Beyond the Bubble: Are Selfies Art?

by Andrea Nease | 4/20/15 6:02pm

Considering the selfie to be photography may seem laughable, but perhaps it is a logical extension of self-portraiture in the digital age. Is the millennial generation, as many have argued, self-absorbed, or are youths these days following the tradition of showing themselves through images?

In 2013, Oxford Dictionaries editors named “selfie” the “word of the year” and added it to the dictionary with the definition, “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”

With this in mind, could a selfie, then, be called a self-portrait? Despite the historical treatment of portraiture as a respected creative form, your selfie is probably not art. Selfies, rather, have taken on a life of their own and, in the process, have blurred the public’s perception of what qualifies as art.

Esquire’s Stephen Marche said it best: “We still think of photographs as if they require effort, as if they were conscious works of creation. That’s no longer true...Now it’s just life. It is just part of the day... The selfie is the masturbation of self-image.”

But wait. Does this imply that all selfies are nothing more than masturbatory products of photography? I don’t necessarily think it does. I believe instead that a selfie can be art when the intention is there. Intention, though, also depends on the selfie’s subject. Miley? She’s taking a selfie for self-aggrandizement and for her fans’ attention or adoration. If you look elsewhere, however, like Rainer Schillings’ book “Leica Myself,” you’ll be more than surprised to find impressive, artfully rendered selfies. Regrettably, tasteful selfies supported by artistic intent are rare in comparison to the plethora of tacky mirror selfies that fill a single scroll through Instagram.

I do not think the selfie should be recognized as an emergent form of art in and of itself, but rather it should be recognized as a significant development of the modern era. Smartphones, webcams, applications, operating systems — they have all modified themselves in the interest of perpetuating the selfie.

The selfie is documentation, it is communication, it is self-representation — but not inherently art. Its value lies within its ability to capture any and every moment of our lives with convenience, and its power lies within the mass use of social media as a communicative tool for constructing one’s identity.

An article published by the Pacific Standard notes, “just as the affordability of mirrors drove the rise of self-portraits in Renaissance art, reversible cameras have made every smartphone owner into a Cindy Sherman or Nan Goldin.” Here’s where selfies connect back to the theory of their evolutionary relationship with historic self-portraiture — the selfie is not an artistic evolution of commissioned portrait paintings, it is a personal evolution of these portrait paintings.

We have not developed selfies as a new artistic form — we have developed selfies as the newest and easiest way to construct the world’s impression of us. Kings and queens paid skilled painters hefty sums in hopes of achieving a flattering portrait which would then serve as their filtered self-representation.

It is not a result of growing narcissism that selfies have gained so much popularity, but rather the popular use of the selfie is a result of the psychological desire to be seen. The feeling is not new to humans, but the technology that eases the fulfillment of these desires is.

Attachable filters for your iPhone, the selfie stick, high-resolution web cameras — they all work to enhance self-documentation. Without this technology, selfies might as well refer to painted self-portraits using a mirror.

Maybe there is hope yet for the selfie. Maybe, just as photography developed over time, selfies will develop as well. The selfie may not be traditional art due to the loss of conscious process and intent that traditional self-portraiture boasts, but the selfie does have a place in our lives past its presence in social media.