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The "selfie" as a form of visual art?

 

 

We live in the age of the selfie. A fast self-portrait, made with a smartphone’s camera and immediately distributed and inscribed into a network, is an instant visual communication of where we are, what we’re doing, who we think we are, and who we think is watching. Selfies have changed aspects of social interaction, body language, self-awareness, privacy, and humor, altering temporality, irony, and public behavior. It’s become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history. Selfies have their own structural autonomy. This is a very big deal for art.

 

My response, as it were:

 

 

Here we have made a leap. From the selfie as a form of self-indugence to the selfie as a form of… art? While there are legion among examples of the selfie-in-the-mirror, the selfie has taken on a very practical function of recording ourselves - our individuality, our humanity - in all experiences...

 

No selfie has ever been taken out of the desire to look at oneself. They are taken with the desire to be shared, to be loved, to be remembered and thus made immortal through a means we can control. We take, and more importantly, share our selfies in the hopes of being thought of, desired, loved. And none of us are beyond that longing.

 

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Persona   

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Love it.

 

Questions:

 

Is the "selfie" an emerging art form?

Has there ever been an inherently populist art form before?

Does the "selfie" say anything about us?

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Persona   

There might be those subconscious reasons for the selfie like the ones you've described and are in the article. But honestly, I can't see it that way. I see it exactly as depicted in the video: vacuous and shallow, a celebration of self, celebrated by someone who doesn't have all that much reason for the celebration. And wow. That's so ratchet.

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Questions:

 

Is the "selfie" an emerging art form?

No. Not if the words in the phrase "art form" have any real meaning.

 

Has there ever been an inherently populist art form before?

Absolutely. There have been many of them within folk culture: music, dancing, cooking, clothes making, etc.  All of which produced skilled works of art by trained and practiced craftsmen/weavers/fiddlers/dancers/etc.

 

Does the "selfie" say anything about us?

... that we have a culture with an increasingly uninventive, unimaginative and juvenile vocabulary ... that we live in a world with an increased inability to take words seriously ... that we live in a world with social media like Facebook and Instagram ... that we live in a very self-focused culture, etc. ... (All of which are fairly obvious and uninteresting observations.)

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... that we have a culture with an increasingly uninventive, unimaginative and juvenile vocabulary ... that we live in a world with an increased inability to take words seriously ... that we live in a world with social media like Facebook and Instagram ... that we live in a very self-focused culture, etc. ... (All of which are fairly obvious and uninteresting observations.)

 

 

I often find myself at odds with your observations, Jeremy, but I agree wholeheartedly with this. What's especially frustrating for me is that part of my work duties involve running most of my employer's social media accounts, and I've been told to do a "selfie" campaign starting next week. Since I don't really have any say in the matter, I'll just bite my lip and watch the narcissism flow. 

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Questions:

 

Is the "selfie" an emerging art form?

No. Not if the words in the phrase "art form" have any real meaning.

 

I'm not sure I disagree, but I'm not sure I want to so quickly throw out the idea.

 

 

Has there ever been an inherently populist art form before?

Absolutely. There have been many of them within folk culture: music, dancing, cooking, clothes making, etc.  All of which produced skilled works of art by trained and practiced craftsmen/weavers/fiddlers/dancers/etc.

 

Good point. I had thought of cooking and dancing, but am still not entirely sure where to draw the line between say, an art form and a hobby. Your distinction of skilled works by craftsmen I think is important.

 

 

Does the "selfie" say anything about us?

... that we have a culture with an increasingly uninventive, unimaginative and juvenile vocabulary ... that we live in a world with an increased inability to take words seriously ... that we live in a world with social media like Facebook and Instagram ... that we live in a very self-focused culture, etc. ... (All of which are fairly obvious and uninteresting observations.)

 

This, unlike Jason, I would diverge from. Those things may all be true, but I would argue that there's a lot going on under the surface in spite of all that. Tons of it is vain and shallow and vapid but I think there are some interesting and maybe even beautiful in an artistic sense things to be seen as well.

 

I'm digging through this blog and am finding some things that actually fascinate me.

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I often find myself at odds with your observations, Jeremy, but I agree wholeheartedly with this. What's especially frustrating for me is that part of my work duties involve running most of my employer's social media accounts, and I've been told to do a "selfie" campaign starting next week. Since I don't really have any say in the matter, I'll just bite my lip and watch the narcissism flow.

Wow. You have my sympathies.

(Also, for the record, I have always greatly enjoyed and profited from whenever you have explained why you were "at odds with" my observations. I am very interested in the process of thinking some of A&F's prior discussion topics through, and your dissents or criticism, when you offer them, almost always have a good tempering influence.)

 

I'm not sure I disagree, but I'm not sure I want to so quickly throw out the idea.

Photography itself can be an art form. Except for a few genius exceptions, skilled photographers are good photographers because they have bothered to make the effort to train themselves to see in ways that the unskilled eye cannot see.  Indeed, photography is a legitimate field of study in the arts, and there are profound artists who have spent decades mastering that art. The entire point of a "selfie" is that it is not intended to be a work of skill, of talent or even of much deliberation.

 

Roger Scruton:

"... Benedetto Croce [and] R.G. Collingwood ... were right to believe that there is a great difference between the artistic treatment of a subject-matter and the mere cultivation of effect.  The photographic image has to some extent deadened us to the contrast here ... And the temptation is to turn this defect into an enticement, by encouraging a kind of 'reality addiction' in the viewer.  The temptation is to focus on aspects of real life that grip us or excite us, regardless of their dramatic meaning.  Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes that it portrays: a distance sufficiently to engender disinterested sympathy for the characters, rather than vicarious emotions of our own ... It illustrates the distinction between aesthetic interest and mere effect: the first creating a distance that the second destroys.  The purpose of this distance is not to prevent emotion, but to focus it, by directing attention towards the imaginary other, rather than the present self."

 

There, now you can throw out the idea as a matter of principle.

 

I had thought of cooking and dancing, but am still not entirely sure where to draw the line between say, an art form and a hobby. Your distinction of skilled works by craftsmen I think is important.

Creating art can be a hobby.  There is even such a thing as amateur works of art.  But, even at the popular level, folk culture encouraged and rewarded craft, artistry and beauty.

 

Those things may all be true, but I would argue that there's a lot going on under the surface in spite of all that. Tons of it is vain and shallow and vapid but I think there are some interesting and maybe even beautiful in an artistic sense things to be seen as well.

 

I'm digging through this blog and am finding some things that actually fascinate me.

As Cicero would say, exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis.

 

Besides, a lot of interesting things can be "going on" at a theological, philosophical, cultural, sociological, moral, or even a merely conceptual level without any relation whatsoever to what the word "art" means.

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Kinch   

Besides, a lot of interesting things can be "going on" at a theological, philosophical, cultural, sociological, moral, or even a merely conceptual level without any relation whatsoever to what the word "art" means.

 

I'm going to frame and display this in my room.

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Besides, a lot of interesting things can be "going on" at a theological, philosophical, cultural, sociological, moral, or even a merely conceptual level without any relation whatsoever to what the word "art" means.

 

Fair enough. But how else do we frame and speak of the selfie other than in the language of art - even if it is only a vulgar, bastardized version of proper photography? I recognize that you probably don't want to give it that respect, but I don't want to throw it out as an entirely stupid and/or meaningless "pop" sideshow.

 

perhaps an art form of sorts, with a history as well: http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/history-of-the-selfie.html

 

Yes. This was the article I quoted in my original post and wrote my blog post partially in response to.

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NBooth   

Elders react to "Selfie"

 

Edited by NBooth

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No.  Self-portraits do not count.

 

Many a great painter has painted a self-portrait.  These took time, effort, thought, creativity, skill and craft.  In many art schools, painting a self-portrait was actually one of the disciplines that teachers taught students.  It was actually considered a challenge for the student because he or she was supposed to look for blemishes and show them, to look for what facial expressions might be evidence of moral character or the lack thereof and show them, to use honesty and self-awareness in contemplating the image of one's own face.

 

Can we even imagine the thought and agonizing that Vincent van Gogh put into his own self-portraits?  Painting in general, to van Gogh was spiritual wrestling, so when he began to contemplate himself, I cannot imagine the effort that could have taken.  Why on earth would there be any comparison?

 

The entire point of the internet "selfie" trending fad is that they take no time, no effort, no thought, no creativity, no contemplation, no skill, no craft and certainly no discipline.

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The entire point of the internet "selfie" trending fad is that they take no time, no effort, no thought, no creativity, no contemplation, no skill, no craft and certainly no discipline.

 

Since I've had to run this "selfie" contest over the past few weeks, I was surprised at how many of the entries were thoughtful, creative, and—honestly—way more interesting than I expected. I know as aesthetes we're supposed to scowl, swirl the brandy snifter and include footnotes to Someone Important about these sorts of things, but that's usually when surprises like this happen.

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Tucker   

So… this is way too long, but…

 

Is the “selfie” an art form? First, I suppose, we must define what we mean by art form, and perhaps more broadly, art. Then we need to define “selfie”. And well I’m not too knowledgeable about these things, but there are a few ideas that seem to make sense to me. One thing for sure, we do tend to “know what we like”, yet rarely think through these questions thoroughly (count me guilty on this point).

 

As I see it, much of the time when we use the word “art” we mean an object, or objects, or category of objects, made with intention, embodying certain aesthetic qualities, and representing the culmination of some level of craft or expertise. And usually we mean what is most commonly called the high arts, which are created, presented, and received for the purpose of aesthetic contemplation. If we use this as a starting point to define what art is and is not, then it would seem the selfie is not. But if we include the popular arts, such as popular music, children’s television programs, limericks, work songs, or folk dancing, that is art made for purposes other than aesthetic contemplation, then perhaps the selfie is an art form. Certainly the selfie is a “medium of expression” that typically uses digital photography, framing and composition, and requires a subject.

 

However, if we use particular instances of selfies as the ground from which we build up our definition of the selfie, then perhaps the selfie would seem to not be an art form. According to Wikipedia, the selfie is a type of self-portrait photograph, typically taken with a hand-held digital camera or camera phone. (Note: a self-portrait is not defined by the nature of the medium, the craft involved, the creativity, the skill, or the time it takes to create it. These may be critical elements in the better examples, but they do not define the category of self-portraiture.) It does not have to be defined this way, however in common parlance, the selfie is exactly this. Further, most are truly bad images with bad framing, lighting, composition, and appear to lack all craft. But is it right to define a work of art based solely on its most common examples, or instead on its inherent potentialities, even if they have yet to be achieved? If a selfie is a self-portrait, then it is potentially an art form of, as yet to be determined, cultural and aesthetic importance. If, on the other hand, a selfie is, by definition, a low-quality, poorly realized image made without artistic merit, then perhaps it is not, and cannot be, an art form. It is arguable, though, that is not the way to define an art form. Not entirely surprising, the selfie might become (if it has not already) an art form as definitions of art change to accept these objects as art, as has happened with other art forms previously viewed as crude, or sometimes called Outsider Art, Self-Taught Art and Naïve art.

 

To what degree, then, do we call an object a work of art regardless of its quality, perhaps calling it bad or immature or faulty, and yet still calling it a work of art? Perhaps the selfie is an art form, but a bad art form, or a grotesque art form, or merely common. Can an object be a work of art without form? No, there must be form, but to what level must that form be good? There are many examples of bad filmmaking. Do we say film is a bad art form? No, because we have many examples of film representing the highest level of artistic achievement. This would imply that an art art form must contain good examples of form within its range of expressions in order to be called an art form. Only bad examples may not be sufficient. Perhaps we do not yet have a critical mass of selfies representing high enough levels of art to tip the balance towards it being an art form. However, even if we never reach that critical mass, does this necessarily preclude the selfie from being an art form? Perhaps, but maybe a little is all that is needed. And perhaps it is a potentiality waiting for genius.

 

Continuing this line of thinking, can a selfie be made with good elements, that is, comprising excellent structure and texture within the visual design? Certainly. Thus it would seem the selfie has the potential, at least, to become an art form. However, can a selfie, even if made with good aesthetic elements and representing a minimum standard of craft, be a work of art if made only with self indulgent intentions? It would seem that self indulgence would counter the common expectation of art being the conveying of meaning to receivers other than the maker of the work of art. In other words, can a work of art be called such if its intended receiver is also the maker? Perhaps. But the self indulgence of the selfie would seem to be better called the self-aggrandizement (however pathetic) of its creator in light of it being made for another to receive. Still, does this preclude the selfie from being an art form? Our temptation may be to say yes, but this would contradict what we find broadly in the arts, where many artists have been considered self indulgent, and some works of art are labeled as so, and yet both can be recognized as geniuses and masterpieces respectively. Thus, and again, perhaps the selfie is an art form, but grotesque at some level.

 

Therefore, it would seem we can safely say the selfie has, at the very least, the potential to be an art form. We can also say it does not appear the selfie, as of yet, comes close to meeting the requirements of so-called high art, but it may meet the lowest requirements of popular art. Even so, the selfie may still prove to be a popular art form of some merit.

Edited by Tucker

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NBooth   

I've got nothing to contribute on the art/not-art front, but I'd like to point out that--whatever can be said on that score--selfies are dangerous:

 

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Oh wow. I love the other image examples in that article - actually using mirrors even!

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I've got nothing to contribute on the art/not-art front, but I'd like to point out that--whatever can be said on that score--selfies are dangerous:

 

 

What is it about selfies and trains?:

 

 

A teenage girl fell to her death after trying to take a selfie from a railway bridge in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg.

 

Xenia Ignatyeva went to the bridge in Krasnogvardeysky to take a photograph of herself at night with the railway line in the background to give "the most dramatic effect".

 

But she fell and was electrocuted as she tried to grab some live cables.

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So, yes, I'm a sucker for the occasional curmudgeonly essay.  The half-serious essays of Charlie Brooker (of Black Mirror) count as some of the best of them, including his old "Nightclubs are hell. What's cool or fun about a thumping, sweaty dungeon full of posing idiots?", in which he concludes as follows:

 

... The second thing that struck me was frightening. They were all photographing themselves. In fact, that's all they seemed to be doing. Standing around in expensive clothes, snapping away with phones and cameras. One pose after another, as though they needed to prove their own existence, right there, in the moment. Crucially, this seemed to be the reason they were there in the first place. There was very little dancing. Just pouting and flashbulbs.

 

Surely this is a new development. Clubs have always been vapid and awful and boring and blah - but I can't remember clubbers documenting their every moment before. Not to this demented extent. It's not enough to pretend you're having fun in the club any more - you've got to pretend you're having fun in your Flickr gallery, and your friends' Flickr galleries. An unending exhibition in which a million terrified, try-too-hard imbeciles attempt to out-cool each other.

 

Mind you, since in about 20 years' time these same people will be standing waist-deep in skeletons, in an arid post-nuclear wasteland, clubbing each other to death in a fight for the last remaining glass of water, perhaps they're wise to enjoy these carefree moments while they last. Even if they're only pretending.

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Ways of Seeing Instagram by Ben Davis:

 

Isn’t it striking that the most-typical and most-maligned genres of Instagram imagery happen to correspond to the primary genres of Western secular art? All that #foodporn is still-life; all those #selfies, self-portraits. All those vacation vistas are #landscape; art-historically speaking, #beachday pics evoke the hoariest cliché of middle-class leisure iconography. (As for the #nudes, I guess they are going on over on Snapchat.)
 
Why this (largely unintentional) echo? Because there is a sneaky continuity between the motivations behind such casual images and the power dynamics that not-so-secretly governed classic art.
 
[. . .]
 
Technology has so democratized image-making that it has put the artistic power once mainly associated with aristocrats—to stylize your image and project yourself to an audience as desirable—into everyone’s hands. (Although the parallel to art as “celebration of private property” is probably most vivid in the case of those who most closely resemble modern-day aristocrats. See: “Rich Kids of Instagram”). But images retain their function as game pieces in the competition for social status. “Doesn’t this look delicious?” “Aren’t I fabulous?” “Look where I am!” “Look what I have!”

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Kinch   

What about photographers' self portraits? Would these Vivian Maier pics count as selfies?

PF113922.jpg

 

vivianmaier_selfportraits2.jpg

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