Selfie was the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2013. This was a controversial decision and said by some to pretty much be the death of language and culture. But in my opinion, a selfie is a beautiful thing. It gets a bad rap as a self-indulgent exercise, a symbol of a culture driven by vanity, but I say it’s been greatly undervalued. I intend to argue that a selfie is in fact a work of art . To do this, I will first describe the phenomenon of the selfie, then show that it ought to be ranked amongst all other forms of art such as painting, sculpture and literature. Furthermore, I shall go a step beyond this and argue that selfies are the highest form of artistic expression because of the directness of their connection from author to subject.
The Oxford Dictionary itself defines selfie as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website” and this is going to be the definition we work with in this essay. It’s beyond doubt that you will be familiar with the concept already, and you’ve probably taken a fair few yourself. For the sake of illustration though, here’s one I took just now:
It matches the above quadripartite definition in all respects; it is a photograph (1), taken of myself (2) with a smartphone (3) and uploaded to a social media website (4) [my blog counts as a social media website for our purposes here).
Selfie was supposedly originally first coined in 2002 on an Australian web forum. But it seems to me the concept itself has been around longer than that. Self-portrait photography has been a concept for as long as there has been photography, and the fact that Victorians weren’t uploading their selfies to Twitter isn’t really relevant. But in any case, we’re less interested with what the word selfie means, and more with the concept itself.
The definition is straight forward enough, so we’ll now move onto a closer analysis of the concept of selfie. The most obvious question to be addressed is of course “why would anyone take a selfie?” And it is in answering this question that the majority of the controversy and misunderstanding arises. Because it’s easy to answer the question by an appeal to vanity or exhibitionism. So the argument goes, we live in a society that places value on wealth, popularity, celebrity, beauty and a whole host of other undesirable values. A selfie, supposedly, is a culmination of all these things – people showing themselves off for no other reason than to demonstrate how beautiful (etc.) they are. These things are bad, therefore selfies are bad.
The argument is a fallacy, of course, but it’s a tempting one. Search instagram for the tag #selfie and you’ll see your fair share of made-up duckfaces. But examine the logical structure of the argument:
1. Selfies are full of exhibitionists/vain idiots
2. Exhibitionism/Vanity/Idiocy are bad.
3. Therefore, selfies are bad.
Formally speaking, it’s an appeal to consequences. But this kind of appeal makes bad arguments. Consider this.
1. Spoons can be used to kill people
2. Killing people is dangerous
3. Therefore, spoons are dangerous.
The structure is the same in each case, and the fallacy is obvious. The nature of the consequences of something don’t necessarily reflect the thing itself. We certainly don’t believe that spoons are dangerous because they can be used dangerously. Likewise, we should not say that selfies are bad because they can be used to promote bad values.
In this way, we can say that there is no reason per se to believe that selfies are in and of themselves a bad thing. And once we allow this, we must accept the possibility that they can be a good thing. We have to put aside our selfie prejudices and instead focus on what the possibilities of the form itself.
Selfies as art objects
The question what is art? is one that philosophers and art historians have been debating since the dawn of art itself. It’s not a particularly interesting debate though and ultimately settles down to art being whatever we call art. For the sake of our argument though, let us assume that there exists a category of things in the world called art objects. By this I mean any object that is considered to be art, and is also interchangeable with terms like “artwork” or “work of art.” So the Mona Lisa is an art object, as is Duchamp’s Fountain. That interactive interpretative dance session set to the music of Bjork in an industrial warehouse? Sure, if people are calling it art, it’s an art object.
With such an open criteria for acceptance into this category, it’s only a slight leap to the conclusion that selfies are art objects. Photography is already widely accepted as an art-form, so the nature of the form itself isn’t the sticking point. Nor is the subject, for self-portraiture can be found among the works of any artist you could care to mention. The only thing left then is the method of creation, and it’s likely this that causes our intellectual discomfort in calling selfies art.
Our imagined opponent would be arguing to the effect that selfies haven’t gone a sufficient artistic process to be counted amongst art objects, all the author has done is point a camera at themselves, click, and upload it online. This isn’t a creative enough process, therefore selfies aren’t art objects. But of course, this comes from an industry that allows found art to be displayed in galleries. If found art can literally be placed amongst other art objects, then a fortiori selfies must be art objects. For the act of simply picking something up and placing it in a gallery (perhaps with the added act of identifying an object to pick up) is a much less creative process then a selfie; which involves composition, focus and so on. So either we allows selfies as art objects, or we must lose found art. And the inclusion of found art in galleries around the world for decades sets a precedent that therefore must conclude strongly in the selfie’s favour.
Expanding on that last point a little further, consider how we might go about critically analysing a selfie. We’d bring in to play such considerations as how well composed it is, whether it’s in focus, and whether it’s interesting/funny/thought-provoking. But these are remarkably similar to the criteria we might use to assess a work of art. The Mona Lisa for example is said to have excellent brushstrokes or have great contrast between the background and foreground emphasises the subject and creates an illusion of distance.
Technically speaking, you could even go as far as to demonstrate that the Mona Lisa is a great example of the golden ratio, a relationship that determines aesthetically pleasing proportions with examples in art, architecture and even nature.
But there is no reason prima facie that a selfie could not also exhibit the golden ratio in its proportions. Here’s how it might be applied to our above example:
What I hope this demonstrates that is that selfies are appreciable by any of the same aesthetic standards we might apply to other visual forms of art. So it wouldn’t be possible to dismiss them on these grounds either.
Selfies as the ultimate art forms
I have so far proven the weak conclusion that I set out to demonstrate, namely that selfies should be considered art objects. This means that there is no reason in principle why a selfie could not be hung up in an art gallery tomorrow, or even go and win the Turner Prize. But there’s also a stronger point to be made: that selfies are the ultimate form of artistic expression.
What I mean by artistic expression is simply the connection between the author of an art object and the audience. All art is expressive in this sense, as there’s always a causal link between the author of the work and the audience’s appreciation of it (paintings locked up in attics aside, though we might consider the artist themselves the “audience” in that case). What any piece of art is doing is conveying something from the artist to the audience, or at least causing something to be conveyed – as we might not have the same reaction to an art object as the artist intended, of course.
We might rank artistic expression thus described as exemplified by already accepted art forms. A sculpture for instance is expressive, the sculptor has taken a material and made it into a shape, but less expressive than a poem. For in the poem the author uses words to convey themselves, and the very use of language makes that author-audience relationship closer than in the sculpture. Likewise, music can be considered slightly down the ranking since sound is more abstract than the visual. And so on.
What of selfies, then? Well, if we do accept that artist expression is the relationship between author and audience, then nothing could be more direct than a selfie. For a selfie is literally the author themselves placing themselves in visual contact with the audience. The selfier (ie. one who takes a selfie) says to the viewer “look! here I am! this is me expressing myself!” The caption “cheeky club toilet selfie lol” doesn’t directly say this, of course, but the subtext is obvious. The selfier wants the viewer to know what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling. It’s an invitation to share a moment of the life of another. It’s a deeply personal connection (what could be more personal than image of yourself?) and one that’s fostered by a common humanity; viz we see ourselves in the selfie and it is through this empathy that the aesthetic experience occurs.
The same experience simply isn’t possible with looking at a painting, no matter how beautifully moving it is. There’s no human connection. We cannot enter into a Turner landscape or Hirst’s dot paintings like we can with a selfie. Even a great self-portrait painting lacks a truly human touch, the unmediated representation of their happiness, grief or excitement. In this way, selfies are the most expressive of all art forms.
To recap then, my argument looked like this:
1. A selfie is a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.
2. Selfies, though frequently maligned, are legitimate art objects.
3. Artist expression is the relationship between an author and audience via an art object.
4. Selfies have the most direct relationship between author and audience.
5. Therefore, selfies are the ultimate form of artistic expression
The argument appears sound to me, though it’s unlikely to be enough to sway the naysayer. Selfies will continue to be populated by idiots, it’s true, but we saw above that this doesn’t have to reflect badly on the selfie as an artform in itself (you can do paintings of bad things too). So, a reappreciation of selfies is well and truly in order. Perhaps if some mainstream artists can be encouraged to work with it we’ll eventually see selfies in art galleries. Maybe the next Mona Lisa will actually be taken by a real life Lisa? Let’s hope so.
I should point out that I’m not saying that all selfies are great works of art, clearly this isn’t the case. I’m not even saying that there are any truly great (in an aesthetic sense) selfies out there currently. But we have shown that they have the potential to be great.
Long live the selfie.