In art museums, when are selfies ever cool?

An article I just read triggered a deep-seated pet peeve of mine. It’s not about how super it is that summer’s almost here, which really gets my goat, because I loathe summer. And it’s not about the astonishing nincompoopery going on in Washington right now. 

It’s more important than all that. It’s about patrons taking selfies in the world’s greatest museums, standing like glassy-eyed dolts before masterpieces by Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, all the while blocking the paintings for others as they stage strenuous fake smiles at their cell phones without actually studying the monumental artworks hanging mere feet away. Pose, smile, snap, leave.

Recently at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam I was looking forward to truly absorbing Rembrandt’s grand, justly famous “Night Watch.” It had been years since I’d seen it in the flesh, and this time I read up on it, prepared for a more immersive, enlightened viewing. 

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Mobs of viewers before Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” this month in Amsterdam.

Not a chance. The painting is quite gigantic and still, when I got to it, a crush of phone-wielding zombies were cluttering up the view. I jostled and elbowed, to no avail. Details I wanted to drink in, such as the fuzzy little self-portrait of Rembrandt peeking out from between two watchmen, had to be quickly glanced before some dunderhead, camera in fist, bumped me away. 

Cell phones and those mortifying selfie sticks abounded, with people actually pointing cameras at themselves, plastering on gargoyle grins and snapping themselves in front of a masterwork they couldn’t care less about except for how it will look on Instagram. Can you imagine how those shots turned out? The mind reels. The stomach turns. 

A few sublime Vermeers prominently adorn the Rijksmuseum, but if you want to see them, really see them, wait until the Selfie Squadron gets its fix. Watch as it rushes up to gentle tableaus of sun-splashed domestic life, framing and snapping pictures, then summarily rushing to the next painting, like it’s a contest, some kind of desperate relay.

The selfie epidemic is even uglier at the Louvre with Da Vinci’s magnetic “Mona Lisa.” 

The way many patrons “interact with the 500-year-old painting exemplifies how differently the digital generation experiences art,” says The New York Times article I read. “Most of the roughly 150 people crowded around the painting were taking photographs of the piece, or of themselves in front of it. In the presence of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ digital photography, more than looking at the actual artwork, has become the primary experience.”

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The “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in Paris. (Photo by Pedro Fiuza.)

This disgusts me, and it probably shouldn’t. No, actually it should. And this is why:

“Imprisoned by its reputation as the most famous painting in the world, the ‘Mona Lisa’ has, to all meaningful intents and purposes, ceased to exist as an original work of art. It has become an idea — and a photo opportunity.”

Hasn’t everything been reduced to this, a crass photo opportunity? Even at Starbucks, I see people satisfying the urge to take selfies of themselves with their massive milkshakes that pass as coffee drinks, tongues hanging out or lips pursed, fingers making a peace sign. Who but the takers wants to look at these images?

It’s too easy to blame unchecked narcissism, yet that’s surely a contributing toxin. As someone who’s almost pathologically camera shy, I can’t fathom this slavering need to record oneself every 15 minutes until dizzying repetition nullifies any semblance of originality. The pictures all look the same; only the “zany” faces vary. People love to look at themselves. As the center of the universe, their self-adoration knows no bounds. It is, I think, a sickness. The camera-clicking hordes in museums reveal a kind of twisted vanity.

Think about it. Your mugging face, beaming, and in the far background, lost in the clamor, is “The Night Watch” or the “Mona Lisa.” What then? The shame.

Heineken’s museum of Hell

Before I travel, I prepare like a madman, and my outstanding trip to Amsterdam last week was no exception. One night, fueled by wide-eyed, butterfly-stomach pre-travel excitement, I purchased a few advance museum tickets online: the Rijksmuseum (all majesty and splendor), the Van Gogh Museum (strong, if a tiny bit disappointing) and, in a snap of psychosis or addled hastiness, an 18 € ($21.50) ticket for the Heineken Experience, billed as a “sensational interactive tour” set in the original Heineken brewery turned museum in Amsterdam’s city center.

I grossly miscalculated.

The Heineken Experience was so massively lame, such an appalling and transparent marketing apparatus, that I was actually embarrassed to be there. You don’t go to be enlightened but to have “interesting” factoids about the Heineken family and the titular beer’s recipe recited to you by overexcited twenty-somethings wearing skinny headset microphones á la Beyoncé. If you have any idea how beer is made, the tour is old news.  

I should have known better, that a beer tour that includes two and a half “complimentary” drinks would attract mostly frat boys, their sorority cohorts and Euro trash, all of whom seemed glazed with boredom by the broad and vacuous explanations of how hops, water, barley and yeast make beer, and didn’t even seem terribly impressed by the stable of eight black horses, the so-called famous Heineken horses that stood there looking equally bored, sad that they didn’t get to also imbibe the scrumptious brew.

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One of the blush-inducing “interactive” delights at the Heineken Experience.

When the informational part of the tour ends, the museum falls back hard on high-tech filler that you can’t believe, from a ride in which you become a beer bottle to laser-lighted basketball hoops; a room pumped with blaring electronic dance music and strafed with green (the brand color) lasers, to a large photo-booth room where people sit on stationary Heineken bicycles while street scenes of Paris are projected on back-screens, so it looks like you’re pedaling through the French capital. Imagine that! People were having a good old time on those bikes, smiling at their own images as if they really believed they were in Paris. And they hadn’t even drank yet.

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Selfies, unaccountably huge here.

By then I was practically jogging to the final room, the bar pouring “free” beer. I sipped my beers with the faintest scowl, while trying to pretend I wasn’t altogether repulsed. My fellow chumps were laughing, taking endless selfies, shaking to the music, which veered from nauseating EDM to friendly pop rock. 

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A drum kit made of beer kegs! He looks elated and not at all a little confused.

All I could think was: There isn’t enough Heineken suds in this entire old brewery to numb me enough to believe this was a good idea. And then there was this: As in all museums you exit through the gift shop. But once you leave this emporium of baldly branded gear, guess what? You hit another gift shop, which is when I sighed to myself, Get me out of this Heineken hell. I felt violated, ripped off. Worse, those beers didn’t even give me a buzz. 

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A disproportionate amount of weak to bad museums litter otherwise wonderful Amsterdam — from the pot museum, prostitution museum and cheese museum, to the sex and erotic museums to the canal museum and, yes, the dopey Heineken predicament.

The antidote is to choose wisely. You can’t miss with the aforementioned Rijksmuseum (Rembrandts and Vermeers adorning a knockout space) and Van Gogh Museum (beautifully curated and suavely laid-out), plus the fine modern art collection at the underrated Stedelijk Museum, where everyone from Picasso to Damien Hirst are represented by canonical works. I’d gladly trade those 2½ beers for just one look at this ravishing blue doozy by Yves Klein at the Stedelijk:

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Ambling across Amsterdam

Amsterdam prevails.

Weighing Budapest against Amsterdam for my next trip, the Netherlands won out ably after effortless contemplation that sprung to mind peerless European art, worldly cuisine, cobblestone, canals and cannabis. 

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Compared to the striking Hungarian capital, there’s more to see and do in one of Europe’s most bristling cradles of culture, a smallish, quintessentially Old World setting marbled with a pungent contemporary tang. (And naughtily dubbed Sin City for its legal prostitution and lax marijuana laws.)

Once, in the 1600s, it was the world’s richest city; port-centric commerce flourished. Now, it’s a reservoir of humanistic riches — art, food, style, architecture. Friends of mine are so taken with the city that they’re moving to Amsterdam from Manhattan ASAP.

It’s been years since I’ve visited Amsterdam, and those times had the brevity of stopovers. Budapest’s Gothic spikiness and post-Soviet chill can wait. My destination offers popping pastel charms, including an iconic fretwork of canals lined by trees and spindly, leaning houses that seem to be jostling for room on the banks. And now there’s a lot more time.

No tulips or bicycles for me (and, alas, no Anne Frank House: tickets are plum sold out during my stay, though I’ve been there twice before), but I’m all about the hazy gold and brown Rembrandts, those Vermeers and the cornea-sizzling Van Goghs gracing the majestic Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, plus the spread of classic modern art — Haring to Kruger — at the recently reopened Stedelijk Museum. 

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Gourmet stuffed pancakes, Indonesian bites (of which Holland is a hotbed), Dutch dishes, frites with mayo, pickled herring, European lagers and gin, or, in Dutch, jenever — that’s my menu. Cafes, pubs, maybe a sooty “coffeeshop” — those are where I will recharge. 

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Museum Vrolik, grisly, glorious.

Out of touristic obligation I’ll trot the tawdry and corny Red Light District, which stings the nostrils with damage, despair and possibly disease, and get out fast to catch a 90-minute canal boat tour run by the cheeky Those Dam Boat Guys, who encourage you to bring whatever ingestible vice you’d like. “Bring all the wine you have,” they exclaim. “Sure, it thins the blood and will kill you quicker, but I’ll be damned if it don’t make you forget the nippiness. We’ll provide the best cheap, shitty, plastic cups not very much money can buy!”

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After that, a heady spin through the Heineken brewery seems mandatory, as does the Museum Vrolik, a shuddery repository of the “normal anatomy of humans, but also pathological anatomy and congenital malformations.” Meaning, contorted skeletons, chubby jarred fetuses, outlandish taxidermy and all things squishy and wrong. 

I blush at how this reads like a breathless brochure by a lackey at the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce. Part of the unseemly boosterism, the unbridled optimism, comes from the vim of nailing down a destination and the kick of anticipation. Of the simple notion of travel and gulping the exotic. Of being able to finally say: Amsterdam. Yes.