The fear of the selfie


There is some lugubrious consternation in the press and twittersphere of late over the National Gallery’s decision to lift their ban on photography in the galleries. One of the chief concerns from thsoe who oppose the decision is the fear that the National Gallery will become ‘selfie-central’ and will detract from the studious atmosphere of contemplation and observation. This seems misguided and outdated to me. Galleries stopped being the sacrosanct spaces Grumpy Art Historian seems to think they are when they introduced branded coffee bars and boozy members’ evenings. Likewise, the artworks have been dethroned by the peddling of tea-cosies, tote bags, and even boxes of champagne truffles all imprinted with take-away versions of images from the collection. One could argue that these trinkets of mass cultural consumerism take the works in question out of the realms of quiet contemplation in a far more degrading way than a snap-happy observer posing and then posting on social media channels. While there are fears that this lift of the photography ban will invite a flood of selfie self-interest at the expense of the worthwhile work of art, the truth is that with or without smartphones, it was ever thus among galleries and visitors. But furthermore, this attitude puts artworks in an awkward and distant place of hallowed reverence, when in fact museums exist so that the works are engaged with and re-interpreted in contemporary ways. They need the selfie generation to buy coffee and tweet pictures of themselves reflected in art works because these are the arbiters whose snaps can invigorate and promote collections through people-oriented endorsements and not through pictures on tea- towels. Our eyes and brains will not devolve as a result of this route of engagement. Earlier this year Museum Selfie day positively promoted the snaps of gallery goers and by collating them under one hashtag created a body of work that is as creative, sensitive and thought-provoking as the original works themselves. Coming from a background as an educator in schools and galleries the concept behind the selfie (especially if it involves the mimicking of the characters or sentiment in the artwork) is a useful pedagogical tool to foster a deeper and more sympathetic interpretation of works, not to mention an enthusiasm and recall for them.
So, disgruntled dinosaurs of art history- what is it you are really afraid of here?