Words by Amy Cobb
If there’s one thing that our culture likes more than taking selfies, it is examining the role of the selfie in our culture. “Are selfies evidence that Millennials are as self-absorbed as we think?” we ask. “Are selfies art?” We feel that we shouldn’t love selfies, but that doesn’t stop us from compulsively using our front-facing cameras. We justify our love by looking for evidence of selfies in the past. Business Insider even covered what it calls “possibly the oldest documented selfie.” It’s as though we think we can deflect diagnoses of narcissism if people have always been documenting how they appear in a mirror or from an arm’s length away.
And people have, at least since the introduction of the mirror during the Renaissance. The availability of mirrors led to a rise in the creation of self-portraits—at this time painted, not photographed—and selfie-critics may be eager to point out that these works of art were not “selfie-portraits.” Nevertheless, back when Jan van Eyck painted a portrait commonly known as “Portrait of a Man in a Turban,” which is sometimes considered the first known self-portrait, it wasn’t nearly as easy to document oneself—you needed skills and material resources, both of which were only available to few. Now, anyone with a smartphone has the resources necessary to document their make-up or their mood. Just like the use of the mirror was a reflection of the culture during the Renaissance, our selfies reflect our current fast-paced, disposable culture. Given this similarity, is it necessary to distinguish the selfie from the self-portrait? And to that end, are selfies necessarily art informed by the tradition of self-portraiture?
The technical difference between a “selfie” and a “self-portrait” is that a selfie is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website,” while a self-portrait is defined as “a portrait of an artist produced or created by that artist.” What this tells us is that the difference between the two weights on who takes it—an artist or a non-artist. But what makes one an artist? Does the title come through the act of making art, or does it involve a self-identification that is affirmed by a benefactor or high-culture audience?
Perhaps the notion that “your selfie isn’t art” is outdated, a vestige of a distinction between “high” and “low” culture that expired the moment the Museum of Modern Art started welcoming video games into its permanent collection. This doesn’t mean, however, that elitist interpretations of culture don’t exist. The new “high culture” isn’t high culture as Susan Sontag considered it in Against Interpretation, in which she poses that “there is no “high” or “low” culture, no “good” or “bad,” only our interpretations and whatever cultural purpose we extract from them.” Today’s elite artist-photographers are “polymorphous, pluralistic” cultural omnivores.
In his article “The New Elitists,” Shamus Kahn argues that that elitism is no longer signified by a narrow pool of interests (such as consuming high art portraiture or opera); it is now signified by a “culture of individual self-cultivation.” It is costly to pursue an education in photography, or to develop a self that can claim a wide range of interests and talents—these pursuits becomes a privilege. This is not unlike the privilege hiding behind the mirror of early self-portraiture—the high price of skills and material resources. Naturally, elite artist-photographers want to exhibit the visual signifiers of their cultured selves in selfies. Juxtapose a Miley Cyrus t-shirt and a Cindy Sherman reference, and you have an artist presenting the ideal version of herself to interested consumers.
The idea of the photograph as an instrument of aesthetic consumerism isn’t new, either. In On Photography, Susan Sontag talks about how “[n]eeding to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” and she died before “selfie” made its way into the common vernacular. Selfies allow us to confirm that we exist, and enhance our experience of ourselves by allowing us to curate ourselves in our ideal image. In a sense, we are selling the viewer—and ourselves—an intentional best version of ourselves, and Sontag is right—we’re addicted to the resulting affirmation. Like any good addict, we’ve developed ample justifications for what consumes us. We generate cultural analysis. We look back at history, say, “It has always been this way.”
When it comes to self-portraiture, perhaps it has. Van Eyck’s “Man in a Turban” is not as disposable or as instantaneous as a selfie, but serves a similar function. Painted self-portraits leave even more room for the portrayal of an ideal self, though those who are not privileged enough to have read Sontag might argue that the photograph is necessarily a more faithful representation of reality. Nevertheless, the camera was but a dream back when van Eyck painted, and though not considered documentary, self-portraits were assumed to be representational. We can glean similar information from “Portrait of a Man in a Turban” as we can from a selfie. We see that the eye is drawn to a rich, red headwear, a garment commonly worn by men of van Eyck’s social position. Additionally, the ends are tied up and this serves as a subtle signification that Eyck is an artist that wouldn’t want to get his clothes in his paint. Eyck presents the viewers with Eyck the elite artist, the self that he wanted the viewer to consume, just as our hypothetical artist selfie would include signifiers of cultural omnivorism.
Perhaps, in the context of the history of self-portraiture, selfies do what we’ve always done in the pursuit of self-representation: use the tools available within our culture to try to know ourselves and to try to make ourselves likeable and worth of consideration by others. In No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton writes that “[a]rt enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” There are as many definitions of art as there are artists, but this definition certainly holds true for the selfie. The selfie allows us to see ourselves, to adjust our face in the initial image so that it says what we want to say, and then we “lose ourselves” by sharing the image with the world, by giving this instant of our cultivated self away.
About the author: Amy Cobb takes selfies but never shares them. She is media refugee turned blogger who, since jumping ship from the Fourth Estate, blogs on all things media and media-education-related. She works on cataloguing the best schools for http://www.photography-colleges.com. When not writing, Amy is thwarted by square foot gardening or playing with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Snarls Barkley.