Under the pretense that I was an artist, and that the lives of artists should be documented through self-portraiture, I began taking photos of myself around 2000. At that time the idea of turning a camera on one’s self was still commonly seen as odd, despite (or perhaps because of) the sudden proliferation of bad MySpace mirror profile pics. While the practice of spontaneous digital self-portraiture received an enormous boost of in 2013 due to increased usage of camera phones and image-based social media services like Instagram, many still view the practice of taking a selfie as odd or worse–vain, absurd and a reflection of the millennial generation’s self-obsession and inability to enjoy the present moment. But what happens when an artist makes an image of herself? Where is the line between a selfie (#selfie) and self-portraiture?
The artist has long enjoyed a special status in culture, an expectation of self-centeredness or even self-obsession. Thanks to Van Gogh and many others, the self-portrait is connected with ideas of authorship, genius and creative struggle. Strictly speaking, the selfie is a photograph taken with a digital camera and posted to a social network. However, self-portraiture is inherently social in nature; through painting or photographing their own faces and bodies, artists attempt to reveal to others some aspect of their very essence or being. What could be more social than that?
Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with a bandage on his ear is perhaps the art world’s first #selfie in that it succinctly captures the image-maker in a peculiar moment. While the source of Van Gogh’s injury is still unclear, one thing is certain–the event involved his man-crush of the moment and fellow post-impressionist Paul Gaugin. Perhaps, Van Gogh cut off his own ear in a fit of depression upon hearing Gaugin’s decision to leave their yellow house studio in Arles, France. Or, was it Gaugin that sliced it off during a fencing accident? Either way, the image is nothing if not a provocative update about Van Gogh’s status.
For centuries the words visual artist essentially meant image maker. An image-maker was a particular kind of person and making compelling images required life-long dedication and skill. Now that photographic and digital media technologies have become less expensive and the speed of transmission is approaching instantaneous (i.e. Instagram), nearly anyone with the means and motivation to acquire and learn to use a cell phone can become a prolific–although not necessarily adept–visual creator. This renders the majority of self-portraits in existence anything but artistic. Could an unending stream of images tagged #bored, #drunk, and #cleave really be Joseph Beuys’ dream of the democratization of art?
Since the Renaissance, the self-portrait has been a form of advertising. We feel no shame; as artists, self-promotion is a necessary part of life, for who can survive without patrons? Thus, the self-portrait has survived and enjoyed lasting popularity in art as a two-punch tool: a way to communicate proficiency in one’s chosen medium while maintaining appearances. But Millennials in the twitterverse are not searching for their Medicis. We (and I use “we” loosely as I am caught between Millennial and Gen-X stereotypes) have been voraciously consuming–or reluctantly swallowing–images our entire lives. Why should the right and responsibility to promote and preserve one’s image be reserved for artists and corporations? Seen in this light, the selfie is subversive: The audience becomes the artist, the consumer becomes the producer selling herself back to the world.
For all the selfie’s alluring sociopolitical ramifications and high entertainment value, the quick digital image simply neglects to do well the things that art does well. The selfie does not conform to the elements and principles of design. The selfie is of a positively low-quality. The selfie is impulsive. But isn’t that precisely its charm? The selfie does not apologize for its vanity nor attempt to hide its self-consciousness. The self-portrait, on the other hand, takes itself so seriously that the posturing of artists is often comical. After decades of living in a culture of government and corporate lying and spying, is it any wonder that Millenials distrust the idea of authenticity itself?
The bad selfie (and most are bad) could be seen as a reflection of the distrust of propaganda (as evidenced by the hashtag “nofilter”): a willingness to put oneself on display without the handling, designing, research and development, testing, photoshoping, retouching, reshooting, retooling, editing and censoring, all the artifice of bureaucracy. The artist too, unfortunately, has no choice but to self-censor, selecting and editing ad nauseam, having lived forever with an unforgiving, internal overlord, possessed by the specter of art history and bent on getting things just right. Just maybe, the less a selfie resembles a self-portrait, the closer the image is to truth. For to create art is to lie. To represent is to misrepresent, and to create a self-portrait is to, well, #filter.
Van Gogh was indeed an interpreter (not a truth teller) but his willingness to interpret, to stretch, to bend and color made him a master and a great innovator of modern art. His paintings are some of the most moving works of all time, in any media; in the strokes you feel his presence, his suffering, his joy, his life. This connection with future viewers, forged by a willingness to overshare, secured his legacy. Most people will never attempt to become great painters or photographers. But our desire to share our sadness and madness and joy and everything between through images with any available technology is a reflection of our humanness. Unfortunately, a quick look at the latest selfies in my feed reveals that society at large still has a great deal of catching up to do–the artist has been sharing for a long, long time.
For a continued exploration of this topic in a fun way, I created an Instagram account dedicated to self-portraits of artists. Follow me on your cell phone or browse the images so far at instagram.com/artselfie.