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.