Recently a tourist was visiting Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art, when he decided to take a selfie with a magnificent Baroque statue of the Archangel Michael. The image, which stood on a plinth in one of the galleries, was carved in the mid-18th century by an unknown artist. It is made of polychromed wood and gesso (plaster), and depicts St. Michael dressed in gleaming armor, with his cloak billowing out behind him as he steps onto a cloud.
To the horror of onlookers, as the tourist backed up to take his selfie, he knocked the statue over. It fell to the floor, and smashed into pieces. While initial reports stated that the damage was irreversible – which at the time I thought rather a hasty conclusion given the materials involved – the museum later indicated that the statue can eventually be repaired.
The selfie, whether obtained by stick, outstretched arm, or self-timer, can be a godsend in some situations. We have all been at events such as birthday parties or family vacations where we want to record a memory of our time together, but there is no “other” to whom we can turn to capture an image for us. In these moments, the selfie becomes a manifestation of love and gratitude.
However in many instances, the selfie has become a way to actively avoid trusting other human beings. If you are standing in front of the Capitol here in Washington for example, there will be plenty of passersby whom you can hand your phone or camera, and ask them to take your picture. Such requests were once so commonplace, that it became a kind of internationally-recognized cultural behavior: people who could not communicate to one another using words, could use gestures to politely ask for, and give, assistance to one another. The selfie has, to a significant extent, reduced or eliminated such trusting interaction, turning the focus back exclusively upon the self.
Of course, not all selfies are indications of an insidious, underlying selfishness, any more than all images which do not feature their photographer are inherently selfless. A woman photographing still lifes of her jewels or fine clothes and sharing these images on social media, may well be acting out of a greater selfishness than a woman who posts a selfie of herself and her friends, all dressed to the nines for a joyful wedding celebration. There is nothing inherently evil about taking and periodically posting a self-portrait, even if there is something unquestionably stupid about allowing selfie sticks into places like public galleries and museums.
We do not know the motives of the tourist who ruined the statue of St. Michael. Perhaps we can take a kindly view, assume that he has a pious devotion to the Archangel, and wanted a picture of himself with this striking image of the Heavenly warrior. Yet even if this is the case, both prudence and an underlying respect for others would dictate that he should have asked for help. Would it really have been so difficult to, in a moment of trust, ask another of the museum patrons to capture the image for him, directing him so as to not only avoid damaging the statue, but also to achieve the result he wanted with a minimum of disruption?
Media analysis of this incident has largely focused on the lack of adequate museum funding, saying that if there had been more guards, this accident would not have happened. However I doubt that even a fully-funded staff of guards and docents could ensure that such an occurrence would never take place. Rather it is the underlying view of the selfie that needs greater consideration, particularly with respect to how it can negatively impact others.
Philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand once observed that “vanity as a rule is referred to intellectual, vital, and exterior assets rather than to religious or moral virtues. What occupies the center of attention here is one’s social figure.” Yet vanity turns into something more destructive, when it is employed in such a way as to injure others, whether directly or through the loss of beautiful works of art or natural wonders shared by all mankind.
Again, selfies are not in and of themselves, bad things, and the solution to the problem of accident prevention is not to ban museum photography entirely. But perhaps what our cultural institutions can do to avoid situations like this in the future, is to encourage visitors to think more carefully about why they are visiting in the first place. For when we choose to place ourselves in front of a great work of art, merely in order to photograph ourselves with it, we may be saying more about our attitude not only to the art itself, but more importantly toward our fellow man, than we may realize.