting a city full of art — Amsterdam — and a random 13-year-old and 15-year-old from the sofa in my sitting room, I introduce the topic to the unsuspecting guinea pigs in my social experiment. A pragmatic approach seems sensible, to initially pique their interest. Amsterdam is full of weed cafes and ladies standing in shop windows with almost no clothes on, I tell them. And there are two Banksy exhibitions happening there at the moment, I add, cleverly slipping the art in between the sex and drugs.
Not that Banksy is a hard sell to teenagers — the fact that he does it directly onto public walls makes him a far more tantalising prospect than, say, Rembrandt. Or any of the other ancients in the Rijksmuseum.
“Please,” begs the 15-year-old. “Don’t make us trudge around looking at dead kings and queens.”
Instead, we go to the Stedelijk museum where the contemporary art lives, all vast and bright and in-your-face, stuffed full of everyone from Matisse to Tracey Emin. The Stedelijk is as keen as I am to engage teens, so much so that it has its own group of them, a gang of volunteers called the Blikopeners — the Eyeopeners —who do tours and workshops.
Wow, I say, looking around, urging my subjects to open their bliks. They remain stony faced. “That’s not art,” says the 13-year-old, in front of a Rothko. “Neither is that,” he adds, pointing in disgust to a Mondriaan.
“They’re just stupid.”
I try a different tack. The Van Gogh museum is doing a show about the artist’s insanity — and the doctor who treated Van Gogh has the exact same name as the 13 -year-old. “It’s a sign!” I tell him. But he’s not listening. He’s on his phone, texting his mates about being dragged around a museum dedicated to a dead ginger bloke with one ear.
Even Banksy can’t penetrate the wall of phone behind which teenagers live.
While the older one slumps around the street art, incongruously reproduced inside a posh gallery, she is shrugging and making meh noises, but at least she is present. The younger one has refused to come. He is back at the Airbnb playing on his phone. My experiment confirms my suspicions — that taking teenagers to art shows is like taking monkeys to the opera. Monkeys with phones.
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