Art, Religion and the Smartphone: The Selfie by AHA Tutor Freddie Mason

When people take pictures of famous paintings in galleries, these pictures are often selfies: ‘this is me in the Louvre, pointing at and smiling next to the Mona Lisa’. It is the ‘me’ and the ‘next to’ that the selfie really cares about; people want to watermark their own original version of the painting with that thing that is indisputably their own: their face.

Someone taking a selfie in front of the Mona Lisa

 

What we are now able to do with Smartphones is put ourselves in the same picture as the Mona Lisa. We can enter the same frame as her. We can place our face into the same visual context as the most iconic face in existence. We can change ourselves slightly. We can get something new about ourselves to take back across that mysterious threshold between art and life.

For the cultured ‘art-lover’ there is nothing more embarrassing than the selfie. There are those that take selfies in front of Leonardos and there are those art-lovers that look on in despair.

Why is this?

I think this opposition between different kinds of gallery-goers has a lot to do with the theological oppositions between Catholicism and Protestantism.

Let me make a crude summary:

One of the things that particularly annoyed the new modes of protestant faith that developed during the Reformation was the worship of holy objects, relics. The worship of relics involves a very bodily orientated kind of faith: it is all about your physical proximity to the holy object. This catholic mode of worship is an externalised kind of religious being that is based upon the arrangement of people and things within space. In some cases, religious objects are even touched, a ritual act I’ve always found exquisitely dramatic.

 

A nail from the 'True Cross'

Protestantism, on the other hand, is much more internalised. It requires the individual to contemplate, in the solitude of prayer, their own fallen existence: faith and faith alone. One should not need the bones of the saints or a bit of the true cross to help absolve sins, only your own intense relationship with the word of God.

But, what has this got to do with selfies?

The tourist that sidles up alongside a Caravaggio to take a selfie is really interested in this Catholic belief in proximity. The tourist is not ‘learning to look’ as the exasperated art history tutors that surround them would like. What’s really important is that they were there, here, near, right next to the divine presence of the ‘original work of art’. In the world of art experience this pertains to a very Catholic set of values. ‘I was physically there. Next to this! The actual one!’

The desire to affirm physical presence in relation to the original artwork with a selfie is, I think, related to that mysterious, much more ancient impulse to physically touch works of art or religious objects.

Some artists have noticed this desire, creating works that ask you to break the rules. Meret Oppenheim’s ‘Objet’, for instance, cries out to be touched.

Meret Oppenheim, Objet, 1936, The Museum of Modern Art, New York

On the other end of the spectrum of gallery-goers is the good student who keeps their Smartphone switched off in their bag, listens attentively to the tutor and looks carefully in the hope that they might one day ‘learn how to look’ properly at art. For the good student, the whole affair is much more internalised. For them, proximity to the original is part of an individualised learning process through which they might gain a private aesthetic sensibility. With regards to their experience of art, they are acting like a Protestant might.

A sign in a gallery

 

Max Weber’s ‘protestant work ethic’ perhaps applies here: does one have to work to understand Caravaggio? Or is being there, having made the journey, the pilgrimage, enough?

I do not want to say something boring about which kind of gallery-goer is more or less superior. Instead, I think we can learn something about our historical position by observing this opposition. This is: however much we think society has become secularised, our ‘secular’ activities are structured by impulses that have their origins in religious ritual or dogma.

 

 

 

In defence of feminism: by AHA alum Frankie Dytor

Feminism seems a bit passé nowadays. It belongs to a resentful minority, part of a slightly embarrassing episode in History. Women, on the whole, are now happily emancipated, and certainly do not need screaming bra burners to champion their cause. This is the attitude, I fear, that many take to the philosophy – I maintain that it is a philosophy, a set of values, despite its occasionally political agenda.  Certainly, this negative view is held by most adolescents, for whom the 70s is a forgettable era, rather than an actual memory. Mention your allegiance to the feminist cause to the average teenage boy and they recoil. You might as well add your membership to a right wing military organisation.

Deconstructing feminism

This misunderstanding is a serious problem. Feminism has become too attached to the extremity of the Second Wave – the Suffragettes, in contrast, belonging to the First Wave are generally respected. What they achieved – the vote- is solid and tangible. The Second Wave inspired a more general cultural change. And whilst it was important, crucial even, to female equality, it is not the only notable aspect of Feminism.  Feminism is now much more rounded.  The idea of female Suprematism is, rightly, a laughable notion. The state of Feminism now is the promotion of choice. Choice to stay at home, choice to go out and work.

But this article is not intended to display the social benefits of Feminism, but rather argue its remaining importance for Art. Feminism is important because of the reappraisal that it forces. It is not content to accept one way of looking at a picture, but will challenge and contest. It is therefore pivotal in ensuring the History of Art is not determined by individuals of power. Manet’s ‘Olympia’, for me certainly, remains the clearest example of the utility of a Feminist approach.

Manet's Olympia: examining the gaze

Much has been written about the gaze of Olympia, the  sad and vulnerable prostitute that Manet has displayed (proclaimed?) on the canvas before us. Critics of Feminism might assume that a Feminist approach would be concerned with trumpeting the evidence of male oppression upon the figure. Certainly, that may be one aspect. You could read Olympia as a victim of bourgeois hierarchy, fighting the oppressors through her insistence on looking straight out, confronting every member of the Salon.  But is this Manet’s real concern? Is he not instead fundamentally rewriting the rules of the artist-model relationship? Woman as Muse had  dominated Western Art for centuries. Beauty, slowly abstracted from the actuality of the body, has been shown through the female form for both earthly and divine purposes. In her template, therefore, Olympia is a Goddess. But in her substance she remains a street walker. She may be receiving flowers, but these are wrapped in cheap newspaper. The sordid oozes in the painting. Whether Manet feels any empathy for her situation, I do not know. She is raised just high enough to remain out of compassionate reach, and it is Olympia, the model, who watches Manet, the artist. It is this critical eye that flips the traditional relationship on its head. And it is feminism that examines this issue. Feminism that is interested in human relations, in the transference of power.

Feminism is like ultimately ‘Olympia’. It will not look away, and indeed it forces us to look again, to challenge accepted culture. It fights against complacency, protests against accepted ways of seeing. And for that, it still matters a lot.

The Guerilla Girls, champions of angry Feminism