When you’re in a gallery, who is most important? You or the artist? This is a question that has gallerists, artists, curators and art lovers alike in something of a conundrum. When thousands upon thousands of visitors use some of the most famous and iconic pieces of artwork in the world as a backdrop to their selfies, are we at risk of entirely missing the point of art for art’s sake?
Luisa Ziaja, Curator for Contemporary Art at the Belvedere in Vienna is the ideal person to speak to on the subject. The Belvedere is home to one of the most famous paintings on the planet – The Kiss by Austrian symbolist Gustav Klimt. The Kiss (or ‘Der Kuss’, in German) was painted between 1907 and 1908 during what is now logically known as Klimt’s ‘Golden Period’. Its two lovers in deep embrace, depicted in luxuriant gold leaf, bronze and oils, are revered as a visual paeon to love and have attracted generation after generation of visitors, many of whom propose to their beloveds in front of it each year. In recent times these romantic souls have taken to broadcasting the most intimate declaration of their love on the Internet – capturing a selfie to commemorate the moment. “Since the general ban on visitor photography has been lifted in the permanent collection of the Belvedere in 2017, we see an ever-increasing number of people taking selfies,” says Luisa. “But of course, there are still regulations in place.”
The Belvedere is progressive in the art world in that it has adopted an ‘open content’ policy – the first art museum in Austria to do so – yet they still have a need for a photography policy in the museum. “In the case of the selfie in front of an artwork you even need to turn your back to the artwork. And finding the “right angle” has repeatedly caused unfortunate incidents in museums worldwide that in turn were shared in social media.” Luisa notes that the gallery is seeing an “increasing ignorance of the proper distance needed for the safety of unique pieces of art” as the number of selfies at the Belvedere increases.
The Belvedere is far from the only gallery to attract the selfie generation. The National Gallery in London famously banned ‘selfie sticks’ back in 2015 and galleries and museums all over the world have clear policies on photography in order to protect the image rights of the artworks, respect visitor privacy and create a more inclusive and mindful environment for visitors overall. However, in these respects, a museum or gallery environment is no different to, say, a restaurant, or a botanical garden. The key difference for Luisa lies in the direct human-to-art experience. “What seems to get lost is the immediacy of encountering an artwork, as it is almost only perceived through the lens of a smart phone or digital camera.”
Luisa acknowledges that “we could argue that taking selfies is a new cultural technique to digitally archiving daily life”, but the risk of reducing important works of art to the basic level of a backdrop at best or a forgettable ‘highlight’ in an Instagram story at worst, is of great concern to museums, galleries, art historians and curators worldwide.
However, there are some who believe that galleries are missing a trick. In a recent article for The Art Newspaper, art critic Ben Luke considers whether ‘Instagrammability’ might be something that curators should consider in the future, citing controversial French artist Marcel Duchamp’s argument that “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act”. In short, can ‘going viral’ be to the benefit of the art world? And will selfie detractors be in the vast minority in the future? This is also a question of respect,” Luisa cautions. “But at the same time the museum needs to open up to its visitors and to phenomena of our times – and to establish a reflection on these very phenomena. In my view, this is also what contemporary art does.”
And this is a significant point. When art is a reflection of the time in which it is created, current technological trends must naturally find their place in what is not only visually important, but historically. There is clearly a balance to be struck. For Luisa, the key is in communication she and her team work to “encourage a discourse on contemporary visuality” and this involves approaching the visitor experience in new ways. For example, they have introduced a ‘sound identity’ for the art museum and recent redisplay of their permanent collection is hinges around storytelling and bringing the world of the artist to life. In this way, the Belvedere and others like it, are fostering an environment which acknowledges that, like the powerful and important works of art within, photography and experiential sharing are also here to stay.