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.

 

 

 

Art, Religion and the Smartphone : Pictures and pictures of paintings by AHA Tutor Freddie Mason

Whilst in the Capitoline Museum in Rome, one of the more philosophically inclined students on the AHA early summer course remarked to me: ‘isn’t it funny that the first thing people do when they see an original work of art, is make a reproduction of it’. This struck me as an extremely intelligent thing to say.

She was referring, of course, to the expansive sea of Smartphone screens bobbing up and down in front of the original Capitoline Wolf, desperately catching snaps. The remark was intelligent because the student wasn’t looking to condemn the modern trigger-happy habits of gallery-goers, but contemplate it as a cultural phenomenon. She didn’t say ‘isn’t it hateful’ or ‘isn’t it irritating’ (which, I accept, it often is!), but chose that very thoughtful phrase ‘isn’t it funny…’.

The Capitoline Wolf, The Capitoline Museum, Rome

What I take ‘funny’ to mean here is:

‘I can feel something strange going on here that I might be able to learn something from’.

I want to suggest that we can learn a great deal about the history of art and religion from the strange spectacle of the Mona Lisa exploding into a thousand pixelated versions of itself on mobile phone screens all over the room.

The student cleverly noticed the irony of this act: all these people are here because this object is ‘original’, yet all they are doing is reproducing it. People are making out of the image exactly the thing they didn’t come to see: a reproduction. People appear seized by the paradoxical desire to make their own original version of something that is, we’ve been told, original.

But what exactly is an ‘original’?

This is not a straightforward question and one that has been pondered by a number of formidable minds. Its perhaps most startling discussion is by Walter Benjamin in his influential essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’.

What we learn from Benjamin’s essay is that the whole notion of the ‘original’ is dependent upon the possibility of reproduction. In the 15th century, art couldn’t be ‘original’ in the same way that it is today. The whole notion of authenticity requires the invention of that which is seen as ‘inauthentic’ – fridge magnets, advertising, posters, book covers etc. All those silly little tourist-tat trinkets that carry the Mona Lisa’s image make space within us for a reverence of the ‘original’.

Andy Warhol, Cambell's Soups Cans, 1962

The 21st century experience of the Mona Lisa is fundamentally different from the 15th century experience of the painting because it has been reproduced so many times. Fascinatingly, a spirit of the originary (as I like to call it) has literally been added to paintings by their reproduction. The more an image is reproduced, the more thrilling people find the experience of seeing the original. This ‘spirit’ is enhanced by reproduction.

This all may seem obvious.

But, in an age where art is becoming an increasingly secular phenomenon, this ‘spirit of the originary’ gives works of art a bizarre, modern kind of religiosity. The reproduction of art works provides a substitute religiosity for the one that is being lost through art’s gradual detachment from formalised religious practice. The visual reproductive capacities of the Smartphone play an active role in re-spiritualising the secularised work of art.

When people take photos of paintings they are partaking in a ritual which makes that painting original. They are part of a congregation of camera phone owners who sanctify the object.

One last point:

Though the technology is 21st century, this camera phone habit has a history. When someone takes a snap of a painting in a gallery they are exhibiting a distinctly renaissance impulse – the desire to return to origins in order to appropriate those origins for your own ends. If I put a picture I’d taken of the Hercules from the Archaelogical Museum in Naples on my facebook page, I would be behaving a lot like Alessandro Farnese did when he excavated the statue from the Caracalla Baths and put it in his palace.

The Farnese Hercules, thought to be c. 216 AD, The Archaeological Museum, Naples

We shouldn’t be suspicious of the involvement of technology in art and art education. Instead, we should think carefully about how people use technology in their aesthetic experience to feel our position in human history with greater sensitivity – to realise, perhaps, how little has changed.