In 1942, The National Gallery introduced the ‘picture of the month’ initiative. After being forced to evacuate its paintings at the beginning of World War II in 1939, this was a time of celebration and appreciation of art, not only as a cultural, but also a social phenomenon. One painting was brought to London every single month, and each arrival became a major event.
I’m picturing the crowds gathering, basking in the energy of another piece of the puzzle coming back to the very heart of British cultural identity. I can also imagine the luxury, the anticipation, and the fear — the danger of not being fully secure. The arrival of the paintings was a risk, after all. It’s sort of like, well, downloading music illegally in the early 21st century. (Only without the isolated late nights and burned out eyes in the morning, after hours upon hours of scrolling through some Russian website to find one’s beloved music. Or was it just the 10-year-old me, borrowing my dad’s computer?).
If the thrill of seeing a new painting each month corresponds to the thrill of finding that obscure tune, then how does rationing art fit into the binging, streaming, one-out-another-in culture? We’re too used to the dopamine of clicking ‘Next episode’ at this point. I don’t know about you, but TV series’ seasons get mixed up in my head. I can’t tell when exactly Walter White hunted for that fly, or in which season the Drapers got divorced. There are even studies that show how binge-watching affects our memory.
Isn’t it the same with museums today, though? There’s a room with white walls and the 17th Dutch Golden Age; then we’ve got maroon walls with Caravaggio, and other shadow painters; we later continue onto the impressionists; then a tiny room of a singular artist that we skim through until we stumble upon an extra exhibition on something like surfing (I had the pleasure of exploring that at a gallery in Bordeaux). We are in an atemporal space, where Van Gogh’s meadows meet Velázquez’s courts. I tried writing down the paintings I liked the most at some point, but what do I do with that later on? I Google them? I stare at them on the screen? I try to make a memory room, to somehow situate the importance of my recollection of staring at one particular sunset? I don’t mean to be a skeptic, but it’s so hard not to be, when, everywhere I look or read or watch or hear, there is something upon something else, next to something completely different. And it’s all happening at once. That’s why, personally, I’m a fan of smaller galleries, such as Musée de l’Orangerie, or the Frick Collection, to name a few.
Interestingly enough, the music industry seems to be leaning towards the 1942 strategy, only it does so for completely different reasons. Some artists, apart from (or instead of) traditionally working on an album and treating it as a priority, release new singles, individually, at regular intervals. We live in an age when everyone has the power to create their own playlist-albums, starting out with “Crossroads” and ending with “Old Town Road,” so it’s not like we need artists to do it for us (I wonder, longingly, will we get another The Wall, where one song feeds off another?). That applies specifically to newer independent artists, those who cannot afford to live the sleazy dream of carelessly just doing it, such as Arctic Monkeys or Beyoncé. They have to be strategic, following the algorithm. It’s all about the algorithm—as well as shorter and shorter song intros. More than that, we have an official “release” day, which is a Friday, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. So it’s almost as if we’re becoming synchronized back to the 1940s. Almost.
The tragedy is that this illusory “rationing” of music is not caused by the fragile nature of our experience of it, even though it is more brittle in other ways. It is due to the fact that our attention spans are boggled up by more and more of everything, and that the musicians need to exploit our increasing sense of boredom and publish something new incessantly. It doesn’t even have to be good, it just has to be there. Art galleries, at least, still provide us with a sense of stillness and existing at one space at a time, even if another room awaits around the corner.
What never changes, however, is the anticipation on the part of the consumer. No matter our faults, we are still human. We are still like those art enthusiasts from back then, among the dangers of bombings and endings, in that gallery, enjoying that single painting together. Escaping. Or coming back. Maybe that’s the silver lining, if there is one, the thing that still binds us to those past versions of us. Whether we ration it out—a trend which seemed to have moved from art to nutrition—or watch an entire season in one go (well, it happens), we cannot get enough. I don’t think we will ever get bored with art, whether or not our brains turn to mush and our eyes burn out and away from all the blue light.