​Fallen Angel: Rethinking The Selfie

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.

You Own It, But Should You Photograph It?

freshly-pressed-rectangle

If I came over to your house and started rearranging your furniture, or fiddling with the pictures on the walls, you’d probably be more than a little bit put out.  No one likes people touching their “stuff” without permission.  However when it comes to art museums, there’s often a tension between those who approach them while maintaining a respectful distance, and those who want to do the equivalent of putting their shod feet on the coffee table.  An example of this tension can be seen in the very current issue of public photography in this, the age of the selfie on social media.

News this week that London’s National Gallery will now allow personal, non-commercial photography of their collection reversed a very long-held policy.  Even though other London institutions such as the British Museum, Tate Britain, and Tate Modern have all permitted photography for years, the National Gallery was a hold-out.  There’s been a fair amount of division in the art press as to whether this was a good decision, with some raising the question of ,”Whose art is it, anyway?” – given that the National Gallery is paid for by British taxpayers.  Others decried what they see as a lowering of standards, and the turning of a formerly hushed place of learning into a noisy free-for-all.

Museums differ widely when it comes to this issue, and surprisingly there’s no universally accepted standard.  A survey by The Art Newspaper earlier this year of some of the most popular art museums around the world showed that not only are there differing rules, but flip-flopping of those rules occurs periodically as well.  Recently for example, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam reversed its policy permitting photography in the galleries, thanks to amateur photographers making the place something like a rugby scrimmage.

Here’s a rundown on the current positions of several major art institutions:

  • Louvre: Allowed
  • Metropolitan: Allowed
  • National Gallery (US): Allowed
  • Orsay: Banned (was allowed until 2011)
  • Vatican Museums: Allowed in the galleries; banned in the Sistine Chapel

There are numerous reasons why museums may ban photography, the most obvious of which is the preservation of the art itself.  Even those which do allow public photography almost always ban flash photography.  Repeated exposure to bursts of artificial light can damage the art, particularly objects such as fragile paintings, drawings, or textiles.  Yet an even more practical reason for the ban has to do with basic human clumsiness.

As a species, humans tend to fall over a lot more often than others do, and we don’t always land elegantly on our feet with no collateral damage, as a cat does.  Understandably, many institutions worry that when non-professional photographers try to maneuver to get a close-up, take a group shot, or even snap the dreaded “selfie” with some piece from the collection, they might accidentally stumble, and as a consequence jostle the art object, or worse.  This is why even those museums which permit photography insist that the visitor stay a certain distance away from the art.  Should you happen to visit the National Gallery here in Washington, for example, get too close to an object on display and you’re going to get a sharp word of warning from the guard watching you.

The debate over members of the public photographing public collections however, creates a more complex sort of problem.  On one hand, it seems only fair that art which taxpayers have funded, and which is held in trust on the public’s behalf, should be accessible.  On the other, because of the concomitant duty of the institutions housing these collections to preserve the art and educate the public about it, curators and museum staff have to walk a very fine line between allowing too much access and not allowing enough.

From my point of view, I’d rather purchase a book with professionally photographed images of art anyway, since a good photographer can create a far better image than I.  At the same time, I can understand why others feel it’s only right that they be allowed to capture images of publicly funded objects for themselves, to share on social media with family and friends.  So I’ll confess, while I recognize the existence of the issue, I don’t know that I’ve formed a fixed opinion about it: and given how opinionated I often am, gentle reader, that is quite an unusual development indeed.

What do you think? Is public photography a good or a bad thing in museums?  The comments section is open and waiting for your contributions.

The Louvre Mona Lisa Photographers