Selfies, The National Gallery and The Right Way of Appreciating Art

This week The National Gallery in London lifted its ban on photography, as the use of mobile phones within galleries meant that the rule was becoming too difficult to enforce. I won’t discuss the pros and cons of this shift here, except to say that this move brings it in line with other major art galleries such as the Louvre. Instead, I’m going to look at how the story was reported in The Guardian, by Zoe Williams.

For this article, Williams goes to the gallery and takes number of photographs of paintings. Her aim is not to explore the use or experience of taking photographs, but rather to criticise the ‘type of people’ who take pictures of art, by using the abject spectre of the selfie.

Zoe Williams poses in front of one of the original selfies: Rembrandt's Self-Portrait at 63

Williams admits that she was the only person in the gallery taking selfies, and that others were either discretely taking photographs of “obscure tiny portraits of princesses” or the more famous images by Van Gogh. This information is far more interesting than Williams’ tirade against selfies, as it demonstrates that gallery visitors are not the thugs with cameras she assumes, but are rather engaging with works they find personally or culturally relevant.

Nevertheless, she perseveres in taking selfies, as if determined to prove how awful they are. She documents one person telling her off, as well as the shame she encounters whilst photographing herself with a Rembrandt self-portrait (incidentally, if I hear Rembrandt’s work referred to as a selfie one more time I might scream):

The disapproval in the room flooded towards me. I thought I heard someone hiss.

But despite agreeing with these critics, this disapproval does not discourage her, as she has a point to prove. In the next room she endeavours to frame a portrait of a male “so that it looked like he was my boyfriend”, and thereby depicting the act of selfie-taking as something a lovestruck teenage girl might do.

Her distaste for photographs being taken in this context is not so much about the potential damage to artworks caused by camera flashes (which is what concerns me), but relates rather to:

 the sheer sorry state of human nature. Nobody’s just going to take a picture of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, are they? They’re going to take a selfie, standing in front of it.

Such a statement is not only ridiculous – why should selfie-taking indicate “the sorry state of human nature” rather than, say, the bombing of civilians in Gaza? – it also demonstrates the cultural divisiveness of selfie criticism. Because if taking selfies in general is seen as bad practice, then taking them in an art gallery is the very epitome of vulgarity. Taking selfies denotes that you are not appreciating the art properly:

What’s this going to do to art? What’s it going to do to a generation? Even taking a picture of a painting itself changes the way you look at it – documenting rather than experiencing, thinking of posterity rather than the present. But then once you stick your big face in the foreground, the experience is different again, less like art and more like going to the seaside and putting your head above the body of a wrestler in a swimming costume.

Her simplistic conception of artistic appreciation opposes ‘experiencing’ with ‘documenting’, denying the possibility that the two practices could co-exist. “If you’re taking pictures you’re not appreciating it properly” is a warning that has been expressed for decades, with Susan Sontag asserting that the act of photographing places the viewer at one remove from their subject. Although I would not contest this shift in looking, who is to say this is negative, or more over, to prescribe how anyone should experience the world, with or without photography? For Williams, this process of photographing artworks extends beyond the aesthetic, to pose (unspecified) problems for an entire generation. This kind of hand-wringing over photographic practice has nothing to do with encouraging others to adopt positive techniques for enjoying art, but rather is a question of fostering social order. The figure of the selfie-taker – especially as it has been conceived of in the press – disrupts the art gallery as a space for a certain type of practice, and by implication a certain type of person. The anguish over selfie-taking is therefore akin to the hand-wringing over the new neighbours ‘bringing down the area’.

Her conclusion states that there is “nothing to fear, for either the art crowd or the custodians of the human spirit”: this is not because selfie-taking is not actually the dangerous threat to the social order that we have come to believe, but rather because the practice will be prevented by human decency:

The National Gallery will not be overrun by people taking selfies for the same reason it is not full of people in bikinis; we humans have a keen sense of humiliation, exposure, pride, vulnerability. That’s what makes us worth painting in the first place.

Selfie-taking is therefore positioned in contrast to virtue and to a sense of social propriety. But this ludicrous hyperbole – about what is after all a way of taking pictures – is really nothing to do with photography; rather it is concerned with establishing certain groups of people and their tastes as wrong, as bad, and as worthy of being disdained. The selfie-taker, this article would have us believe, is so problematic and shameful that it has no place in this gallery, and should be excluded from other culturally valued spaces and even, one might assume, positions of power. Because if selfie-taking is conceptualised as a threat a generation, and indicative of the “sorry state of human nature”, then it becomes a means for devaluing and excluding whole sectors of society.

I’d like to conclude by reproducing a picture Eminem took of himself in front of the Mona Lisa:

44b75b95b9bb17a4477828f000651917282ccfe8_m

Interestingly The Guardian did not critique this image using Williams’ approach, but instead cited it as part of a “selfie sub-genre” and one of the “dos” of selfie-taking. Evidently taking pictures of yourself in art galleries is only problematic and repellant if you’re not famous, rich or male…

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