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How To Be a Good Tourist

Photo by Hans Olofsson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, 2011, on flickr.

Photo by Hans Olofsson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, 2011, published on flickr.

The European holiday season has started, and, with it, the season of sight-seeing and snapshots.

On recent holidays, it struck me how many tourists take photos of famous monuments, of works of art or of landscapes, instead of looking at them.

This week, I came across a marvellous example. It was in an article on the Ghent Altarpiece, a famous set of religious paintings dating from the fifteenth century (local name Het Lam Gods, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck). Every year, thousands of visitors flock together in Ghent’s Saint Bavo Cathedral to see it. Or do they?

The altarpiece itself has been sitting in one of the chapels in the back of the church for the past few decades. (At the moment of writing, it is being treated for conservation elsewhere.) But immediately upon entering the church, visitors encounter a life-size copy of the work. It is this copy in front of which tourists linger the longest.

One wonders whether a certain confusion about possibly having reached their destination already plays a role here. Anyhow, according to the article I read, tourists stay with the reproduction longer than with the original because it is the version they are allowed to take photos of.

It is easy to be dismissive of this kind of behaviour, and perhaps with some ground, too: a photo taken of a painting will never be as good as either the original (which the photographer paid little attention to) or the professional reproductions (which they did not buy). The photographer missed their one opportunity to see a stunning work of art in its full size, its most flamboyant colours, its moving texture, and its original setting – in this case the very church it was designed for. From now on, it will only be a small rectangle on a screen again, or a pixelated print in an album.

Nevertheless, such dismissal also serves to emphasise status differences: who knows best how to enjoy art?

And anyway, it is more interesting to try and understand the photo tourist than to be annoyed by them. So: why might taking a photo be the most important thing to do for some when faced with a famous sight? So far, I have come across two important reasons:

  1. Many people find it important to have some sort of evidence that they themselves have in actual fact been present at this or that famous location and seen the famous object. Especially an amateurish photo is probably an asset rather than a hindrance in providing such evidence.
  2. Taking a photo is a way of engaging with a place. Because, okay, we have arrived in this church: now what? We’ve established the painting is there; now do we walk away again? Ah, we are supposed to look at it? Just stand and look? What is that, looking – what does one actually do? What I mean is that it may take an upbringing in a specific milieu to become comfortable with the kind of behaviour that museum curators, church sextons and other cultural hosts expect of their guests. Enjoying a static image can be hard. What do you do with your eyes, with your hands, and what should you be thinking about? Photography then becomes a way of knowing what to do with yourself.

I am curious to find out about other people’s experiences with (non-art) touristic photography.

Pierre François de Noter, 'Het Lam Gods van de gebroeders van Eyck in de Sint Bavo te Gent', 1829. Now in the Rijksmusem Amsterdam, SK-A-4264.

In this nineteenth-century view on sixteenth-century church-going (so before the days of photography), the famous altarpiece does not command much direct attention either, which is odd in the nineteenth-century nationalist context of art-historical pride. Painting by Pierre François de Noter, ‘Het Lam Gods van de gebroeders van Eyck in de Sint Bavo te Gent’, 1829. Now in the Rijksmusem Amsterdam, SK-A-4264.

 

Want to know more about the interesting behaviour of tourists? Read Dean MacCannell, The Tourist (London, 1976).

The article on the Altarpiece appeared in a book on the collective memory of the Low Countries: Wessel Krul, ‘Het Lam Gods’, in Jo Tollebeek and Henk te Velde (ed.), Het geheugen van de Lage Landen (Rekkem, 2009), 172-9.

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A real traveller?

Ever since the eighteenth century or thereabouts, travellers have carried an attitude commonly called ‘anti-tourism’.

Writers characterise others as Tourists: they are lazy, superficial, conventional. Tourists go on package tours; Tourists do not speak the local language; and all Tourists really want is a snapshot of themselves with the Great, Berlin or Hadrian’s Wall, which are as interchangeable to Tourists as the motel beds they sleep in.

It is not always acknowledged that this Tourist is a construction by these writers, an image, a personage. In real life, holiday travellers’ experiences are a great deal more complex.

Still, the image is an attractive one. It allows us to style ourselves different travellers: Real Travellers.

Charles Baudelaire, photographed by Etienne Carjat, 1863 (from Neue Zürcher Zeitung article).

Charles Baudelaire, photographed by Etienne Carjat, 1863 (from an article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung).

Charles Baudelaire is one of those writers who shaped our image of the Real Traveller. This is from his poem ‘Le voyage’:

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; coeurs légers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!

In the translation by Geoffrey Wagner:

But the true travelers are they who depart
For departing’s sake; with hearts light as balloons,
They never swerve from their destinies,
Saying continuously, without knowing why: “Let us go on!”

Many of us will know the feeling this fragment evokes. The lightness it brings to leave one place, full of muddy memories and a thousand duties, and exchange it for another, fresh one. It’s a splendid feeling.

But Baudelaire does something besides describing this feeling: he sets those who feel it (‘vrais voyageurs’) apart from the rest. They are the wanderers, the wayfarers, for whom the journey is more important than the destination. Apart from the fact that this is a poetic distinction that does not exist in real life – often, the destination and the journey are both important, and the same people who have happy, ‘balloony’ feelings can also experience homesickness and anxiety – Baudelaire also chooses to set these people above the rest: those who are ‘fated’ to roam are more properly travellers than those who are actually going some place.

This tallies nicely with the rest of Baudelaire’s oeuvre, in which the protagonists are never able to find their place in the world, never satisfied, never at peace with their environment. Baudelaire himself, too, does not seem to have been very able to go somewhere and stay away for long.

It is flattering for Baudelaire as well as for ourselves to think of ourselves as the Real Travellers, especially when the activity mostly consists of dreaming of other places from the comfort of our own room, with little or no contact with the actual people and cultures we dream about.

But should we praise ourselves for our restlessness? To arrive is also an art. It is a fine romantic notion never to settle, but to depart on journeys, real or literary, has never been a particularly difficult task for the rich and male.

The hard part is staying in the new place: making do and adjusting one’s expectations and prejudices. It seems that Baudelaire did not find this pursuit worth much effort. But however wonderful some of the lines he wrote, we should not let ourselves be swept away by the authority exerted by romantic poetry. Perhaps, those who go somewhere and make an effort, however imperfect, to adapt to the new place – the Nigerian trader in Guangzhou, the Sudanese refugee in Amsterdam, the Mexican housekeeper in Los Angeles – perhaps they are the real travellers.

The standard work on anti-tourism is James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Oxford, 1993). Geoffrey Wagner’s translations appeared in Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (New York, 1974). My biographical impressions were largely shaped by the chapter on Baudelaire in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel and Francis Scarfe’s introduction to his selected verse.