Narcissus Had No Selfie Stick

They are banned in many galleries, concert venues and amusement parks. But when I visited the Vatican Museums last week, they appeared in front of every painting and every sculpture: selfie sticks. Like a monumental collage work, Raphael and Caravaggio patched with shiny smartphones mounted on long silvery sticks. It was amusing in the beginning, to watch people absolutly missing some of the most profound works in human history because they were busy photographing themselves. But after a while, as it became almost impossible to observe the works without the permanent company of those sticks, I couldn’t help but wondering: will art survive this?

The tragedy of Narcissus wasn’t that he loved himself. But rather that this love made him incapable of loving others and therefore sentenced him to a life of desperate loneliness. As handsome as he was, his inability to see the beauty in others was eventually what caused his death. The story of Narcissus has several versions which all have a similar ending: he dies while watching his own reflection and transforms into a beautiful flower. Do we – immortals with selfie sticks – become flowers on our self portrayed versions? If we rush through unimaginable beauty, such as Raphael’s Transfiguration, stop in front of it for just as long as needed to take a photo of ourselves with the background of a masterpiece and then run along towards the next one, as if such works are always going to be there for us to enjoy; if we lack the ability to appreciate their immense value unless our own faces appear in the frame – doesn’t it mean that we lost the ability to enjoy art?

We live in an era of massive documentation. It is a brutal atmosphere in which we feel nothing has value, nothing had actually happened unless we successfully documented it. In other words, we cannot enjoy something unless we know it is safely stored on some digital memory card. Because we know: without documentation, we will not be able to remember anything that had happened. Without creating more stored information, we will not be able to hold on to any part of the gigantic amount of information which floods every minute of our lives.

As I was walking through the museum, unable to observe the works of art without the aggressive interruptions of the selfie sticks, I was thinking to myself: thank goodness, that photographing and recording in public concerts are almost always forbidden. In some ways, music might be in a safe zone due to the simple fact that it is much less visual. Documenting a musical experience can be meaningful only by recording audio, which doesn’t really shout out as typical social media material. An amusing thought – a musical adaptation to the selfie stick: a tiny microphone which allows us to singalong during a concert and record ourselves with the accompaniment of, let’s say – Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, played by the Berliner Philharmonic! Now that is more likely to go on Facebook!

But seriously. Narcissism, lack of officiant attention and an uncontrolled need to document are naturally apparent among musicians and music lovers as well. Sometime ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to this video, where one single cellist plays all parts in an arrangement of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings:

I love arrangements and enjoy making them myself. But there is something unfortunate in these kind of youtube performances (which are so common), where one single person plays all parts in a chamber or orchestral music piece. Much like Narcissus – regardless of how beautiful this one single person plays, the action of overdubbing the same person again and again, in reality, diminishes a lot of what the composer originally meant. No more humane communication between different musicians, no more variety of tone-colours and personalities. Barber’s music will now be played by me and by me only. You can now enjoy my high editing skills and a sharp moving picture of myself, four times.