On Saturday I was at a reception for an art exhibit at a local cultural institution. A big show for a good artist who deserved it. A great crowd. Festive, exciting. In my mind I thought of some ideas for an article about the artist, the venue and the show. I could have taken 150 photos of people there I knew on a first name basis and another 200 of their equally important companions whose names I had forgotten.
But a volunteer for the museum approached me and insisted that I stop taking photographs. I complied with his ludicrous sanction but a friend who witnessed the exchange posted a picture of Javier Bardem as Anton Chigur in No Country For Old Men on my FB Wall later saying that is what I looked like at the moment of the confrontation.
What sense on earth does it make for a policy like this to be in place? Why would an institution forbid photography?
Oh, there is the bugaboo about copyright and collectors lending artwork to an exhibition under numerous conditions, one of which might be that the work not be reproduced in a particular manner. Nobody is going to set up high-end cameras on tripods and reproduce the art for tee shirts. There is no copyright issue. Collectors who make demands about the work being photographed do not have legal rights to the images of the art they own; those rights are retained by the artist.
I wish I could tell you who they all were, where they were and whose art they were enjoying.
There is the old saw that the flash from the camera has an adverse effect on the actual art object. This is true only for some printed photography in unshielded frames. Many galleries have personnel explain that they permit non-flash photography.
Nobody at this event was bent on documenting the art. This was a huge party in the museum. To insist that there be no photography at a party is downright pretentious.
Museum volunteers and security were better off monitoring this massive crowd from harming the art, as wine-happy revelers bumping into pedestals and vitrines, leaving thumb marks on clean walls and frames would seem to be a literally pressing priority. But for some reason it was more important to make sure that none of the guests had a "Kodak Moment" that night. If an institution has misplaced priorities that serve a bizarre self-image as some sort of hallowed cathedral, that institution may as well go the full route of religion and at least offer all of us life after death as the reward for being so penitent in their presence and submissive to their self-flattering whims.
Perhaps there are more nefarious reasons for forbidding photography at public receptions. Would an absurd policy like this be more likely to emanate from a board of trustees with things to hide? If the priority at public events is in hiding things from public view and maintaining strict control of how the inside of the institution is viewed, it is not a stretch of the imagination to speculate that people in control of this institution have things to hide. Are there two sets of accounting books? Are subcontractors overpaid on invoices specifically to kick back a portion of their payment to the party who approved the expenditure? If your museum is hell bent on stopping me from taking a party pic of three artists toasting your exhibition, I will freely speculate about your fear of transparency.
Finally though, we are left asking what the role of the museum is in the 21st century. If truth is the last casualty of the grant process, imagine the accuracy of this application for funding:
"Our museum works hard to ensure that no record of our events is ever allowed to be documented or disseminated without our express, written consent. Please give us grant money to hermetically seal all evidence that our exhibits ever took place. Your patronage will assure that in addition to presenting the art of our time, nobody will ever see it, enjoy it or know about it. Be assured that your grant money will especially prevent anyone ever getting tagged in an unauthorized uploaded photo having fun in its presence."
But regardless of whatever policies our palaces of art choose to make, out of empathy for my persecutor I would implore institutional administrators to do one thing. In the age of google, please do not force your docents, volunteers and other employees who may be breaking bad news to the public to wear nametags. Just sayin'.
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