The selfie holds a complex and ever-changing role in modern life. To some, it’s a societal scourge; to others, it’s feminist salvation; to Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, it’s a bona fide art form. But could the simple act of snapping an iPhone pic of yourself actually prove dangerous to fine art?
Last week, four young visitors to Yekaterinburg, Russia’s International Arts Center damaged works by Salvador Dalí and Francisco de Goya when they knocked over a freestanding wall in pursuit of a selfie, Artsy reports. Russian Interior Ministry representative Irina Volk described the four selfie-seeking women as “not very adequately behaved,” noting that their actions caused damage to an etching from Goya's 1799 “Los Caprichos” series and a Dalí work it inspired. Christie’s values other etchings in the “Los Caprichos” series at between $400,000 and $600,000 , and a past Dalí interpretation of Goya sold at auction for $22,500.
This isn’t the first time the quest for an art-inspired selfie has gone very, very wrong. In 2017, a visitor to Hong Kong-based artist Simon Birch’s pop-up exhibit the 14th Factory in LA caused nearly $20,000 in damage when she “fell backward into a row of sculptures on pedestals, knocking them one-by-one into each other like dominoes” while trying to nab a selfie with an installation titled Hypercaine, the Observer reported.
But that's not all: way back in 2016, a 126-year-old statue of Dom Sebastian, who ruled Portugal from 1557 to 1578, “shattered after a 24-year-old man reportedly knocked it over while climbing on it to take a photograph,” ArtNews reported. (We had trouble putting our finger on an estimate for this piece, but like Spain’s ”Ecce Homo,” it sounds priceless). In May of that same year, selfie-seekers damaged a historic Italian statue of Hercules (Sotheby’s estimate for a similar statue: between $150-250,000), and in 2014, an Italian student smashed up a copy of an ancient Greco-Roman sculpture titled The Drunken Satyr while trying to climb into its lap for a photo op (Christie’s estimate for a similar statue: between $7-10,000). All told, by a conservative estimate, selfies have damaged $1.5 million worth of art over the past four years. Some museums have sought to reduce selfie-induced art mishaps by banning selfie sticks, but is there any amount of legislation that can stem the flow of selfie-seekers’ irrepressible longing for self-documentation next to fine art?
The idea of reverting back to a genteel, technophobic art world in which the ladies come and go, talking of Michelangelo, feels anachronistic when artificial intelligence is currently conquering the art world. Online tools like the Google Art and Culture app, which allows people to find their art-historical doppelgängers (remember when all your Tinder matches’ profile photos were selfies with Courbet’s Man with a Pipe?), are helping democratize often inaccessible collections on a large scale.
Still, the Great Selfie Body Count of the Late 2010s merits some consideration. At the very least, we should all agree to follow the “Apeshit” video's guidelines for best practices regarding capturing safe, world-class selfies with art.