Standing up for the selfie

14th August 2014

Only rarely does writing about the arts really rile me. But today I read two pieces on the same topic that I regard as nostalgic, ignorant and elitist twaddle. The topic is the relaxation of the ban on photography for personal use at the National Gallery. The twaddle comes from Sarah Crompton, arts editor of the Telegraph, and from Michael Savage who blogs as Grumpy Art Historian (and who also has other issues with the gallery). In their respective articles Why you shouldn’t take photos in galleries and Trivialising the National Gallery, both express the view that permitting people to take photographs of great paintings that they own (if, that is, they are UK citizens) is a Bad Thing. I want instead to suggest that what is Bad about all of this is the exclusive and patronising attitudes both writers display towards the rest of us.

Sarah Crompton’s vision of a National Gallery that permits photography is as follows:

All those Impressionist landscapes, the Renaissance crucifixions, and Leonardo’s sublime Virgin of the Rocks – just so much background for another selfie, or a group shot of your mates.

The decision, apparently, is ‘a betrayal’:

By allowing photography, galleries are betraying all those who want to contemplate rather than glance. Surrounded by the snappers, they may come to think that this is the acceptable way to consume art, a kind of constant grazing without any real meal. That’s not a means of making art more popular or accessible. It is the surest path to depriving it of all purpose and meaning.

The grumpy art historian is, well, really very grumpy, believing like the Telegraph that this decision leads simply to selfies. As he explains, a selfie is …

… a picture of a painting with you in the frame. That’s not engagement. It’s turning the focus inward on the visitor rather than outward to the artwork. The excitement about ‘fresh and exciting’ ways of ‘exploring the collection’ is technological determinism on steroids. The exciting thing should be looking at pictures, not sharing your own on Facebook.

Both Ms Crompton and Mr Savage point out that perfectly good reproductions of the gallery’s pictures are available online, and it is true that the National Gallery permits limited and strictly controlled re-use of their images:

Material may be reproduced free of charge in any format or medium for research, private study or for internal circulation within an educational organisation (such as schools, colleges and universities). This is subject to the material being reproduced accurately and not used in a misleading context or altered format such as stretched, compressed, coloured or altered in any way so as to distort its original format.

But there is all the difference in the world between down-loading an image ‘for private study’ on the one hand and establishing a direct, immediate and personal relationship with an artwork by photographing it yourself and as a consequence, in however distanced a way, taking ownership of it. And beyond the simple right (within the framework of law) that we should be able to photograph things that we own (and to share that right with visitors from overseas, just as they share it with us), it is the possibility of creating that relationship that is the reason for permitting photography.

That relationship via the act of taking a photograph is important to a young student doing GCSE Art, to a visitor to London who wishes to recall the trip, to an older person who may have looked at and enjoyed a particular painting for the past fifty years, to a lover who wants to share a shard of beauty with their partner, to an artist looking for inspiration, to a million and one others, and – yes – to someone who wishes simply to say I, or we, were here.

The image above is a detail from an almost random but immensely charming #museumselfie by @dscarzafava that popped up in my Twitter feed this morning – and that made me smile, and coincidentally made me feel yet-more-positively toward the Met in New York (where I assume it was taken) which retweeted it:


#museumselfies are more than fine by me, just as are the multitude of other ways that people want to engage with and explore, save and share the images that they take. Nor is there the slightest evidence that relaxing photography in galleries stimulates hoards of visitors who block the views of those who have come to commune in an authentic manner with the masterpieces. The Met and MoMA in New York, and Tate Britain here, are among the enlightened galleries who permit photography, and who have done so seemingly without the barbarians storming their citadels. Bravo to the National Gallery on joining the club.

Certainly, as Ms Crompton and Mr Savage wish, I would like more people to look more intensely and more thoughtfully and indeed for longer at individual artworks. But the way to encourage this is to create imaginative and engaging interpretation and education initiatives, to have better programmes about the arts on television, to enhance art classes in schools and much more, and not to stop us using our cameras along with our eyes.

To argue against permitting photography is to attempt to preserve an out-dated and, yes, elitist idea of art galleries. The assumption behind it, which runs through the two articles I highlight above, is that the person who holds this view knows, thanks to their refinement, their education and their class position, how to appreciate art while the rest of us are simply selfie-seeking hoi-polloi. That’s not a pretty picture.

No selfies? No thanks.

PS. I might have a tiny bit more respect for the Telegraph arts coverage had the paper not illustrated the article about taking photographs in the National Gallery with an image which is captioned ‘Another sanctuary is breached as The National Gallery allows visitors to photograph the paintings on its walls’ and yet is in fact of someone with a smartphone in the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.

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