‘Today we see the art of the past as nobody saw it before. We actually perceive it in a different way.’ This is the art critic, John Berger’s comment on the birth of the camera, which changed the way we see the world. Vision was no longer attached to the eyes of a single subject, but free to roam anywhere through a mechanical device. We no longer had to travel miles to see a unique image - its reproduction can come to us. Museums can sell postcards, advertisers can take reproductions of Renaissance art to promote products, the public can watch art programs on television.
‘the uniqueness of the original now lies in it being the original of a reproduction. It is no longer what its image shows that strikes one as unique; its first meaning is no longer to be found in what it says, but in what it is.’
So what’s the point in seeing an original painting if its image can be found anywhere? Berger argues that different sources fill the gap with ‘false mystification’: art-works are suddenly revered when their market value increases astronomically, or when critics use inaccessible language to discuss works, rendering art the preserve of the few. But for Berger there are very valid reasons to value original paintings: ‘In the original the silence and stillness permeate the actual material, the paint, in which one follows the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures.’
The Belvedere Palace is one of Vienna’s big attractions. Its art collection holds arguably the city’s most famous, and certainly its most marketable image: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt stands at 1.8m x1.8m. In the foreground is a man leaning over to kiss a woman kneeling on a bed of flowers. The paint is oil and the background and certain details are made from gold leaf. The man’s face is turned away from the viewer and towards the woman. The woman’s eyes are closed and it’s unclear whether her awkward posture indicates passion or reluctance. Patterns of colourful squares and swirls and lots of gold make this painting a keynote example of Viennese Art Nouveau.
Unlike in many of the other museums, here you’re forbidden to take photos, even without flash. I managed to get this one before a guard came and told me off.
Despite this ban, the Belvedere accommodates the modern selfie-taking public by providing a ‘selfie point’ in a small (in castle terms) room adjacent to the original The Kiss. There’s even a helpful sign-post to help the public differentiate between the two. It ought to be obvious enough, no photograph can replicate the shimmer of gold leaf; the replica always turns out some shade between yellow and brown. It’s also somewhat smaller than the original.
Berger writes that ‘when the camera reproduces a painting, it destroys the uniqueness of its image. As a result its meaning changes. Or, more exactly, its meaning multiplies and fragments into many meanings.’ What is the meaning of this kind of fragment: an art-selfie? The Kiss on its own is not enough. We create a new image with ourselves in the foreground and the painting in the background. Why?
The trend is not restricted to the world of art galleries - we take pictures of art because we take pictures of everything. Nowadays, people behave like tourists even when not on holiday, and indeed, most people in art galleries are tourists in one way or another.
Before the rise of social media and its increasingly image-oriented formats (Instagram, Snapchat etc.), photography had long been available to the masses. The photo-albums of the over-30s typically include wedding snaps, baby photos, and, for the most part, holiday photos. Photography and tourism have always gone hand-in-hand. On holiday we take photos of moments, places, and people we don’t want to forget. Maybe we’ll make a scrap-book for personal reminiscing, or maybe we’ll display them for a larger audience - a chance to show off to visiting neighbours.
Now we put them on Facebook. Except now the image once reserved for that special trip to the Algarve has become the way we see our every experience. It doesn’t take weeks to develop a camera film or cost money to produce, and we now see our world through the lens of the tourist. In every corner lies a picture-postcard, a special moment.
Reproducibility means that ‘works of art … can, theoretically be used by anybody.’ However for Berger in the 70s, ‘in art books, magazines, films or within gilt frames in living-rooms – reproductions are still used to bolster the illusion that nothing has changed, that art, with its unique undiminished authority, justifies most other forms of authority, that art makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.’
This assessment still rings true today. The question is: when we take selfies in front of the Mona Lisa or in front of a reproduction of The Kiss what are we doing? Are we bolstering the illusions of traditional art criticism in merging our own image with the glamour and authority contained in an original work of art? Or, in our sceptically raised eyebrow, are we poking fun at the tradition? Asking what’s all the fuss about this small, dark portrait of a facially ambivalent woman?
Or… neither? Whether we’re the smiling Japanese tourist or the wry, self-conscious hipster, the meaning in both images is the same. Mostly, we take an artwork-selfie, as with other kinds of selfie, in order to mark the experience: I was there. And so the images of Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting, a dramatic sunset, or a celebrity all serve a similar function. When we take photos, especially selfies, we’re thinking what will this image say about me to someone else? Unlike when the audience was limited to just our immediate friends and relatives, now we are projecting our images to a massive indefinite audience. This often means that when we see things we are not only using our own eyes, we are also using the eyes of an imagined spectator.
On the fifth floor of the Musée D’Orsay is the Impressionism gallery. In the space of a few hundred metres are Cézanne’s fruity still lifes, Manet’s portraits, Degas’s ballerinas, and Monet’s waterlillies. Really famous paintings peep out from every corner. When I visited, there was a guy going round with a video-camera, swooping in and out of the paintings, recording the experience in a presumably high-definition, dynamic way. I bet the result was rather special. But the paintings on the wall were special too, and I felt a bit sorry for this person whose mind was already anticipating the effect of his video on himself and others in the future rather than engaging with the works that he might never see up close ever again. As opposed to straight up living in the moment, image-sharing encourages us to live in anticipation of the moment as seen by others.
However, this psychological phenomenon wasn’t created by social media. We turn ourselves into art in our heads all the time. I’m always reminded of a line from Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty in which the protagonist, Nick Guest, who is staying with his friend’s wealthy family, notices a Cézanne hanging casually in one of their houses:
‘It was one of those moments that only the rich could create, and which came for Nick all wrapped up in its own description, so that he was already recounting it to some other impressionable person..’
The Line of Beauty is set in the 80s and was published in 2004 (the same year that a certain Harvard student launched Facebook), and so Nick’s thought-processes are innocent of social media self-consciousness . But they are self-conscious nonetheless, and just as eager to relate some picturesque experience to another person.
What I’m saying is: the impulses that drive us when we use social media are very human, and would’ve been in us whether social media happened or not.
However, in this context of art and reproduction, selfies have a particular influence. The effect of social media, and the art-selfie more specifically, is that the location of an original painting isn’t even that anymore: it’s one in a number of potential desirable backgrounds for the world’s next selfie. The ubiquity of portable cameras and social media physically reduces the gap between ‘the silent and the stillness’ of an original painting and the creation of its reproduction (and ‘all reproductions more or less distort’). There’s barely a moment to ‘follow the traces of the painter’s immediate gestures’ before the reproduction is already captured, captioned, and filtered. In a classic postmodern reversal the whole process has flipped: before, we visited art galleries to get away from the reproductions and see the real thing, now our trip to the art gallery is only validated by the existence-affirming selfie. The experience of visiting an art gallery has changed.
Selfie-taking in general needn’t be demonised. Many may argue that it’s just a bit of fun.. But in an art gallery and in its most negative manifestation there’s a sense that people spend more time facing away from the art than actually looking at it. Little did Leonardo, Gustav, or Claude foresee that one day we’d be obscuring the masters of selfhood with our own transcient snaps.