I had a look at Instagram on a random Monday at 5:30pm, just as the Museum of Modern Art in New York closed for the day. The number of photos posted from the museum that day was more than 300 – and that figure counts only those images affixed with MoMA’s geotag, and thus could be a grave underestimate. What were these photos depicting? Paintings, of course, especially Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night and Ed Ruscha’s Oof, whose titular onomatopoeia is a fan favorite. Not only art, though. A lot of people seem to like taking photos of wall text, and five museumgoers, bizarrely, posted photographs of their tickets.
But more and more, the view at MoMA is a view of oneself. Starry Night and Claude Monet’s Water Lilies are the prime selfie real estate, it seems, though two friends posted four different photos of themselves and had killer taste in backgrounds, posing in front of two cut-outs by Matisse, Andy Warhol’s cow wallpaper and the young painter Matt Connors’ monochromes, which are particularly flattering. (The hashtags were #nophotosallowed and #whoops.) One woman, clad in all black from her hijab to her skirt, struck a pose in front of a Joseph Kosuth painting that matched her outfit. People posted selfies from the lobby, the windows and the garden, often tagged with references to their clothes. At least two people posted photos of themselves from the bathrooms, though Marcel Duchamp’s urinal on the fifth floor had no selfie takers.
Maybe someone else will have fun writing a counterintuitive essay about how the museum selfie represents some secret opportunity: that endless narcissistic portraiture in fact disguises some grand creative act. But this is not going to be that essay. Selfies are, let’s face it, the newest scourge of the art museum – and they are not going away, as confirmed by this week’s Museum Selfie Day (really). If you have problems with that, and heaven knows I do, you’ll have to take it up with a bigger authority than the guardians of our art museums, who one by one are giving up on no-photograph policies. The National Gallery in London finally did away with their prohibition last summer, prompting the Guardian writer Zoe Williams to tear through the museum and snap herself with Rembrandt and Vermeer.