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.

30 thoughts on “LAND OF MAKE BELIEVE”

  • My extremely intelligent wife went on a school trip to Paris when she was a junior in high school (where she would later be valedictorian). She was going to go to Notre Dame cathedral with her best friend (and was even Catholic at the time!) but they spotted a shoe store nearby and never went to ND.

    Our 13th wedding anniversary is in a few minutes, and in that time, we've been to many many museums and historic sites and she has not been distracted by shoes again.

  • We're all essentially narcissists, aren't we? I mean, when we're young, our elders don't get it and are constantly telling us that we're rotting our brains on whatever it is we are, in fact, rotting our brains on. When we're older, it's the kids who don't get it and are rotting their brains on whatever it is they are, in fact, rotting their brains on. (On a related topic, you ever met anyone who *didn't* rot his/her brain at that age? They're usually INSUFFERABLE–you can't rush the development of character or emotional maturity, and too much raw knowledge at an early age turns people into assholes.)

    But more to the point:

    Can we ever find a means to objectively evaluate the aggregate of any generation so as to be able to say, with something other than the bias of age, that YES, THIS TIME they're actually getting dumber, lazier, shallower, etc.? Yes, yes, I know they're different, and therefore wrong, but really, shouldn't we stop drawing conclusions from, well, things like this photo? Lord knows, it's nothing new: I'm pretty sure in the '80s somebody circulated a photo of two groups of schoolkids in front of a masterpiece–one Japanese students all alert and attentive and one Americans all disaffected and bored–in order to prove that the Jade Dragon would devour us all…

    I don't mean to suggest that it's impossible that we're collectively getting dumber–it is, but it's also possible that we're collectively getting smarter–I just don't know how we could ever state with anything beyond confirmation-hungry bias that Those Damn Kids are anything other than what they appear to be: Different From Us At That Age.

  • The Night Watch really is an impressive piece. I remember being blown away by it when I saw it when I was 12. It's a lot bigger than that photo would suggest.

    The whole Rijksmuseum is worth a visit.

  • Yes the paiting has compelled viewers for centuries, but if you google something like "Rembrandt overrated" you can find people who generally are interested in art but dislike the artist. I agree with Ed, kids are kids. But they're also being people, people who are likely required to be in that one spot against their will. The average adult, required to be in the same room as tha painting for longer than they wish, would also be Candy crushing or sexting or whatever.

  • I came across a bunch of mid-teen kids one time who were on a school-visit to Bergen-Belsen. In the context of your article, Ed, I'm happy to be able to report that, instead of texting, gossiping, pushing and punching, these kids were quietly reading the notes to the exhibits, discussing the photographs etc., etc.

    Could it remotely be true that someone had ensured that they would be interested; that someone had spent time with them to provide a context? Maybe, as well, they were blessed by growing up in households in which the TV isn't the substitute baby-sitter.

    Take the plank out of your eyes, American parents and stop hiding behind psycho-babble in order to move the monkey off your backs.

  • I don't think that's the actual Night Watch. It looks like a giant copy. The last time I saw the Night Watch it was in its own little room, behind glass, and the best you could do was look at it through the glass. It was not hung so any goober could walk up and touch it, as it is in this photo. So it's really hard to tell where this picture was even taken. I have a feeling it's not the Rijksmuseum. The painting has been attacked twice. They're not going to leave it without some protection around it.

    News flash: Adults are pretty addicted to their gadgets too. I know people in their 50s who will check for emails or texts every two minutes. And not just check for them, but answer them.

  • Why are adults always sending photos viral and speculating about them without any facts? Such a silly, self-indulgent waste of time. These adults today…

  • I agree with Skipper. This looks like a photoshop (or similar) effort. Or, perhaps, something staged. It certainly isn't the actual "The Night Watch". Is there some exhibit someplace where a decent reproduction of The Night Watch is on exhibit? I couldn't find it with a quick Google search.

  • I saw Neil DeGrasse Tyson speak at the Museum of Natural History a few years ago, and in the Q and A after his talk a woman got up and asked him a leading question about what to do about the kids with their short attention spans texting on her lawn and whatnot. Tyson's response was one I've never heard before or since – he said that he's perfectly capable of speaking in front of a room of people who are not looking at their phones, and has begun gauging the quality of his talks by how many people are looking at their phones during them. If it's more than ten he knows he needs to step it up. In other words, don't blame the kids and their attention spans, blame ourselves for not being able to hold their attention.

  • ""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."

    From your lips to, er, an uncaring universe's ear.

    I remember the feeling I got the first time I went to Al-anon. A roomful of people with lives AT LEAST as hellish as mine has ever been who were willing to admit it!

    I am not alone!

    I did a guest lecture spot in a very posh public school (Manchester, MA) at a friend's request. I showed numerous slides of a 23,000 mile trip I took aroun the U.S. in 1985/1986 and read poetry that I had written then and at other times by way of a narrative. Of the 20 or so students (13-14 yo) a few paid attention throughout. The others dipped in and out but were polite and refrained from making noise or doing other things to distract the rest.

    At the end two of the young men approached me. I thought that they might ask about the haikus I had read or one of the longer pieces, rich with simile and metaphor. Their question:

    "Was that a Ferrari in that picture in California?".

  • School field trips are LONG and museums have LOTS of paintings. Even now when I choose to visit museums, it gets tedious after a while. It's not like there is one painting. There are dozens and dozens of them!

  • lfv: That's true. I'm an adult with a pretty good appreciation of art and I get museum overload after a while.

    Gulag: You win the conversation.

  • Like "kids being kids", there is also "middle aged people being middle aged people".

    I mean, what do teenagers have to vacillate between apathy and contempt for if middle aged people aren't judging them as slackers or less than they were at that age?

    The good thing, all the kids from that photo will be judging the following generation for starting vacantly into their Google Glasses v. 2000 instead of appreciating the wonderful painting like they did!

  • "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 psychological defense you speak of, this cognitive dissonance is very real in our culture. It is I believe one of the most damaging and significant obstacles our society has and is constantly leveraged by those in power.
    Here is an example – in Feb. 2008 Obama stated he would not vote for a FISA amendment that granted telecoms retroactive immunity for what they did earlier at the behest of Bush (line tapping, etc). Yet in August 2008 Obama did exactly this – voted for a FISA update that granted telecom companies retroactive immunity. The man proved to everyone that he was full of shit and yet he still won both elections!

    Even with the evidence staring people in the face no one wants the truth about our world. Voters continually vote Dem or Repub, with few even considering 3rd party candidates when most of them have done far more for society.

    Whatever the cause, the majority of the people in this culture are simply unwilling or incapable of digesting the truth.
    While your blog entry here scratches the surface of this Derrick Jensen wrote a book called "The Culture of Make Believe" that dives quite deeply into this issue. I cannot recommend it enough for those that want to pull back the curtain.

  • The main missing context I immediately thought of is that there are generally few benches in museums within the exhibits. So, when there is a bench, you might sit and rest a bit and might as well check on what's going on through your phone!

  • One of the things this reminds me of is being in Paris with my husband. I have an almost inhuman tolerance for museums of all types; he, not so much. We worked out a schedule that would appease me and not drive him mad.

    More recently, I've taken our sons to places like Oakland Museum of California and Chabot Space and Science Center. I am coming to realize that losing interest in Stuff after about two-three hours is actually normal.

    Regarding the benches, I remember the art gallery in the Huntington Gardens botanical park, with Gainsborough's Blue Boy on one wall and Pinkie on the other, with benches between.I'll have to go back one of these old days.

  • It looks like a New Yorker magazine cartoon. It's kinda fun.

    When I was this age, it was harder work looking so distracted.

    I really did see a kid texting while riding a bicycle last year. This is worrisome to an old man.

  • I saw The Night Watch with my parents when I was 11, back in 1965. I was pretty impressed. The portraiture was fascinating. My parents thought it was rather dark and disappointing. Since 1965 was a long time ago I googled up an image of the current gallery where The NIght Watch is being displayed to get a sense of what I was seeing in the picture in question. I found this:

    In this picture of the reopened gallery you can see the painting. You can see the benches. You can see people sitting on the benches ignoring the great works of art around them, though none of the people doing the ignoring seem to be kids. (The bald guy dinking with his smart phone is almost certainly not a kid.)

    Those benches are for resting on. They aren't for viewing. They are too low for a proper view, and you can't even see The Night Watch from the bench in question without twisting around awkwardly. Anyone who has gone to a museum knows that museums have hard floors and standing around admiring things can be physically taxing, even for young people. So, some kids decided to take a break and catch up with their social media. What of it? If they were standing in front of the painting and blocking people who wanted to see the painting, that would be a different matter.

  • The Jack of Hearts says:

    It is difficult when context is not known. These days you would be hard pressed to find someone who does not have an opinion immediately about something, often from reading just a headline or as, you say, looking at a picture.

    In museums I sometimes type notes into my phone about the works I'm looking at, such as a long/difficult artist name or title of a piece, because I know I'll never remember it a few hours and hundreds of works later. I feel self-conscious that people might think I'm texting, because that's what it looks like.

    But even as an artist, I typically spend under a minute looking at an artwork, unless there's some sort of assignment or writing piece involved or it really grabs me (those are the ones I linger on and go back to see again). No one should be compelled to pay endless homage to something if they're not genuinely taken by it.

    There's also a trend of taking selfies with famous paintings. Sort of like a trophy picture or something. I don't know that I really understand what that's all about.

  • There have been several very similar copies made of The Nightwatch in the late 1700s and in the 1800s. I don't know enough about it to guess whether the painting here is one of those copies. Quite probably, given what a commenter said earlier about the Nachtwacht being behind glass these days.

    Also, the Rijksmuseum has an interesting and very informative website about their holdings (and lets you download pictures of them). I wouldn't — seriously — be at all surprised if those kids really were looking up something relevant, for their homework probably. That's how the Dutch and English school field trips I've seen work. The kids tend to be given the run of the place and have no close supervision and have long lists of questions they need to answer about what they've seen. The fact that they seem to be talking to each other and discussing it suggests it's a topic common to all of them and not their private social media stuff.

  • Actually, it really is possible they're looking up more on the painting on the museum's site, or taking the audio tour – not on their own initiative because they just happened to have an insatiable desire for more learning, but because their teacher assigned them to.

  • Kaleberg makes a good point about museum fatigue, which is a Real, Acknowledged Thing.

    As a person who couldn't be bothered to enjoy/understand static art until I was probably 19, I would definitely have been one of these ne'er-do-wells. I figured it out eventually, though, and got into some branches of painting and sculpture.

    I gotta be honest, though – no exhibit is universally appealing. Having been to the Prado and Reina SofĂ­a over the summer, most of the work was tedious by my standards. But there were the outliers that totally blew me away – especially Goya's black paintings (so. fricking. amazing.) and the Bosch paintings.

    My point is: I'm a person who volunteers to pay dozens of dollars to look at paintings, but drop me in a random room and this will still be my reaction. My personal experience with school/organized trips was that I hadn't figured out what I liked yet, and the teachers weren't able to help expedite that process for whatever reason.

    Also: I think modern folks are awash in high quality, stunning imagery in a way that the world hasn't seen before. It's cheap now. This is going to be one of the consequences.

  • Schmitt trigger says:

    Your last statement is so true. At the finger tips one has access to such a wealth of information, that nothing amazes anymore.

  • The Jack of Hearts says:

    On the internet everything is the same size as your screen, and color only translates to an approximation of what the eye perceives in person. With original art, actual size and physical environment matter.

  • Responding to The Jack of Hearts:

    Absolutely true. Experiencing Portrait of My Father in person was an amazing and moving experience. On a monitor, not so much. Dali in an art book – weird. Dali's work in person – he was fantastically talented and seriously disturbed.

    Go see art in person.

  • The last time I was at the Rijksmuseum, this painting was stacked with tourists fifteen deep. And was about twice as large as shown in this picture. So I'm PRETTY sure this is faked as hell.

  • As the guy who used to be the kid who actually did look at the paintings (etc.) while on field trips I have to say that there is probably at least one kid who actually *is* looking up information about the painting. Probably not more than one though. Also he or she isn't on that chair with all the cool kids, and thus isn't actually in this photo.

Comments are closed.