Between Self and Hell
Professor at the School of Communications and Arts, University of São Paulo
Who criticizes the behavior of those who visit public cultural spaces (museums, exhibition venues, art galleries, etc.), who wander rooms and corridors with mobile phones in hand just to take selfies with the most popular works of art must remember the essay by Germany’s Walter Benjamin regarding the impact of introducing new mechanical reproduction techniques in the art field. The lesson from Benjamin, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, is simple, but brilliant: the arrival of new means of aesthetic production and expression creates waves of instability not only because they create new languages, but also because they transform the concept of art itself. It doesn’t seem entirely wrong to apply this logic in analyzing the behavior of those who appreciate art. The forms of perception, representation and sharing meaning by the audience exposed to works of art are also equally impacted by the arrival of new means.
Benjamin’s text is anthological because what he said served for the mechanical reproducibility of his time, proved its validity in the electronic era and, of course, continues applying in our current digital era. At the peak of the electronic revolution of the 80s, we saw, for example, how the popularization of VCRs provided middle-class people the possibility of watching movies in a relaxed setting in their living rooms, and this altered the behavior of spectators at movie theaters, creating a new amplitude of tolerance for conversations between spectators, consumption of snacks and even the entering and exiting during movie sessions. With new online interactivity possibilities, on-demand consumption, gamification and spectator protagonism, movie theaters are converting more and more into transmedia narrative hubs where film aficionados get together to produce and share their creative experiences. Asking for silence or requiring that people remain seated throughout an entire movie session has become inadequate.
Transformations like this one are nothing new in human history. The arrival of printed books, for example, found resistance in certain circles of medieval culture. The difference is that now we are facing an acceleration in the rhythm that new communication means are introduced thanks to the era of digital computing and access in real time to social networks. An acceleration that impedes new forms of production and aesthetic fruition to be assimilated and settle into new ethics of conduct. Thus, we witness what McLuhan (Canadian intellectual who envisioned the Internet decades before it was invented) had already predicted back in the 1960s: a conflicting interaction between enthusiasts of new communication means and the more conservative, who prefer traditional forms of cultural production and consumption. The controversy about selfies in museums is just an example of this tension, which is expected to spread and intensify in many other dimensions before we see it settle down.
Please note: I do not defend that selfies in museums be peacefully accepted, but the problem seems more interesting and complex than what some cultural producers, curators and administrators would like, who work under visiting rules written in the last century. It would be more productive to try to understand what lead so many people to take selfies and map the various degrees of tolerance to this practice, which ranges from prohibiting photos to the introduction of “spaces for selfies” in specific museum areas or “selfie days” to receives these new digital collectors. We even have the “Museums of Selfies”, institutions that recognize that selfies portray our cultural era. In fact, this type of photo capturing on the part of visitors has the purpose of filling an imaginary and virtually-infinite album of rare pictures where the only person that truly matters is the person in them.
It’s good to remember that museums today are mass communication means and are associated to the tourism and entertainment industry, perceived as repositories of sensorial experiences aimed at individual satisfaction and to fuel the vanity of increasingly more voracious and stimulated consumers. The traditional form of visiting these museums is no longer aligned with the protagonism required by the user, who wants to feel special in relation to the mass of people circulating around him or her. There’s no argument that can convince someone who stood hours in the sun or rain to enter a museum that he or she is not entitled to flaunt that he or she is standing next to Mona Lisa in the same way he or she did when eating a famous crepe in Paris. And this they do, in the logic of social networks and mobile devices, taking selfies and disseminating the feat among “friends”. The experience shared of the visit on social networks has become more important and valuable than the knowledge attained at the museum.
French philosopher Gilles Lipovestky summarized this moment as the “era of artistic capitalism”, where a mass of cyber narcissists connected to the Internet devour with the lenses of their phone cameras the symbols of traditional culture and transform them into fragments of their own pleasure. The development of Internet and high-tech equipment gave the public the possibility to consider themselves artists in a permanent state of creation, photographing and filming everything to post in all sorts of social networks. In his own words, this aesthetic hypermodern society is characterized by promoting an “ideal life” and the renewal of “perpetual fun”.
The selfie phenomenon in museums requires, therefore, the understanding that a new cultural environment was created based on the invention of computers and the discovery of digital information. Italian philosopher Luciano Floridi, who studies the ethics of information in the digital era, calls this new environment “infosphere”, comparing it to the biosphere. There’s a continuous process in which computers become increasingly smaller and, conversely, more potent in their capacity to process and memorize information, inhaling as an enormous gravitational field all previous analogic ways of producing information and socially weaving the culture area. In just a few decades, the entire world became available in the palm of our hands. It was a simple step, and even predictable, that our arms would become a lever that would convert the point of view and flow of production, giving rise to what Henry Jenkins defined as the spirit of web 2.0: users become the protagonist and require more and more space for their manifestation.
Perhaps hypermodern phenomena like “selfies in museums” require completely new theories, as is the case with memetics, the new science of memes. A meme, in broad terms, is a form of life, just like a virus. It emerges naturally where there are conditions for it to surface and evolves according to the same rules of universal evolutionism, which has in the gene its fundamental structure. According to those who study this phenomenon, memes live and multiply themselves in the minds and devices that expand mental capacities of memory and information processing, just like the web and computers. Neuroscience studies reinforced this vision after discovering “mirror neurons” responsible for copying behaviors in a human community. That is: taking a selfie in the museum may have become an unstoppable behavior to an audience that’s been exposed and “contaminated”
by this meme.
The statement “I’m now next to Mona Lisa” published in a social network is something surprising for most social network users. After all, it’s not every day you can stand next to Da Vinci’s famous painting and, for the wise, this also implies being in Paris and at the Louvre. However, what’s the value of this statement without proof of veracity? “Send us a selfie”, someone might say. And with reason: the most undeniable proof of this post’s veracity is to offer a photo in which the author and Mona Lisa appear in the same image. That’s because, semiotically, a “selfie” next to Mona Lisa is a complex signal composed of icons, indices and symbols. An icon represents another object by similarity, as images do. An index is represented by a physical or material connection, as is the case with a finger pointing at something. A symbol can be defined through conventions or habits that generally occur in social interactions.
Selfies are capable of communicating information in an understandable manner to a community of interpreters in a similar way as the verbal statement “I’m now standing next to Mona Lisa”, but with the advantage that the photo directly indicates the physical connection of the author with the Mona Lisa painting, denotes the privilege of this situation, and packages it all up in a habit socially constructed and coded by social network users to flaunt events by publishing photos in networks like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and many others.
A selfie is the type of post socially accepted and expected by the code of conduct of social network users. The “selfie” is the perfect sign for the superficiality of networks fed by trans-aesthetic capitalism, where experience is worth more than possession, as stated by French philosopher Gilles Lipovestky. This is its logical perfection, and also the cause of its moral damnation.
Published at the first edition of SP-Arte Magazine, on April 2018.