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Discussion On Whether Selfie Can Be Considered Art

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The term selfie was first coined in 2002, describing a self portrait taken on a low fi front facing camera, commonly shared via social media. Generally, they are read as an indicator of vanity. Self portraits however are not a recent phenomenon. The earliest self portrait dates back to 1839 where Robert Cornelius snapped a portrait of himself using a daguerreotype camera- capturing himself as a pioneer of photography. Self portraits’ can be seen throughout the history of art in all mediums, and the debut of the portable camera in the 1900s made them common practice. The artists self portrait was an exhibit of skill and to test the limits of photography of the time. There has been recent debate in the media over whether or not there are real differences between the modern selfie and the self portrait of the artist. This essay will argue that despite the selfie increasing our potential for communication it cannot be compared to the photographs of skilled photographers, and that the selfies nature of being send out into the public domain of social media for validation could only achieve personal empowerment if kept for oneself.

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The selfie is ultimately a social phenomenon and therefore can be read as a form of social reaction. On Instagram in particular, communities have formed around liking photos and showing support. Online friendships and relationships are common practice in our digital age and the face of the person you are speaking to makes these internet friendships more intimate. However, this intimacy can not be credited wholly to the selfie as a family photo would achieve the same result. The selfie appears to be more than an act of narcissism when you consider conversation through snapchat, there seems to be a rapidly developing preference for online conversations to use image over word. Long distance friendships are better upheld than before, selfies upkeep visual connections which can be argued to have a larger impact than that of text. Snapchat was the forerunner of temporary social media – posts that last 24 hours or less, and private photos that disappear in 10 seconds. It could be argued that knowing these sorts of images won’t be seen and judged by the masses over a long period of time means that people post their more authentic self on these temporary stories. Social media has undoubtably created a sense of urgency and the need to share, therefore developing our communication with one another for better or for worse. However, the selfie itself is only part of this and cannot be credited wholly to improved communication. Digital developments and the fast onset of facebook changed the way we communicate by allowing us to talk to our friends online and post photos of what we are doing. However these photos have the same effect whether selfie or a photo that has been taken of us so the rise of the selfie cannot take all gratification for a generational obsession with sharing.

Despite the argument that the rise of the selfie can be credited to our generation’s constant communication, the selfie is most often read as an act of narcissism. The selfie is a poised image projecting the best version of oneself to the world. Applications like snapchat and Instagram have enabled the use of filters allowing low fi means of photo editing. But the purpose of these edits is most often to alter the lighting or tone of the photo to be more aesthetically pleasing- presenting the visual self we want the world to see and accept. Vanity has long been regarded as something to be fretted over, On the room of the Sistine chapel painted by Michelangelo 1508-12, a beautiful woman is drawn starting into a mirror amongst the gods, transfixed by her own reflection. His imagery is dense with symbolism and a woman gazing into a mirror has always been a symbol of vanity. Michelangelo painted this as a warning, as vanity was believed to be a great human weakness. Woman post more selfies than men, perhaps this is because they are taught to be desirable and sending photos of themselves out to be judged and liked assures them, believing that 50 likes can alleviate self-doubt. The true nature of personal empowerment is not caring about the opinions of others and acting upon your own free will, the purpose of the selfie is to present the best version of oneself to the world for the sake of likability. Personal empowerment comes from accepting ones flaws and although there has been a rise in ‘honest social media’ the selfies general purpose has not changed. The selfie could only be argued for sake of personal empowerment if taken and kept for oneself.

The artists self-portrait is often composed with narrative, to give the viewer an insight into what kind of person they are and their identity and emotions in the moment. An example of this is Man Rays portrait ‘Self Portrait with a Gun, 1932’ which was supposedly taken just after his lover and muse, Lee Miller left him. People feel the need to present themselves to others but also to their self. The painted self-portraits rise of popularity can be credited to an improvement in mirror production in the Renaissance, capturing the interest of pioneers of self-portraiture such as Albrect Durer. However Durers portraiture could be argued to come from a narcissistic stance too in his painting ‘Self Portrait at the Age of Twenty Eight’ which bears a strong resemblance to original representations of Christ. Its links to iconography are its ridged symmetry, dark tones and his raised hand and forward stare, as if he is about to give a blessing. It could be decoded as Durer telling the viewer that his artistic talents are a divine gift. The camera pushed the development of the self-portrait; as soon as there were cameras people were taking photos of themselves. Photographers used these portraits to promote their businesses, get to know their equipment and exhibit their skills in the medium. Most of the great photographers took self-portraits. It can be argued that their purpose was for longevity, these artists wanted to be remembered for their skills in photography. Surrealist and Dada artists saw the self portrait as an avenue for experimentation and using themselves meant they didn’t need to go to the effort of finding a model. Andy Warhol used the self portrait to explore the mailability of his own identity- take his ‘Self Portait in Drag, 1981’, whilst Cindy Sherman worked similarly with her infamous series ‘Untitled Film Stills’. Some selfies using low fi equipment can be read as an art form. The Saatchi gallery put out an open call for entrants for their ‘from selfie to self-expression’ and creatives across the globe submitted carefully considered and executed selfies, for example Finnian Croys creatively composed entry. However the nature of these selfies cannot be compared to the standard we see on snapchat and Instagram, they had been composed to be considered by a gallery and therefore fall above the standard selfie. The selfie can be credited to taking the self-portrait out with the realm of the untouchable art form, portraits are no longer indicators of great talent reminiscent of the divine. The photographic self-portrait was an exhibit of skill and an exploration of their practice and interests, the selfies low fi nature and primary function being for validation makes it incomparable to the work of these artists.

The outcome of the photographic self-portrait was part of an oeuvre that explored the limits of photography of the time, the selfies primary function is to see if the world thinks you look hot. Personal empowerment is nullified when you rely on the perceptions of others for validation; the selfies purpose is purely to expose yourself, interests or character for others to analyse and accept. The exact nature of the selfie could only be argued for one’s own novelty if the photos are taken and kept for oneself.

31 October 2020

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