Rembrandt and the fall of Western Society (probably)

Look at this picture below for a moment. It’s taken by Gijsbert van der Wal. It’s from 2014 but pops up like whack-a-mole on social media from time to time.

What do you see?

A masterpiece hangs on a wall while a small group of young people huddle round their screens.

That’s what’s in the picture, but what do you SEE?

The caption that accompanied this on my Facebook timeline recently said:
“This picture was taken by the security guard of the museum. He just realized that this world was lost.”

Kids, eh?

The conclusion we’re supposed to draw is that these millennials are so absorbed in their screens (probably Snapchatting or playing Angry Birds or something), that they are ignoring the priceless Rembrandt 10 feet away from them. It’s a damning conclusion. Young people no longer value the cornerstones of our culture. We’re probably doomed.

Now look again

This is a trip to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The children seem to be huddled in pairs or small groups. The two boys look like they’re talking to each other. The girls have a piece of paper balanced on their knee. Perhaps it’s a worksheet.

Let’s say that they’re using their phones to access an app created by the museum that explains the pictures they are seeing in much greater detail. Maybe they’re being asked a set of challenging questions in the app that means in a few moments, they’ll all stand up again and spend 10 minutes trying to decide why the woman in the background has the claws of a dead chicken strapped to her belt (I googled it).

Or maybe they’ll move on to the next one and not think about it again for a few years.

Or maybe they’ll go the giftshop next. Who knows?

The fact is, this is old news. Check out this Telegraph article for the back story.

But the real irony of this image is that, if you look at the comments on some of the tweets in the article, we’re bemoaning the fact that the children aren’t using their critical faculties to appreciate the meanings in this artwork while we do exactly the same thing.

Digital literacy in the era of “fake news”

So what’s this got to do with the “fall of Western Society”?

It’s easy to believe at the moment that we on the West live in a society where truth is more and more fluid and “fake news” abounds. Before Trump adopted the phrase as his all-purpose come back for journalists critical of his ineptitude “fake news” was the shadowy web of misinformation on questionable websites and some reputable ones that aimed to shape the outcome of the democratic process by dubious means. (It’s amazing how quickly meanings change these days!).

I tried a while back to to explain why I thought false news stories circulated so widely and quickly. My conclusion was a bit like stating the obvious but I was interested in how we find comfort in narratives that confirm our view of the world rather than truly shock and challenge us.

For me this is a major plank of digital literacy; the ability to question the meaning behind images and other information on the web, the narratives associated with them and their impact on behaviour and society.

We’re starting to see how society’s inability or unwillingness to grasp this nettle can have dire consequences particularly for vulnerable groups far from the seat of power but potentially for all of us. Misinformation and misinterpretation in the digital realm isn’t the only reason for the rise of the far right but it’s certainly helped.

And no, I’m not saying that this picture of some kids on their phones is responsible for or even emblematic of the fall of Western society, but using it as a tool to help us talk round these fundamental issues isn’t a bad place to start for us as educators.

And maybe pictures like this one suggest that hope is not lost…

… but maybe that’s just my interpretation.

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