Selfie-Gate: Photo Ban Lifted on Pablo Picasso’s Guernica
The New Age of Art Appreciation

Pablo Picasso's Guernica. A black and white monochromatic Cubist interpretation of the Spanish Civi War. Image © Reina Sofía Museum / Guernica © Pablo Picasso 1937
Helena Poole

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In the record of 20th century art, few pieces resonate with the outcry and raw visceral impact of Picasso's Guernica. Created as a response to the tragedies of the Spanish Civil War, this masterpiece captures the anguish, chaos, and torment experienced by the inhabitants of the bombed Basque town. The monochromatic palette of distorted figures and anguished animals have been housed inside Madrid's Reina Sofía Museum; and for over three decades, visitors were restricted from capturing their own memories of this iconic painting. Recently, however, the 30-year photography ban on Guernica has been lifted, prompting a significant shift that highlights the evolving relationship between art and its viewers, but also propels Guernica into modern discourse on appreciation and engagement. As we embrace this newfound access, it begs the question: was the ban a protective measure, shielding the masterpiece from the dilution of selfie culture, or was it an inadvertent form of censorship?

Custodians of Guernica: From Picasso's Studio to Global Stages

Conceived in 1937, this magnum opus was Picasso's visual commentary on the brutal bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The sheer scale of the carnage and the targeting of innocent civilians in this act of terror deeply moved Picasso, compelling him to produce a work that would forever immortalise the tragedy and serve as a universal anti-war symbol.

However, with the ominous clouds of World War II gathering, the destiny of Guernica soon transcended Spain's borders. Recognizing the escalating global threat, Picasso decided that this invaluable piece should be safeguarded beyond the reach of political forces. In a move aimed at preserving the artwork, Guernica found temporary refuge at New York's Museum of Modern Art for 42 years. It stood there, thousands of miles away from its homeland, as a silent witness to the tumultuous events surrounding its native land.

Decades passed, and it was only in 1981, long after the war's end and Spain's transition to democracy, that Guernica finally made its triumphant return to Spanish soil. Initially showcased at the Prado, by 1992 it was transferred to its current abode, the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid, where it continues to captivate audiences with its raw emotional intensity.

Embracing or Endangering Art? The Rise of Selfie Culture in Museums

The smartphone has become as ubiquitous in museum galleries as hushed tones and placards explaining the provenance of artworks. The rise of selfie culture is dramatically altering the dynamics of art appreciation, particularly in the presence of blockbuster pieces like the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh's Starry Night. Once reverential spaces where art commanded undivided attention, museums are increasingly filled with patrons striving for the perfect snapshot, often with the artwork as a mere backdrop.

People holding up their smartphones to photograph the Mona Lisa inside the Louvre Museum. Photo by @jerrysaltz on Instagram

This trend caught the eye of art critic Jerry Saltz, who humorously captured the phenomenon with a photo of a crowd at the Louvre, all angling their phones to capture their moment with the Mona Lisa. The irony was palpable: crowds of people, ostensibly there to appreciate one of the most famous paintings in the world, were instead experiencing it through their phone screens.

So, what does this mean for art appreciation? On the one hand, selfies and social media sharing can heighten engagement and excitement about art. A well-timed post can bring awareness to a forgotten masterpiece or promote a temporary exhibition to a broader audience. Especially for younger generations, the social media experience is a part of their reality, and museums adapting to this can seem more accessible and relevant.

Interior view of The Louvre Museum. A crown of people taking photographs of the Mona LisaDaVinci Selfie by pxhere.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

However, there's also a valid counterargument: selfies can trivialise the experience that art is supposed to invoke. The focus shifts from the art itself to the individual, from appreciation to self-promotion. The atmosphere becomes less conducive to thoughtful contemplation, reducing a masterpiece to a mere prop for a photo op. Moreover, the incessant flashing and buzzing of smartphones can disrupt the experience for others, turning hallowed galleries into noisy arenas.

In the end, the question remains: is the selfie culture enhancing engagement or eroding the very essence of art appreciation? As museums globally grapple with this issue, it's clear that the selfie phenomenon is more than just a fad; it's a symptom of broader shifts in how we interact with art in the digital age.

The Museum's Justification for Lifting the Ban

“I would like us to reach one hundred per cent photographic accessibility, especially for a young audience that lives filtered by a screen. I think it is also important to pay attention to their way of approaching reality. ”
Manuel Segade, Director Reina Sofía Museum

Manuel Segade, the museum's new director, stated his ambitions candidly, focusing on making the art world more approachable. He conveyed his interest in welcoming a new transformation by "...softening the institutionality of the museum" and aiming "to make it easier for local communities to participate in the program."

Following Segade's vision, the decision to lift the photography ban aligns with a broader trend of democratising art spaces. This move not only bridges the gap between a revered masterpiece and its admirers but also acknowledges the evolving dynamics of how modern audiences engage with art. By allowing visitors to capture and share their moments with Guernica, the museum is fostering a deeper connection among the artwork and its viewers.

From a practical standpoint, the museum hopes that the change will improve visitor flow. A quick snap takes less time than prolonged observation, potentially reducing congestion in front of the painting. This approach reflects a marriage of practicality with Segade's broader vision of inclusivity and accessibility.

While Segade's vision is commendable in its intention of breaking down barriers and making art more accessible, the decision to lift the photography ban raises questions about the very essence of art appreciation. The museum is now placing a profoundly emotional representation of war in the midst of selfie-snapping tourists. Will the work still prompt the level of introspection it once did, or will it be reduced to a backdrop for social media profiles?

Controversies and Exceptions Surrounding the Ban

A particularly contentious chapter in Guernicas recent history surrounds the Rolling Stones' lead, Mick Jagger. Despite a strict photography ban in place, Jagger, during a private viewing while the museum was closed, was seemingly granted an exception, enabling him to photograph the acclaimed artwork. As word of this special privilege spread, the digital realm, particularly social media platforms, buzzed with disapproval and critique.

This incident spotlighted the often uneven terrain of art appreciation. Critics and public alike questioned: Should exceptions be made for celebrities? The backlash on social media was heated, with many arguing that art, especially something as historically significant as Guernica, shouldn't be subjected to favouritism based on one's celebrity status.

By privileging Jagger with a unique opportunity denied to everyday visitors, the museum inadvertently waded into the murky waters of art politics. It brought to the forefront concerns about whether art institutions, which often position themselves as democratically accessible spaces, inadvertently perpetuate certain hierarchies. If art serves as a mirror to society, then such exceptions hint at the preferential reflections cast by the powerful and celebrated.

While the decision to lift the photography ban might address and democratise access in some respects, past exceptions like Jagger's serve as reminders that art appreciation, like many domains, isn't always free from the dynamics of privilege and power.

Origins of the Guernica Photo Ban: Preservation or Censorship?

When the Reina Sofía Museum first placed a photography ban in 1992, the reasons behind such a decision were shrouded in a mix of practicality and philosophical debate. On the surface, many museum bans stem from a genuine concern for preserving the artwork. Constant flashes, over time, can degrade the colours and integrity of an art piece, especially older ones. This preservationist argument is not just about maintaining the physical attributes of the artwork, but also about preserving the aura and experience of viewing it.

“There becomes a concern that the museum becomes the backdrop to your perfect Instagram life, or that the museum shifts the design of exhibits to cater to create great Instagram moments, which could be seen as cheapening in some way.”
Nina Simon, author The Participatory Museum

By controlling how Guernica was viewed, the museum indirectly influenced the dialogue around it. This masterpiece, birthed in the horrors of war, has been a narrative of resistance, anguish, and the human cost of conflict. By limiting the ways in which audiences could interact with it, the museum ensured that Guernica was framed in its appropriate context. This approach, however, may invite scrutiny over who gets to shape our cultural memories and perceptions around art and the stories they tell.

Without the possibility of taking photos, visitors were placed in a purely observational role, potentially limiting personal interpretations or connections. The art world has long been accused of elitism, and such bans can inadvertently reinforce these barriers.

Was the ban a protective gesture, ensuring Guernica remained an untainted symbol of its era? Or did it also serve as a subtle gatekeeping mechanism, dictating how modern audiences should engage with art? The line between preservation and censorship, it appears, is a fine one.

Museums at a Crossroads

In an era where the tangible blends seamlessly with the virtual, museums stand at a crossroads. The Reina Sofía Museum's journey with Guernica – from protectionist policies to a more democratic approach – offers a microcosm of this evolving dynamic.

The move to lift the photography ban on Guernica serves as a testament to the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. The tug-of-war between preserving the sanctity of art and democratising its access remains ongoing. The inclusion of smartphones and selfie culture in the art appreciation narrative compels us to reflect on the very essence of engagement: What does it mean to truly "see" and "experience" a piece of art?

While the debate remains open-ended, one thing is evident: art, in all its forms, remains a living entity, ever-adaptive to the changing rhythms of the societies it graces.

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