We’ve all gotten pulled into one of those conversations at one party or another: “Art is on the decline! No ones creates original work anymore! Music is produced by robots and armies of slave children! All we do is take selfies and mindlessly share them!”
That’s how art critic Jonathan Jones reacted to the above painting by artist James Needham this week. Needham is shocked — shocked — that this painting has gotten almost a million shares on Imgur. “It washes out all aesthetic ambition,” Jones wails in The Guardian, “and reduces the 600 years of art history since the Renaissance to the level of a glorified selfie.”
My response to all that is,
What do you think art history IS?
The oldest art ever discovered, anywhere in the world, is so old that it wasn’t even made by humans at all. It was made by Neanderthals. What did they paint?
Images of their hands.“I am here. I am me. Look at me.”
…for tens of thousands of years, if you can even wrap your mind around that. I sure can’t.
Yes, those images are beautiful. They’re artistic. They were made by individual artists. But let’s be honest — they’re the most primitive form of selfies. They’re snapshots of individual people at specific points in time.
“I was here. This is me.”
Skipping over a few millennia, one of the first big artistic fads at the dawn of civilization was Sumerian cylinder seals. These are little stone cylinders, about an inch high, carved with scenes of gods, monsters, stories, or just plain everyday life. No two are alike.
I think we should bring them back as “a thing,” actually.
In a time before literacy, they served as personal signatures: “This is me. I was here.” People rolled them all over any markable surface — sometimes as a “seal of approval,” other times, apparently, just for the hell of it.
They remained popular for thousands of years. Archaeologists dig them up by the hundreds all over Mesopotamia, and beyond. It seems that just about everyone had his or her own personalized cylinder seal.
Let’s keep fast-forwarding. Besides, maybe it’s not the “selfie” aspect of Needham’s painting that bothers people, so much as the fact that it’s an apparently meaningless slice of life, set in a bathroom, of all places.
Maybe the ancient Greeks can teach us some Classical values about what should be portrayed in art.
That’s not exactly what we had in mind, ancient Greece. How about something more…
Oh, come on! What about the perfectly proportioned architecture of the Parthenon, or the proud sternness of Athena Promachos? Those are proper subjects for art. Show us something…
No! Stop it! Bad Classical Greece! Bad!
We’re going to leave you and go to the European Middle Ages, where good Christian values surely prevailed. There in the land of chivalry, I’m sure we’ll find that absurd bathroom selfies are out of the question, and we don’t have to worry about this “deadening superficiality” that afflicts our art today.
Seriously, The Middle Ages? Seriously?
All right. I think we get the…
I… I don’t…
To be honest, I’m getting kind of tired of dick pics and scenes of people throwing up. All this Greek and Medieval art is like one of those Facebook albums you delete before you go in for a job interview.
I’m hoping that in the Romantic period, we’ll find “something more monumental and permanent” —portraits and scenes that are worthy to be called Real Art.
Or that. That’s… that’s also a thing, I guess.
(The painting above is actually from 2012, but I’m leaving it there anyway because it looks Romantic and it makes me laugh.)
Maybe at least a painting that’s not just a “superficial” image of someone on the can?
Nope. I guess not.
Well thanks for that.
Gaaah! I think we get the point. Good lord.
Look, here’s what I’m getting at:
This is what people do. It’s what we’ve always done.
We snap “complacent self-images” with whatever medium is available — whether it’s a “phone and a cheeky pose” or just paint and a cave wall. We paint scenes of “triviality” — and archaeologists and art historians all over the world are very glad we do. Those “complacent self-images” can give people a peek into the little parts of life that those brilliant painters with their “monumental and permanent” scenes often pass over.
At the end of his critique of Needham’s portrait, Jones asks, “Is this where painting ends, in a bathroom?”
No — that’s just where all painters go from time to time, just like the rest of us.