The Thrill of an Undocumented Memory

Maybe you can relate to feeling torn over wanting to document those Instagram-worthy moments in your life versus simply experiencing them. This is the issue I faced this past summer when I had the opportunity to fly to Florence, Italy for a course with Covenant’s Art Department. Eleven other Covenant students and I lived, breathed, and copied Florentine art for a month. I fully prepared myself to be in awe of the works that I saw, but what I did not prepare myself for was the environment in which I would be viewing the art.

If you come from a touristy area, then you will understand. If not, let me explain: imagine you have been observing, sketching, and taking notes on the Primavera by Botticelli for three hours in a small room. Now add wave after wave of tourists wielding three-foot long selfie sticks that, if you are not careful, will mercilessly clobber you upside the head. Imagine that while you are sketching, you suddenly find cameras thrust over your notebook, documenting your amateur documentation of the real work right in front of you. When you stand in one place for an extended period of time, you begin to notice the speediness with which museumgoers breeze through galleries, snapping photos of every artwork they pass. Certainly there is merit in documenting your experiences and sharing them with friends. Even selfies (appropriately referred to as self-portraits) have a rich history of self-expression in art history. A famous Dutch painter, whom you may know as Rembrandt, produced close to one hundred self-portraits which simultaneously reveal his changing psyche over his lifetime and were a convenient method for him to refine his skill.

However, let us unpack this idea: what are the true motives for this obsessive practice of capturing fleeting moments in our lives? I had hoped to engage meaningfully with the art rather than view it through the lens of a camera. Granted, the state of my grades helped me to curb the urge of taking out my phone in the Botticelli room. Additionally, I was discouraged by the sensible voice of Professor Kayb (of the Covenant Art Department) asking why anyone would take a poorly lit photograph in a room full of people when you could “just buy a postcard.” I had to remind myself that I was there for the art, and not the event of seeing the art itself. Studies reveal that taking pictures of the artworks versus actually viewing them will decrease your memory of them, reports Stephanie Rosenbloom for the New York Times.

Seeing as this is an opinions article, my opinion is that you should let life pass you by. Allow yourself to feel the unique and fleeting emotions that come with each passing moment. I am by no means innocent of obsessive documentation; far too often I kill the very moment I’m trying to eternalize because I have anxiety over how it will appear to my peers. I think there’s something thrilling about relying only on your memories of events, they become like stories and legends. Rosenbloom says it best, “And there is relief—and dare I say pleasure—in letting a moment go undocumented, in deciding to be there instead of proving you were there. I think it’s called living.”