It’s official, 2013 was the year of the selfie. The Guardian called the selfie: ‘one of the cultural markers of our time’, and as much as it grates me to admit it, they have a point.
Oxford Dictionaries documented a 17,000% rise in the word’s usage and named ‘selfie’ the Word of 2013. It seems everyone, from Obama and David Cameron at Nelson Mandela’s funeral, to the Pope, were doing it. Kelly Brook instigated a self-imposed ban on posting selfies, only to break it a few hours later accompanied by a ‘Couldn’t resist!! Lol xxxx’ message. And for me, 2013 was the year when seeing a stranger on public transport hold up their phone and strike a pose, induced a nonchalant assumption that they were sending a Snapchat, rather than dismissing them as an incredibly vain social leper. The normality and proliferation of ‘the selfie’ brought about by apps like Snapchat, have arguably made sending a selfie as normal as sending a text. Is this an embodiment of the narcissism of our generation? An indication of the devaluation of the image in an increasingly visual culture? Or is it a legitimate means of self-expression with artistic roots in the genre of self-portraiture?
Self-portraiture has always been dogged by the Greek myth of Narcissus; the genre seeped in notions of vanity and self-consciousness. Coming to prominence in the context of increased emphasis on the individual during the Renaissance era, historically self-portraiture has been a functionally diverse genre. Utilising the self as a subject has been an artistic method of ‘signing’ work, of indicating social status, exploring the notion of identity, or merely a result of a lack of other available models. However, in all of its guises self-portraiture centres around the notion of redefining the self, of projecting a considered image of the self into the public arena, much like the modern selfie.
The narcissism of a selfie is arguably no more than that of the artist painting a self-portrait. Egon Schiele depicted himself numerous times, stating, ‘I am so rich I have to give myself away,’ a philosophy seemingly similar to the publishing of selfies on social networking sites. The 2013 National #Selfie Portrait Gallery Exhibition made the connection explicit in a group installation of short-form video self-portraits by 19 international artists, forcing the cultural phenomenon of the selfie into a self-consciously ‘artistic’ category. The curators Kyle Chaka and Marina Galperina highlighted the commonality of impulse behind selfies and self-portraiture – namely, ‘to make yourself look awesome.’
What then makes these two ‘genres’ distinct? There is a fundamental disparity in format, ultimately the improvised rapidity of the selfie, and the considered, laborious painting of traditional self-portraiture. In many ways it is a travesty to even be discussing selfies alongside the immensely skilled work of great masters such as Rembrandt van de Rijn (who depicted himself in over 90 works). The considered, reflective nature of self-portraiture as an artistic medium has resulted in many gruellingly self-critical works. As a means of self-reflection it is common for the artist to depict themselves in an unflattering light, a notable example being Caravaggio’s depiction of himself as the bleeding severed head of Medusa, or the less graphic haggard appearance of Da Vinci in his only known surviving self-portrait, which depicts a much older and frailer man than he feasibly would have been at the time. The selfie is thus a far cry from the self-evaluative process of many artists creating self-portraits. It is a superficial snapshot, rapidly taken and quickly forgotten.
However as a means of documentation the selfie is just as legitimate as self-portraiture, and in many ways is a manifestation of the older cultural form. Furthermore, for all of its shallow connotations, the selfie has brought a new level of intimacy to modern communication. There is something infinitely more personal about seeing the face of who you communicate with, hence the rise of technology which facilitates this, such as Skype and Snapchat. The buzz around portraits or self-portraits of the past was the idea of putting a face to a name, of seeing the face of an artist or socially prominent figure before the invention of photography. Human beings are visual creatures, and we crave to see who we speak of or to. In many ways we are thus privileged to live in the Selfie era, narcissistic or not. The National #Selfie Portrait Gallery exhibition is no doubt just the beginning of an artistic engagement in what has become a central part of our visual culture. As a product of our society the selfie will no doubt become the subject of art in the near future, dissected and reflected back at us in all of our snap happy glory.
By Imogen Grant