Is Saatchi Gallery selfie exhibition just self-promotion?

George Harrison Image copyright Harrison family/PA
Image caption Taj Mahal Self-Portrait, a 1966 photograph by George Harrison that features in the exhibition

I have never taken a selfie. I'm far too ugly.

That said, I have ruined other people's, on those occasions when asked by a friend or arts fan to join them in a smartphone photo.

I'm happy to say yes - it's not as if I'm ever going to have to look back at the image.

I'd be horrified if I did, and mortified if it appeared in some public context like an art exhibition. I don't like causing offence.

Fortunately for us, such an occurrence is highly unlikely but it is possible, and increasingly so.

Selfie bandwagon

Selfie-themed exhibitions are to museums and galleries what dancefloors are to dads: a tempting opportunity to show how young and trendy they are while in reality communicating the exact opposite.

They all seem to be at it, from the venerable Mauritshuis in The Hague to the yoof-loving Tate Modern. The Saatchi Gallery is the latest to jump aboard the selfie bandwagon with a show it says "will be the world's first exhibition exploring the history of the selfie from old masters to the present day, and will celebrate the truly creative potential of a form of expression often derided for its inanity".

I'm not sure if the "world's first" claim is valid, but I'm absolutely certain that the long history of the self-portrait has not been "derided for its inanity".

Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption Helle Thorning Schmidt (centre) taking a selfie with David Cameron and Barack Obama

Some of the greatest works of art ever produced are self-portraits. We know that. It has long been a respected genre used by artists to demonstrate their virtuosity, while having the added advantage of the sitter/model being free.

Anyway, to compare a painstakingly painted Rembrandt self-portrait with an opportunist snap taken by Helle Thorning-Schmidt flanked by David Cameron and Barak Obama at Nelson Mandela's funeral is silly.

It's like equating the diary entry of a lovelorn teenager with a novel by Alice Munro - they don't stand comparison. Both have their place, both can be art, but they are quite different.

Brainstorming sessions

When I first heard about the show, it sounded like the sort of idea the gallery's communications department might come up with to attract "new audiences". And then I read the press release and discovered it WAS the communications department that came up with the concept.

It had help from a PR company called H+K Strategies, part of the globe-spanning WPP Group, which counts Huawei, a Chinese smartphone brand, among its clients. This is not an unconnected fact. Huawei are the sponsors of the Saatchi Gallery show.

In fact, according to the press release, they are its co-authors: "Saatchi Gallery and Huawei, the world's number three smartphone brand, announce they have teamed up to present From Selfie to Self-Expression."

Image copyright Cinzia Osele Bismarck/PA
Image caption The show also includes Cinzia Osele Bismarck's jellyfish selfie

One of the team from H+K Strategies to whom I spoke talked of brainstorming sessions between the parties.

She made no mention of breakout groups and brightly coloured pens - but I'd hazard a guess they were present. Selfie to Self-Expression feels like a show that started life writ large in pink letters (with yellow asterisk to the side) on front of a flip-chart.

'Good business is best art'

Huawei's involvement explains the comment in the press release about the self-portrait genre being "derided for its inanity". I don't think it meant self-portraiture, but selfie-portraiture.

This is a show designed to elevate the status of the selfie from what they say can be viewed as an inane activity to an artform. Hence the stated aim to "celebrate the creative potential of a form of expression…".

Add to this its commitment to "highlight the emerging role of the smartphone as an artistic medium for self-expression", and I think we know the corporate tail is wagging the art gallery dog.

I'm not saying this to criticise - needs must and all that. It might be a great show, and even if it isn't there is something marvellously Warholian about an art gallery founded by an ad man conceiving an exhibition with the world's largest ad agency network. As Warhol once said: "Good business is the best art."

The 'purposeful age'

No, the reason I mention the corporate sponsor is because I think its collaboration with the Saatchi Gallery is potentially more interesting than the show itself. The whole project would appear to be rooted in the notion of a new "purposeful age" in public relations as spelt out by H+K Strategies.

They say: "In the Purposeful Age companies and institutions have the opportunity to join a meaningful conversation around things that matter, take their place in culture and demonstrate their responsibility to society.

"At H+K our purpose in this new age is to inspire creative and curious conversations that help brands and the public communicate to build better outcomes for everyone."

Okay, it's a tad hyperbolic, but you've got to hand it to them - the Saatchi show is a good example of them practising what they preach.

It also helps makes sense of the whole enterprise, unifying the subject matter and the sponsor, which can be captured by simply adding three words to the current exhibition title: Selfie to Self-Expression - to Self-Promotion.


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