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.




Pick of the week: 13 high octane Instagrammers by AHA alum Helena Roy

Instagram may seem unoriginal and spammed with selfies, but the tainted jewel of an app has the potential to inject some artistic colour into the palm of your hand. Instagram’s artistic stars are overrun with photographers and street artists, whose rapid style suit Instagram’s pop aesthetic; but the plethora of visual bites from around the world paints a creative description of day-to-day life…

Best artists

Ai Weiwei (@aiww) – this Chinese artist is on nearly every channel of social media known to man. His feed is a mess of photographs, snaps of artistic process and excitable pictures of everyday life.

Sara Rahbar (@sara_rahbar_) – contemporary mixed media artist, born in Tehran, living in New York. Heavily political, her feed is littered with bullets, flags, limbs and relics of war. Confusing and brutal fusion of East and West.

'Land of Opportunity' by Sara Rahbar

Tanya Ling (@tanya_ling) – A fashion-illustrator-cross- Instragram-whiz, British Tanya Ling creates art in grid form to move and mesh with Instagram’s format. Using multiple snaps to build the bigger picture, look out for clever manipulation of the social media site and microscopic perspectives.

Tanya Ling's picture puzzle Instagram feed

Best for street art

BeirutPost – grafspace (@grafspace) – a charming window into the burgeoning world of street art in the Lebanese capital, occasionally roaming beyond its borders.

Street art in Beirut by grafspace

Gaia (@gaiastreetart) – This prolific street artist is known for his oversized, curious and creature-like concoctions on the street. Thrown in are energetic admirations from similar artists across the globe.

Patternity (@patternity) – Finding order out of chaos, Anna Murray and Grace Winteringham scour the streets and burst off them looking for natural repetitions that inspire materialistic motifs.

Best for virtual travel

Art History Abroad (@ahacourses) – couldn’t slip by without a mention! Follow to live a virtual life of architecture, art, and food in the heart of Italy.

Corners of Italy snapped by Art History Abroad

Sam Horine (@samhorine) – Photographer based in NYC who makes photographs ‘on the go’. Shoots the skyline to the sofa, showing New York in majestic, lit-up and downtown detail.

Borojaguchi (@borojaguchi) – Tokyo-based, globe-trotting web director, snaps the tourist-y to the kitsche in an endearing fashion. Follow to notice things you never knew were there.

Best photography

National Geographic (@natgeo) – without a doubt the most stunning Instagram feed there is, National Geographic collates world observations from an army of adventurous, insane and genius photographers. Shows a side of humanity and the environment rarely seen or noticed, from the Amazon to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Paul Nicklen for National Geographic

Hawkeye Huey (@hawkeyehuey) – 4-year-old analog photographer, depressingly (or unwittingly) talented. Account maintained by father and National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey, who started it all by noticing his son’s playful shots. Follow for the first-time discoveries and Polaroid perspectives of a child.

Hawkeye Huey camera-ready

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (@nasagoddard) – When this world gets boring, move from National Geographic to NASA. Kaleidoscope views from space are an escape from the constant food-grams of someone else’s chocolate pudding.

Free-air gravity map of the moon by NASA

Simone Bramante (@brahmino) – surrealist photographer making use of fantastically filtered natural props and mundane habitats to bring storytelling to photography.

With thanks to Sara Rahbar, Tanya Ling, BeirutPost grafspace, Paul Nicklen for National Geographic, Hawkeye Huey, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Instagram for photography


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.


Instagram: a threat or gift to photography? By AHA alum Helena Roy

It sometimes feel like on aggregate we spend half our day doing things in the real world; the other half tweeting, creating statuses and vines, posting photos and clips of it in the virtual world. Mundane objects such as cups of coffee instantly become photo-edited searches for ‘likes’. Miss out on a song everyone’s playing one day, and you’ll be too late for the furore the next.

17 ways to make a cup of coffee seem like art - the filters of Instagram

Take this obsession specifically applied to Instagram. This app allows everyone to become a photographer: the tint, colour, frame, collage of your photographs are all open to change no matter how unconsidered and speedy the snap was. What will this have to bear on photography?

Now that everyone can be a photographer on Instagram, is there any art to be found in being a photographer itself? Obviously yes – some techniques are still beyond the normalising reach of social media. But many are not. Admiration for technique and tradition is being eroded by an efficiency-focused attitude of the tech age, that argues if you can do it on an app in 30 seconds, what is there to praise in learning it traditionally

Above all, photography is now inescapably branded. Snapchat – though seemingly private – retains all the rights to any photographs sent on it. Instagram attempted to do the same before a popular boycott stopped it. Having merged with Facebook, it is now, in a way, the ultimate social media brand. Instantly recognisable, it has gone from being an interesting commercial success to a full-on powerhouse; together with Facebook, the data it collects on citizens across the globe is innumerable.

Clearly there are some benefits. In amongst all the “selfies” and artfully-tinted pictures of stir-fry dinners, there are quick and insightful snippets into artists’ creative processes; giving a view not only to their final product, but the journey along the way. Notable users include Russian photographer Murad Osmann, who went viral last year with the photographs he takes of his girlfriend as she leads him around the globe. Pop art Manhattan-based artist Ryan McGinness posts images daily. An army of models, photographers (such as Terry Richardson), socialites and designers from the fashion world are also dedicated users.

Murad Osmann's girlfriend leading him to exotic locations across the globe

Admittedly, Instagram can be a great tool for self-promotion for up-and-coming artists. Jack Bannister, a 21-year-old from the Yorkshire Dales uses Facebook to build up awareness. Museums let off a stream of promotion to disseminate knowledge of exhibitions.

Part of Jack Bannister's growing Facebook presence

Because artists are taking it upon themselves to use Instagram, surely it is a supportive tool? Not necessarily. Promotion has the danger of becoming the form of art itself; and in an area as fast-moving as social media, this poses the danger of making an artist recognisable in an instant, and instantaneously forgettable the next.

With thanks to Murad Osmann, Wikipedia and Jack Bannister for photographs.

A Soci-Art Revolution? The impact of Social Media on Artists today by AHA alum Emma Greenlees

We spend what seems like 90% of our lives on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. We’re busy watching films on YouTube and Vimeo. Art and the visual image is in the throes of an enormous cultural transition.

Accordingly, artists need to adapt their techniques, particularly those who are trying to establish a reputation for themselves.

As a young artist, it’s imperative to get seen and to get recognised. But it’s not an easy world to break into. You need to have a platform and an audience. You need to ensure that your work is seen and that your work is appreciated. One way to do so is to make use of this wild proliferation of Social Media.

Some Social Media sites are more art-friendly than others. Alice Wilson, a young portrait artist based between Dublin and Suffolk, and contemporary Jack Banister, have both started to use Social media as a way to get their work seen. And it’s definitely worked.

Alice started off with a blog on Blogspot, and then moved her work over to Tumblr. The platform enables her work to be seen by the site’s 96 million blog users.

Not only does Alice share her ink, oil and mixed media portraits online, but she’s also in the process of founding an online arts magazine, Pivot.

Another way that both Alice and Jack have benefited from the arena of the online is through Facebook. Because it’s a site that almost all of us use, it’s essentially a free advertising tool, when used effectively.

And how helpful exactly is this to their business and reputation? Very, in short. Alice’s commissions have been boosted enormously, and she has been able to transcend language barriers, because of the visual impact of sites such as Tumblr. She has fans from countries as far-flung as Nepal, Venezuela and Jordan. She’s seen her work featured in online magazines. She’s started her career as an artist online, and thousands of others are doing the same.

Jack has found that most of his work comes through Facebook. Commissions often come through networks, and with nearly 16% of the world at his fingertips – and for no cost whatever – it would be foolish to pass up on this opportunity. For Jack, it’s an invaluable platform, and one that isn’t used enough by established artists.

But what are the downsides of sharing art like this? For Alice it’s mainly the distraction, but also the lack of integrity. A photograph of an image is not anywhere like the original. It’s not just the traditional concepts of aura-diminution and plurality of Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction here. In the online arena it turns into a “cyber-art-war”, as Alice puts it.


The long-term repercussions of social media on the art market are, of course, impossible to foresee. But, with the Beibers and Psys of the music industry, we are surely about to see the rise of cyber-art stars.

(Jack Banister Art)

(Alice Wilson)