I take selfies in museums. Sue me.

After additional reflection on the entire question of “how to appreciate art the right way” I came to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with selfies taken within the exhibition space.

I get it. I understand that it must seem odd how some museum visitors see the act of taking pictures of the art as more important than looking at the actual art piece. As mentioned in this former post I disagree on saying there is only one true way to experience art. Today I want to discuss the potential benefits of pictures taken within an art show.

First of all I want to state that I hate the idea of art as something sacred and holy that you are not allowed to handle with normal manner. There is no choir singing in the background while I look at art and I do not have to wait until a rush of emotions is running through my mortal body because I just have been struck with a divine god given enlightenment. Calm down crazy.

Along with the critique of the – as often called – unworthy or wrong visitor comes also the critique on technology as well. Cell phones and social media are supposed to be the reason why people spent less time looking at art. An article on artsy by Isaac Kaplan from 2017 discusses the question if cell phones had an impact on how long people look at art.

These results suggest that cell phones haven’t changed the amount of time people spend in front of art that drastically. The big difference the study found was the birth of selfies—or “arties,” selfies taken with artworks, […] Two people were taking so many “arties” that they had to be excluded from the study, because they weren’t even looking at the art.

So does the act of taking selfies decrease the overall art experience? Not necessarily. If you are not like the two people who didn’t look at the piece at all, it is fine. Kaplan mentions in his article two studies by Lisa F. Smith and Jeffrey K. Smith who came to a similar conclusion: The average time spent in front of artwork was less than one minute. If you don’t live in New York and have the rare opportunity to visit the MoMA you obviously want to see as many pieces as possible instead of sitting awestruck in front of a few. Also, your body has its limit and spending 6h in a museum is tough.

That said I want to come back to selfies/arties. The fact that somebody did take a selfie in the exhibition space does not tell you how much time that person spent looking at the art. Also spending less time in front of art does not mean less appreciation either. There is no evidence to that –  apart from your personal judgemental position. As long as there is no photo prohibition there is nothing wrong with taking selfies.

I also dare to say that selfies or even #ootd in museums are a good thing. In a time where social media and influencers are big players in marketing, you have to admit that any uploaded picture is free advertisement for the artist/museum/gallery/show. It is no breaking news that many well-established institutions do struggle financially despite their high-quality art collection and I think whoever cares for museums should be thankful that these houses can pay their guards.

Promoting art institutions as an influencer is an idea that I like a lot. Art is for me, not some God-given miracle and as long as nobody violates any rules or laws I don’t see it too problematic. The expectation that you should be able to talk about art in some phoney way or need a certain level of intellect to enjoy a museum the right way is a.) pretentious and b.) excluding a lot of people. And this is a problem because art is no privilege for the elite.

Dealing respectfully with a piece of work does not mean that you are unable to use it for your own purposes – meaning I will take pictures of it as an addition for my own body of work or use it to make a point. It is needless to say that art experience in our time is not solely visual anymore. Just to name a few: Erwin Wurm, Tino Sehgal, Andrea Fraser, Pierre Huyghe and also Signe Pierce are all artists who work with pieces that demand more from the visitor. Taking selfies or pictures in general by yourself is a way experience art as well and maybe even better than solemnly stare at a piece forever.

Say Cheeeeese!

The right approach on art

A Comment

During my stay in Finland, I managed to visit the HAM (Helsinki Art Museum) and see Yayoi Kusama’s solo show at some point. The exhibition was recommended by a friend and I have seen many pictures of the show on social media already. I knew very little of Kusama at that point since I have only seen documentation of her early performances during a photography exhibition at the TATE. Even now I would not consider myself as an expert on her body of work either.

The main reason why I am writing this comment is an online article published on Dazed Digital (original article here) that I came across with this morning. During a show in LA a visitor broke one of Kusama’s squash sculptures while trying to take the perfect picture in her infinity room – which led to a ban for photography in general proposed by the artist herself.

While I do agree that damaging an art piece is highly disrespectful and also very stupid if you did it for the sake of a private picture, I got very surprised by the comments to the Facebook post of Dazed and Confused Magazine (here). I should have been aware that reading user comments on Facebook is upsetting in the first place but here we are.

Many users made nasty and patronizing comments about how people like that specific visitor are not approaching art the right way. One person stated:

“ART IS MEANT TO BE EXPERIENCED NOT A FUCKING BACKDROP TO YOUR INSECURITIES!”

I know that I am overthinking things right now since I doubt that any of the users ever cared for Art education or communication of Art (Kunstvermittlung). After spending my weekend at Hamburger Bahnhof and discussing ways to approach art with children I perplex on how conservative admires of contemporary art can be.

What is wrong with taking a selfie?

So, first of all, I want to make clear that I think the act of mindlessly taking pictures is annoying as well. Rather than looking with your own eyes, people choose to quickly take a picture instead. Got it. Agree. However, should we not be thankful that the people made it into the museum in the first place? Who gives you the right to tell others how to look at or experience art?

The idea that art is solely for the self-proclaimed intellectuals and excluding people who do not fulfil their standards is making me sick. Does this mean I am not supposed to see the show because among different aspects I enjoyed the aesthetics of Kusama’s work the most?

While my own personal approach on art might be more similar to one of the intellectuals I do have many friends who are not familiar with or used to the museum space. For them taking a selfie in front of a famous painting is their way to enjoy the visit and I am glad they have fun.

The idea that there are a right and a wrong way to approach art is based on the fact that each and every person perceives the surrounding in the same way, which is bullshit on so many levels. Every visitor is an individual and has their own way of dealing with the exhibition. Children will probably deal with these yellow glowing squashes differently and enjoy other aspects than an art student. Neither of their approaches is better or worse.

“those people are useless!
they don’t fucking know that her artworks are the result of a real anguish pain she used to experience since she was young..

just stop the use of phones inside”

If standing in the infinity room taking a selfie makes me aware of the beauty and atmosphere of this installation, why should I not take my phone inside? If being a cool backdrop is all I can take from that artwork, what is so bad about it? At least I did make it to the exhibition and I did support the museum and artist. What exactly is making your approach better than mine?

As an art student myself I can say that most of the people will not understand your art piece the way you see it anyway. Knowing the biography of the artist and the circumstances of a piece will help you appreciate it but I doubt that your interpretation is exactly what the artist meant. Therefore it is not more valid or justified than any other interpretation.

“Makes you wonder, what people actually go to exhibitions for… The selfie/image, or for the exhibitions itself.”

“Neither. It’s all for attention. Even being at that location is for attention. There is no interest in anything else but vanity.”

Patronizing comments of the self-proclaimed intellectuals are a sign of the problematic class-thinking, believing that some people are worth more than others. It is very ironic that admirers of Kusama, an artist who embraced diversity and had troubles with conservative values herself, cling to such an outdated concept. But then again, we live in a time where street art is placed in museums and former criticizers of capitalism such as Yayoi Kusama herself are now working with the fashion industry.