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National Gallery Allows Selfies, Van Gogh Despairs

Say Cheese! Grab A Selfie With Your Favourite Artist

Selfies? In the National Gallery? Yes, you heard right. In a move that’s sure to send the art elite into disarray, the National Gallery has relaxed their rules on people using phones, and the fear-inducing photography bans of old have been well and truly lifted in the face of a selfie-obsessed culture. Staff will no longer usher you out of the room when you whip your camera out – instead, they are now instructed to make sure no one is blocking or photobombing your great snap.

Whilst art lovers have been allowed to use their phones for a while to look up information about a painting, now the National Gallery has surrendered entirely to the internet age, granting visitors full permission to take a snap of themselves in front of their favourite Van Gogh. Staff said it was becoming too difficult to distinguish between those using their phone for educational purposes and those for cover photo purposes, so rather than try to fight it, they have embraced the trend in its fullness.

The implications of what the move means for the art world are certainly worth considering – art critics would argue that it removes the experience of art, as no longer will we engage and look at a painting but rather simply document it for a sense of personal accomplishment. Taking a picture of a painting changes the way it is perceived – it removes you a stage further through an electronic screen, and it is more to record that one has ‘been there, done that’ rather than actually draw any meaning or resonance from an artwork of historical worth.

The way in which a selfie places its taker at the centre of the composition and pushes the great art works into the backdrop, means that the narcissistic ‘look at me’ nature of social media once again rears its head. Nowadays with social media we are more interested in telling people what we’re doing, than actually doing it – in the words of the King himself, we need a little less conversation and a little more action. People don’t go to museums to look at artworks, but to have simply seen them and photographing artworks will come at the expense of actually looking and engaging with them.

Apparently the average visitor to The Louvre looks at the Mona Lisa for 15 seconds. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art lovers are a bit more thoughtful, granting a full 32.5 seconds to a piece, but a study conducted by Rutgers University found that the median time spent looking at an art work is 17 seconds. This number may increase with the allowance of selfies, but only because it’s so damned difficult to angle the camera to capture perfectly the whole scene whilst balancing it stock still at arms’ length to avoid blurs and holding your beaming grin for long enough to find the tiny shoot button…clearly, the quality of attention and focus being paid to works of art is going to lessen further, which ties into the grand fear that the rise of social networks and technology will leave mankind unable to concentrate or engage with anything that isn’t on a screen.

The artist, writer and publisher Jasper Joffe despairs at the National Gallery’s move, telling Archie Bland at the Independent: “I am in the final stage of grief: acceptance. Already people go around galleries in a state of anaesthetized indifference to the objects on display. Headphones on, piping in the canned thoughts of audio guides, eyes only on the wall panels telling them what to think, so what difference will the jostling of selfie-seeking Facebookers make?”

Many like Joffe will be hoping that the trend doesn’t catch on – indeed, art galleries are still vast, echoey spaces and I challenge any self-respecting Brit to whip out their camera and start posing in front of austere wannabe art critics. The disapproval would be palpable. There will still remain a strong sense of self-consciousness about being so visibly uninhibited; unless you’re a 13 year old girl, selfies are pretty cringe-worthy and embarrassing.

But so what if it does catch on? The National Gallery, and countless other cultural institutions, is a public space designed to serve the masses (who have paid for it through taxes), so surely it should accommodate the status quo…which for 2014 is the selfie. The aim of galleries is to democratise artistic elitism by getting the general public looking at, and enjoying, art. Whether this is via a fun selfie or a silent three hour study, who’s to say which is more worthwhile. I’m not going to try to argue that a selfie in front of a Velazquez is somehow a valuable piece of art in itself because, frankly, it just isn’t. However, it may well present an interesting documentation of our current conditions of living and the unusual preoccupations that come with it.

Katie Rowley 

Recent graduate and now interning as content editor, when she's not writing articles Katie can quite likely be found festival-ing, holiday-ing or reading a book (dedicated English student that she is). Follow her @KatieAtSMF.

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National Gallery Allows Selfies, Van Gogh Despairs Reviewed by Anonymous on Friday, August 29, 2014 Rating: 5
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