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.
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.
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.
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.
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.