Art for Selfies

. . . millions of Americans now regularly eat French-fried potatoes with their fingers. We have sunk, anthropologically speaking, beneath the level of the fork. The daily, unrecorded habits of a people are measures of its values. A disintegrated civilization shows not only in the low level of the arts, but in its pop entertainment and its lunchbox.
                                                   John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture

Nothing is more exhilarating than counting oneself an accomplished spotter of cultural decay. We relish the frisson of it even while we wring our hands. So I know what you  think when you hear that the world’s first art museum catering to selfie mavens has opened in Manila. You say to yourself: We have descended from finger food down, down, all the way down to wanton flippancy in a temple of art. Worse, a pretend temple—a garish, tacky, tongue-in-cheek anti-temple.


Selfie with Mona Lisa


Quite right. Yet despite that, there is something endearing about this goofy, impertinent, interactive sacrilege. We have enough vulgarities to purse lips over. This does not have to be one of them. Let me try to explain.

Previously tagged the social network capital of the planet, the Philippines have now been anointed the selfie capital to boot. According to research by Time Magazine, Manila, followed by three other Philippine cities, averages more selfies per 100,000 people a day than anywhere else in the camera phone world. You can tunnel into the sociology of this on your own. What interests me is the museum itself, Art in Island.

The whole point of Art in Island is to let people pose for selfies in front of the art on the wall. They can even touch it. And they are exempt from the absurd hush that we museum-goers adopt to prove ourselves pious appreciators of strict observance. Visitors to Art in Island can hold up their selfie-sticks, open their Instagram app, noodle the image, add a caption, and send it giggling into the wide world. It is Everyman’s catchpenny variant of the hoary old message in a bottle tossed on the high seas.

Man kissing fishWhat is the message here? It is in code, but bear with me. I think it is this: that we, in our First World affluence and leisure, have made a fetish of art. The gift that it is has swollen like a puff-adder into a dogma. And a moral tonic. The Philippines, by contrast, have not had the same history of grand acquisitions that find their tax-advantaged way into public collections. Art in Island is a poor nation’s finger in the eye of the cult of art. It is an antidote to the peculiar twist taken by modernity’s bent toward idolatry.

We are a happy band, we aesthetes. We tell ourselves that art awakens the faculties by which we perceive God.  Yet, quite possibly, it runs the other way around. It is the religious mind—quickened but still restless—that grants to visual art its status as a locus theologicus. (Gilson was terse: “There is no necessary connection between the fine arts and religion.  .  .  . Religion exists in religious men.”) We distill art from the labor of its making, and quarantine it from the boundless variety of human creativity. Thereby, we raise it to an object of devotion.

Man stepping out of paintingOnce we dematerialize art and make it a springboard for other interests, philosophy and theology among them, we hardly have to look at it. Much art-and-beauty discourse is less about art—the thing seen—than a display of the observer as an acolyte of the beautiful. Often as not, the true object of consideration is that golden panorama visible from the piazza of one’s own sensibility. It becomes a selfie of another kind. Behold the beholder.

Christianity decreases while art-consciousness intensifies and spreads. More than half of American art museums were founded after 1970. New ones continue to open; older ones renovate and expand. Meanwhile, church attendance shrinks. Table 75 in the 2012 U.S. Census shows those who self-identify as having “no religion” more than doubled between 1990 and 2008. Upsurge in the authority of art is a useful index of the atrophy—or displacement—of faith in Judeo-Christian sources of revelation. On the evidence of Art in Island, Filipinos have ducked a First World god.

The Mediterranean after the beheading of twenty one Copts. Photo: Universal News & Sport.
The Mediterranean after the beheading of twenty one Copts. Photo: Universal News & Sport.

While Christian circles contemplate the redemptive power of beauty,  a conquering Islam reasserts itself. It advances in defiance of our trust in art’s contribution to “the good.” The Cross was bloody awful. Harrowing. Few of us can bear to look. It is easier to repeat the mantra—unearned by you and me—that beauty will save the world.

Our beguiling but deceptive stress on art and beauty brings to mind The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Vittorio de Sica’s 1971 film about a sophisticated Jewish family in Italy during the rise of Mussolini. Their ease and cultivation obscured the magnitude of the threat marshaling against them. In the end, they walked politely to their extermination, the refinement of their upbringing no stay against barbarism. It was annihilated with them.

Art in Island could not have come at a better time. Join me in praying for franchises to open in Paris, New York, Berlin, Florence, every art capital in the Western world.

Note: Art in Island has no website but the museum does have a Facebook page.