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I, too, want to slap myself on the wrist for using the words selfie and art in the same sentence. For those of you pacifist readers who don’t feel that punitive desire, thank you, but I come from a Catholic school education where forcing a naive child’s head in a trash can was not uncommon (true story), so I understand the inclination.
I am quite certain that the selfie will not take up camp in an art history textbook any time soon—not because of its newness, but because I don’t believe such a narrow form of self-representation could be a precedent for any other meaningful works of art. Ouch.
But then again, other narcissistic forms of art have made their way into the canon of art history.
Historically, the subjects of portraiture were primarily rich and powerful men—and religious figures—who were deemed important enough to be honored with a work of art bearing their image.
It is not new knowledge that these status-seeking persons propagated the artistic career. They depended on artists to produce glorifying and favorable depictions of them, positioning them—literally and symbolically—in a way that represented authority. And artists, in turn, depended on these self-righteous benefactors to pay the bills.
Soon, though, artists began inserting images of themselves into their work, considering the craft to be more than just an act of servitude.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), for example, who I will call the Trump of the 15th century art world, was an artist highly conscious of his public image and reputation. He painted himself onto a variety of surfaces, including altarpieces. He even went so far as to picture himself in an almost identical likeness of the previous representations of Jesus Christ. Yes, THE Jesus Christ, complete with a brown robe, long brown hair, scruffy beard, and angled features.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
If you think that such a vision of self is uncommon, think again. I dated a man once who compared himself and his nomadic way of life to Jesus. He was an artist and we are no longer together, in case you were wondering.
So apparently this is a thing. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), who is recognized as the leader of the French Realist movement, also pictured himself as Jesus. (Can you name any female artists who depicted themselves in the likeness of the Virgin Mary? If so, please share in the comment box below). As for Courbet, instead of rendering his self-portrait in the footsteps of Dürer’s strong authoritarian man, he portrayed himself as a “Wounded Man,” an artist who—as descried in the textbooks—sacrificed his comfortable bourgeoisie lifestyle to live like a bohemian in Paris.
Before you reach for your ruler again, hold on. There was some honor to Courbet’s practice.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courbet did not fame himself off painting the rich and famous. In fact, he deserted the glamorous lifestyle and pictured—with centuries of artists following him—everyday, ordinary people (the laborers and housewives, for example) in an attempt to show the reality behind his country’s politics. He pictured the working class with unprecedented honesty, hence his association with the realist movement.
The above-mentioned self-portraits, despite revealing a vainglorious sense of self, showed us something important: Jesus was a complex man. He was a martyr, an authority figure and a downright good-looking guy.
So which image is real? We know painting is a subjective medium, and that a painting of a cat could more closely resemble a toaster with eyes, but what about the supposedly objective medium of photography? If Jesus had an Instagram, would we have a better sense of who the man actually was?
I am inclined to say no.
The collective shift into a world of selfies—in which users can picture themselves in whatever fashion, position, mood, in front of any background or setting, with whatever persona they desire—has killed any form of realism that may still have been lurking in our contemporary, image-based culture.
Despite my snide criticism of the effects of the selfie culture, I do believe this medium has the potential to bring back some of the realism it destroyed.
This can only happen when we openly acknowledge that the selfie and other depictions of the self created on social media profiles is a construction, one that should not be the basis for the “I-wish-I-was-more-like-INSERT-USER-NAME-HERE” mentality.
There have been plenty of artists who have resisted the belief that photography and video are objective mediums depicting a concrete truth; Cindy Sherman, Vito Acconci, and Barbara Aronofsky are three that come to mind.
Side note about video art: Before it became accepted inside the art world, it was coined as being the most narcissistic medium to date by theorist and critic Rosalind Kraus in her paramount 1976 essay “Video Art: The Aesthetics of Narcissism.” Both Acconci and Aronofsky were mentioned in her writing.
The fame surrounding the works of such artists was due to their critiques of the chosen media itself. In other words, they use the characteristics of video and photography—such as the ability to allow an artist to view and record themselves simultaneously—to critique the multitude of effects such visual outlets have on the ever-burgeoning class of narcissists, especially their role in constructing identities that are not at all related to a true sense of self.
Even before the democratization of media went into full effect, these pioneers of mass-sharing technologies understood that no one benefits from a culture of personalization and narcissism, except, of course, the companies whose profit depends on the sharing of such useless data. I’m talking about the Facebooks and the Twitters here.
“Maybe it’s just the art critic in me that wanted to progress into a world of constant criticism from a world of acceptance.”
Outside of the art world, I am sad to say, these works often arrive with a reaction not unlike that of a child who watches a monkey pick lice off its genitals. The brilliancy is overshadowed by our need for entertainment and/or eye candy, an expectation that is engrained in our psyche when it comes to spending time observing a visual medium. After all, who wants to watch a mediocre-looking man point to the center of the screen for 20 minutes?
I’m a millennial so I don’t either, but I understand the significance.
This begs the question, then, what is so entertaining about the selfie? My only suspicion is that is has nothing to do with the act of viewing, but more to do with the act of creating and the instant gratification of receiving affirmation that we are, in fact, liked.
I understand the high that comes from receiving a high number of <3s under an image of yourself, I do. A little smirk appears on my face each time I get a new notification that someone has liked me.
The reality behind this subconscious reaction—which I am only now admitting to myself—makes me wonder if the age of the selfie could actually be a new age of realism, one that is showcasing—even though it is not fully self-aware (yet)—the warped sense of self that I so adamantly criticized in the paragraphs above.
Maybe it’s just the art critic in me that wanted to progress into a world of constant criticism from a world of acceptance.
In my hypothetical Orwellian future, I am starting to see the possibility of a Sexy Selfie exhibition and that terrifies me, not just because of the aesthetics of the work (well, maybe that’s not entirely true), but more because it shows the culture of today, which I am very much a part of.