This head-to-desk image has made the rounds over the past two weeks. For those of you who slept through art history, that is Rembrandt's The Night Watch.
In the thousands of places this image has been reblogged and forwarded and shared, I've enjoyed the predictability of the comment sections that follow. As expected, there are plenty of "Woe to us! Weep for the future! These kids these days!" rants. The picture is intended to prompt that reaction – here's a bunch of kids ignoring a painting that has compelled viewers for centuries in favor of staring at their phones. What's missing here is context. I don't know if you remember being 12 years old and going on field trips to museums, but even without fancy cellphones to play with the average pre-teen "back in my day" had a very limited attention span for things like 17th century paintings. Show a middle schooler the greatest painting ever painted and I guarantee they won't care. Or they'll look at it for ten seconds and lose interest. So in defense of these kids, if they've been sitting in that room for anything more than a couple minutes (maybe waiting for the rest of the class to meet up) they are behaving exactly as one would expect them to. The only difference between them and us at their age is that they have better toys to play with.
On the other hand, the "Don't be so hard on these kids!" comments somehow are even more ridiculous than the ones that read this image as the downfall of western civilization. Rather than stating the bleedingly obvious – they're kids being kids – they make the most ridiculous excuses you could imagine. "How do you know they're not looking up more information about the painting!" or "They're probably taking the audio tour of the museum!" reflect the tendency a lot of people have to not only make excuses for kids no matter what, but to go out of their way to assume the very best about other humans. In some ways that is a laudable trait, and obviously it functions as a psychological defense mechanism against the daily barrage of evidence to the contrary. There is a line, though, between optimism and delusion. I understand not wanting to jump on the "We Are So Fucked" bandwagon, but at the same time I don't think it helps to kid ourselves – they're texting each other and watching stupid videos. That's what kids do to kill time with smartphones.
As bothersome as it is to think about a world full of old people telling These Damn Kids to get off the lawn, I almost prefer it to people who stick their heads in the sand and impute only the noblest motives into everyone they see. That level of Pollyanna-ism is so foreign to me that I don't know how to process it; the people who look at this and see young scholars independently studying up on art history must be the same people who think their college-aged children don't drink and really spend that extra spending money they request on books. It might make one feel better to believe that, but in reality it's doing far more harm than the false peace of mind is worth.