James Needham’s bathroom painting proves art is doomed in the selfie age

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This portrait of the artist and his wife may be hugely popular on social media, but its intimacy and humanity just as with a photographic selfie is fake

Painting can be popular in the digital age, provided it washes out all aesthetic ambition and reduces the 600 years of art history since the Renaissance to the level of a glorified selfie.

That is the lesson of the internet popularity of Sydney artist James Needhams double portrait of himself and his wife in their bathroom. Needhams mediocre daub has been shared almost a million times on Imgur. But why?

Its moderately funny. She is cleaning her teeth. He is sitting on the toilet, Penguin Classic in hand. The shower mercifully obscures his buttocks. Its a private moment between a couple that has been turned into a public image shared with hundreds of thousands of strangers.

But you see what I mean by a glorified selfie. Apart from the fact it has been painted rather than snapped with a phone, this picture has exactly the same appeal as Kim Kardashians intimacies. Well, almost. Its got the unbuttoned spontaneity that selfie culture celebrates and the same deadening superficiality.

The very thing that makes this painting an online hit is what makes it worthless as art: the fact that it sucks up to modern photographys lowest common denominator. Some painters make brilliant use of photographs, transforming the images all around us into something more monumental and permanent: the first painter to reimagine photographs in this way was Degas in the 19th century and it has since been done with insouciant brilliance by Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter. But instead of elevating photography into painting, Needham has lowered painting to the triviality of instantaneous self-portraituree.

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar
The real deal Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, Combing the Hair (La Coiffure), about 1896. Photograph: The National Gallery, London

The resulting intimacy and humanity just as with a photographic selfie is fake. This is not a good portrait. While Needham has moderate technical skill, he has not looked hard enough or perceptively enough to give his painting any real insight. If you think this is a tough realist portrait, look again. Needhams vision has all the profundity of a 1970s sitcom.

Real portraiture goes a lot further. Compare this painting with any work by Lucian Freud and you will start to see the difference between an artist filling canvas and an artist actually seeing people in a special, unique way.

The selfie age is a tragedy for art. It has convinced everyone that art is something we can all do with a phone and a cheeky pose. Billions of complacent self-images are filling the cyberspace void. Needhams online hit is proof that all this photographic narcissism is poisoning the way we look at real art as well. We now want paintings to deliver the same cheap and instant illusion of connection selfies do. To fit into this age of rampant populism, all art has to do is descend into this vacuum of deluded sociability.

Is this where painting ends, in a bathroom in Sydney?

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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