Submitted by Daven McQueen, Education Intern
Visitors to ESMoA’s Experience 23: MATTER will recall seeing a sculpture depicting a man who has selfie sticks protruding from his body, each one fitted with a different smartphone. This is Michael Sistig’s version of Saint Sebastian, the martyr who was shot with arrows in ancient Rome for his Christian beliefs. Michael conceived this piece after watching a visitor at the Louvre snap a selfie with a painting of Saint Sebastian and promptly walk away, having spent no time with the art. And in fact, this isn’t an uncommon sight: selfies are so prominent in our culture that spending a day in a museum often consists of sprinting through the galleries and posing in front of as many works as possible. Just the other day, I watched a visitor at the Getty stand with his back to Vincent Van Gogh’s Irises, phone in hand, shifting for several moments as he took a slew of selfies. For him, and for many, the art just verifies an Instagram location tag.
I appreciate Michael’s playful criticism of this strange phenomenon. There’s something about engaging with a piece in person that cannot be matched by even the best selfie with it, and it’s important to have that experience in an art institution. So, yes: as a museum visitor, I like to sit with the art and spend time just observing. But as a young person in the digital age, I also like taking the occasional selfie — particularly on Snapchat.
For those who haven’t been sucked into the world of instant selfie sharing, Snapchat is a social media platform that allows users to share photos and videos that disappear a few seconds after being received. Recently, the app developed a feature that uses face recognition technology to add props and filters to images. There are flower crowns, animal ears, and skin-smoothing beauty effects — and while they’re actually pretty pointless, they’re just so much fun.
This is where Saint Sebastian comes in. I mean, think about it: there’s this sculpture in the gallery with a realistic human face, and yes the whole point of it is to mock selfie culture, but when ESMoA is closed to the public and there’s only half an hour left of work, ironic Snapchat experiments suddenly get really, really tempting.
That’s how this happened.
And, horrifyingly, this.
I’m mildly embarrassed to report that after this experiment, I am now tempted to put flower crowns on every human sculpture I see. Sorry, Michael.
But there’s something to be said for interacting with art in such a ridiculous way. It makes the pieces seem less distant, less intimidating, even. Humor, like serious contemplation, can have a place in art spaces. And maybe Snapchat can, too. In moderation. Balanced with a healthy amount of selfie-free appreciation. And while face-swapping with Saint Sebastian might not be the best aesthetic decision, you have to admit: the flower crown really brings out his eyes.
Daven McQueen is a college sophomore from Torrance, California. She currently attends Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where she is double-majoring in Literary Arts and Economics. She has a background in dance and creative writing, particularly fiction, and is interested in the intersections between visual and literary art. She is currently interested in pursuing a career in education, specifically with a non-profit organization.
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