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Stop Taking Selfies in Front of Works of Art!


Today is Museum Selfie Day, in case you weren’t aware, a day in which many of the major museums of the world are encouraging their patrons not to actually look at the art, but to pose in front of it—then to share their oh-so-artful self portraits on Twitter with the hashtag #MuseumSelfie. 

Unless you were seeking a cheap dose of self-celebration, today was probably not the day to try to see some art. 

I can sympathize with the impulse to take a goofy-posture picture in front of some famous monument—Here I am holding up the leaning tower of Pisa! Like any tourist keepsake, it’s evidence of a singular experience—“I was there” ephemera. At least in the era before Photoshop, you could only prop up Big Ben if you were actually standing on the streets of Westminster. But such photos presume the backdrop is just that—significant scenery. The museum selfie has, egregiously, extended that “here I am!” attitude to the museum. Going to a museum in the era of #MuseumSelfie is less about what you see and how it makes you feel than what you get to check off your bucket list.

This impulse was already bad enough when the cameraphone made museum snaps ubiquitous; when smartphones came about, not only did you have to peer over shoulders at crowded exhibitions, you had to deal with upraised arms and glowing screens. There might be some justification behind the images that people take of famous paintings or sculptures—perhaps they want to look at the art more closely later on. (I’ve taken pictures of wall-mounted labels to remember what I saw.) But it’s never the obscure works that earn camera-phone love; it’s the Mona Lisas and other greatest hits that gather the picture-snapping crowds.

The ostensible rationale for #MuseumSelfie day is to “to highlight the fun and ‘unstuffiness’ of museums/culture,” and its hard to find fault with that. I’m all for entertaining blurbs, audio guides, podcasts, interactive exhibit features, and certain museums could definitely use some airing out. But the museum-going experience should also be one that’s at least somewhat about interiority and individual reaction—and whatever the selfie is all about, interiority does not rank high. (Interior artistic reflection can be fun, by the way! Ferris Bueller taught us that.) It’s the foreground, not the background that is, by definition, the focus of the selfie.

Last summer, there was a debate over whether it was kosher to film a concert—or whether it diminished the experience for all concert-goers to have half the audience distracted by dreams of social media. I didn’t have a stake—it seems fairly easy to tune out something that’s offensive to your eyes when the primary thing you’re stimulating is your ears. But when someone is putting himself and his  phone in front of the very thing you’ve travelled and possibly paid to see, it seems fair to ask him to step aside.