You Don't Need to Travel Around the World to Take Selfies With Art

CC BY 2.0. Selfie Station at the Belvedere/ Lloyd Alter

Just take them with big photos, nobody will ever know.

When in Vienna for a conference I visited the Belvedere Palace, which has a famous Gustav Klimt painting, the Kiss. Everybody wanted to see it and get a photo with it.

Selfie station sign

Selfie station sign/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0So in the next room, they set up a "selfie point" where you could take a picture of yourself with a reproduction of the painting. Everybody seemed just fine with that.

According to Jason Farago of the New York Times, the Louvre has a much bigger problem with the much more popular Mona Lisa.

The Louvre is being held hostage by the Kim Kardashian of 16th-century Italian portraiture: the handsome but only moderately interesting Lisa Gherardini, better known (after her husband) as La Gioconda, whose renown so eclipses her importance that no one can even remember how she got famous in the first place.

Eighty percent of the 10 million visitors want to see it. "She has become, in this age of mass tourism and digital narcissism, a black hole of anti-art who has turned the museum inside out."

Nobody has a very good time, either; it's like a security line at an American airport. "In a poll of British tourists earlier this year, the Mona Lisa was voted the 'world’s most disappointing attraction,' beating out Checkpoint Charlie, the Spanish Steps, and that urinating boy in Brussels."

He left out the famous honeymoon spot Niagara Falls, which Oscar Wilde called "the second great disappointment of the American bride."


Tuileries Gardens, Paris/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Farago thinks it is time to take the Mona Lisa out of the Louvre and give it its own building or pavilion. "Build a pavilion for her, perhaps in the Tuileries, that is optimized for the crowds."

This Paris pavilion... would be a pilgrimage site for a sort of worship: the worship of fame, and of one’s own proximity to it. Let Samsung or another electronics company install ultra-hi-res cameras around the Gioconda. Let visitors strike a pose on the moving walkways, and then download their cutest selfies with the Leonardo under glass.

I am not certain that building this pavilion is the best idea. One commenter to the Times article suggested instead: "Hordes of tourists are literally canceling the world’s treasures. Perhaps it’s time for all of us to stay put, and instead enjoy our immediate surroundings, say for a decade. The planet and the locals would be grateful."

The Museum without Walls

Public Domain. Andre Malraux building a museum without walls

Andre Malraux building a museum without walls/Public Domain

André Malraux had the right idea in 1952 with his idea for “le Musee imaginaire” or Museum without Walls. He suggested that the traditional museum was no longer relevant, as photography had become so good that it made art accessible to all. “Great art, he wrote, made accessible to all through reproductions in books, is liberated from the time, place, and history in which they are usually confined by museum categories. Removed from historical context, they can be rearranged in the mind according to aesthetic or philosophical qualities.” He worried that there was too much art:

Given that the breadth and diversity of today’s world of art far surpasses the capacities of any single art museum, or even two or three, and that many of the objects are in any case not moveable, the musée imaginaire is our imaginary coll­ection of all the works, both inside and outside art mus­eums, that we today regard as important works of art.

But now we know that there are also too many people. We should learn from the Belvedere and put mini-Louvres and mini-MoMAs around the world with reproductions that people can stand beside for selfies. Liberate the art from time and place. The planet and the locals will be grateful.