August 2nd, 2010 / 2:20 pm

Dick in a box

With the new iPhone’s video chat, a second built-in camera faces the user, whose image is shown in the interface as a kind of tiny self-portrait. Of the many narratives instilled in their recent advertising campaign, a women tells her husband that she’s expecting (expectation being Apple’s entire marketing ethos). We the consumer become the husband, experiencing a half-life of their fantasy. In the ad, a perfect hand holds the phone — a model’s, though we accept it as the husband’s, faithful of the narrative.

In Velasquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656), the artist is shown painting a portrait of the Spanish king and queen, who are reflected in a mirror at the end of the room. (It is argued whether the image in the mirror is a reflection of the painted canvas, or the actual king and queen.) What we see is what the king and queen are seeing while posing for their portrait: their daughter in the center and her entourage of helpers. The genius is that the viewer [you], by virtue of witnessing this scene, become the surrogate king and queen. The painting itself — the one you’re looking at — is merely the scene during the painting of the “actual” portrait of the king and queen. The intention of the painting is inverted, incidental. The painting simultaneously functions as a) a self-portrait of Velasquez, b) a portrait of the King’s daughter, c) a portrait of the king and queen, and most importantly, d) a portrait of the viewer.

Sorry for being so pedantic, it’s a tic. As for the mysterious man standing in the doorway, it’s accepted that it’s the Queen’s chamberlain, and his quick departure from the room (though some think he’s entering) suggests that is not all he is. It’s also believed that the man is Velasquez’s brother, which may explain how the artist gained such intimate access to their living quarters.

G-chat refers to the account holder as “me,” turning our lives into a first person account of ourselves, as if one needed to be reminded of exactly who we were. Our inadvertent video chat self-portraits are, in a weird way, a necessary affirmation of self, a Velasquezian trick. In Las Meninas, the viewer becomes fully manifested simply by existing, standing there in front of the painting, embracing the surrogate role of king and queen. From the mirror to the camera 350 years later, the same story is being told: a hopeful couple and their child, deceit outside the frame. The cynical part of me wonders if the child in the iPhone ad is really his, too much Maury Povich for me. Tolstoy once said something about unhappy families, so I’ll say something about unhappy people: I never video chat, can’t stand the sight of some dick in a box.

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