Art, Travel & Life in Italy & Europe

Katy Perry and her Instagram of the David: smut, contextualized

Ever since state museums in Italy began permitting photography last summer, I’ve been keeping close tabs on what people photograph in the Uffizi and the Accademia (summing up part of this research at the three month mark here). So it came as no surprise to me that when Katy Perry visited Florence in the last few days, she took the obligatory selfies in front of the most important works: Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and Michelangelo’s David. In the first, she and her assistant make silly faces (why, I wonder?), and in the second, she plays into a much abused trope: gesturing to David’s penis.

Katy Perry's Instagram photo of the David. Source @katyperry

Katy Perry’s Instagram photo of the David. Source @katyperry

Reactions to the photo on social media have ranged from appreciation of the promotion of our tourism in Italy, passing through giggles for the cheesy humour, to downright indignant comments. Champions of this city’s culture on this Facebook post that I put on The Florentine embody the latter.

I beg to put the photo into context.

I am not a particular fan of Katy Perry, and don’t know much about the girl, but what she has done mimics and is in line with what hundreds of thousands of tourists from numerous countries around the world have done in the same location. To me, she’s demonstrating that she is relatively average.

Statistically, if we look at photos on Instagram that are geolocalized “Galleria dell’Accademia,” about 90 percent are photos of the David. Of these, about one in every five is a selfie with him, and every few selfies, we see a person either gesturing to or pinching the penis. Variants include cupping the genitals, pointing to the rear end, or putting a finger up the rear end. Perry is doing what a good ten percent of the population spontaneously does in front of this statue, and nobody is up in arms about those photos. Did she also pause to appreciate it? Probably (she’s been known to visit museums before), but she has an image to keep up with her fans – the bad girl doing stupid things (as for what she did with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, well, that’s going too far).

Instagram user @basinou - I give these Erasmus students the prize for most original use of this pose.

Instagram user @basinou – I give these Erasmus students the prize for most original use of this pose.

From the point of view of an art historian, I find this photo a fascinating contribution to my ongoing observation of how people look at art, and what they choose to share about that experience. In a conversation with Victor Coonin, author of a book about Michelangelo’s David, and a group of licensed tour guides to Florence, the guides admitted that one of the most frequent questions that people have regard the statue’s modest endowment and lack of circumcision. This, and the sexuality of the David in general, is amply addressed in Coonin’s book. The professor justifies the small genitals as a mark of the biblical figure being in control of his own urges, in contrast to contemporary images of satyrs and other figures representing “evil” sexuality. This is a valid question. It’s something that surprises many viewers; some say nothing, others comment on it privately, others, still, share it on Instagram, now that this format is available to us.

Instagram user @minimiiko - Not just an American pastime, this Japanese tourist also plays with perspective in the gallery.

Instagram user @minimiiko – Not just an American pastime, this Japanese tourist also plays with perspective in the gallery.

Perry is hardly “keeping it classy” by gesturing to the masterpiece’s private parts. With the photo garnering half a million “likes” in a few hours, it’s true that she sets a bad example, and we don’t condone that. On the other hand, digital marketing expert Gabriele Granato eloquently argues on Facebook that “good communication means getting a clear message across to the right people. These photos perfectly hit the target of a tourism campaign: young foreigners who don’t know the beauties of our country.” Granato jokes about making Perry Minister of Tourism.

Instagram @brittneyaland | This user means no disrespect, and had me laughing out loud. She says shes "still in awe of the David".

Instagram @brittneyaland | This user means no disrespect, and had me laughing out loud. She says shes “still in awe of the David”.

Museum-going is evolving, whether we like it or not, and photography in museums is part of this. Recent research on the motivation behind museum visits in the United States cites socializing and “experience” before the actual art. When traveling, for many people, museums represent ticks on a bucket list. Photography and the phenomenon of “museum selfies” brings this social experience to social media, allowing people to share declarations of “we were here” with friends afar. Perry is to be commended for ticking the Uffizi and the Accademia off her list (during regular opening hours for tourists, without special privileges) while also ticking off a number of Italy-lovers through her crass photography. Yet her tasteless photos reflect and mimic the thoughts and actions of numerous visitors; it’s hardly worth a scandal.

 

UPDATE: With thanks to Michiel of Minor Sights for bringing up an interesting issue, that of museum photography in itself, I’d like to point out a few references for further reading:

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By: arttrav

Alexandra Korey aka ArtTrav is a Florence-based art historian and arts marketing consultant.

  • http://www.minorsights.com Minor Sights

    Hi Alexandra, I don’t think the decision to allow picture-taking in those Italian museums was a good one.

    I recently visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. After many years of renovation, this great museum is now mobbed by selfie-taking hordes. It’s impossible to take a good look at the artworks as many people spend more time fiddling with phones/cameras and posing than that they actually spend looking at the paintings. It’s maddening for those of us who do want to take a good look at some of these paintings.

    And have look at this picture i took in the Louvre a few weeks ago:
    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-e9-w-2lu8-8/VLGlyas2uYI/AAAAAAAACzk/3Yli2RtRlBw/s1600/20150104-P1043427.jpg

    On the other hand, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, equally busy, had a strict ‘no photo’ policy. Although still crowded, i thought it was a breath of fresh air.

    People don’t take pictures because they want to study the painting later. (and if that’s what they want, they can buy a postcard or use google images). They just want to share/show off where they’ve been. This is easily solved. Simply put a few reproductions of the ‘must-see’ artworks at the entrance. That allows people to take their ‘look at me’ snaps in a designated space, without bothering those who came for teh art.

    And that’s exactly what the Van Gogh had done. People were taking group pictures in front of a giant replica of the sunflowers. Problem solved.

  • Paula

    It just demonstrates how immature she really is! We visited the gallery and were so intent on viewing the beautiful sculpture from all angles as well as negotiating the masses of people there that it didn’t even occur to me to take ridiculous selfies!

  • Max Leggett

    Alexandra, you’re much more patient with illiterate n trash than I am.

  • Christina

    Great points! Given the tourist kitsch available in Florence, it seems like David’s nudity reduces most people to giggling children. Celebrities have definitely taken worse or at least more insensitive selfies. I don’t get why people are so upset about this one. I generally have a low opinion of museum selfies, but I get what she’s doing here.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Christina
    Thanks, I’m glad we see eye to eye!
    On the matter of museum selfies, are you familiar with some of the interesting theoretical literature on the matter? Allie Burness has been studying museum selfies from the start, and uses them to help museums use them as an evaluative data source, similar (though in a deeper way) to what I have done here.

    I just re-read a post I helped with to a certain extent here: http://museuminabottle.com/2014/04/07/mementos-of-remembrance-connecting-us-through-art/
    It’s about a friend we had in common, who died young, and who used to send people around the world on art missions to photograph themselves with works of art. What he did was exceptional, very different from the case at hand for sure, but take a look at the post if you’re interested in this kind of thing.

    Cheers
    AMK

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    ha ha, thanks Max. I just happen to see deeper into this trash than most.

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Paula
    Thanks for your reflection. You’re right, I’ve been like yo and spent hours looking at David. But I also tried to sneak a photo back in the day when you couldn’t, and as soon as it was allowed, I did take a silly selfie (not holding the privates, but looking sneaky and excited) and posted it on Facebook. People smarter than I have eloquently explained this urge as “hunting and gathering”, the desire to bring home a souvenir of one’s own being in the museum space.
    best regards
    Alexandra

  • http://www.arttrav.com arttrav

    Hi Michiel,
    You’ve raised a really interesting point, though it’s actually a *different* point than that being discussed here, and I’ve purposefully avoided writing a whole article on the pros and cons of photography being allowed in the museum because there are theorists who have done this much better than I have, and I don’t think I have anything to add.
    I have stated elsewhere and repeat here that I AM in favour of permitting photography in museums. What is missing is a better regulation of people, of their manners and respect for the museum space.

    On the matter, see the interesting talk by Sarah Hromack on museum selfies – she’s the digital media director at the Whitney, and at the end of this video she talks about how they are currently (1 year ago) working on figuring out how to permit photography while preserving a form of museum sanctity (not her words).

    On photography at the National Gallery of London much has been written, but I recall one particularly good article that mentioned that MOST of the rooms were NOT overrun by selfie takers, and that attempts to take silly selfies were silently shamed by guards and fellow visitors to the point that good behavioural rules made the journalist opt against it. A reflection that basically proves the point: it’s not the rule but the people that are the problem.

    See also: Artnet news recognizes the publicity benefit of a Katy Perry visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, documented on Instagram: http://news.artnet.com/in-brief/katy-perry-takes-selfie-with-american-gothic-78202

    On the matter of using reproductions as a substitute, that may be a solution for some people. It’s not, however, for those of us who really want to document the “truth” of having “been there”.

    I could go on. I may have to write that long article one day!!
    AMK