Selfies: The Portrait of the 21st Century



Most of us, I assume, are fairly knowledgeable about what the term ‘selfie’ means and what the act of taking one entails. Since its first known use in 2002 at the hands of a drunken Australian who took the shot to document the battle wounds he had garnered over the night, the selfie has developed into a means of documenting ones appearance, often for no particular reason, to then be imparted onto the world wide web.


It seems that as the evolution of selfie advances forward, extended arms are no longer an appropriate means of achieving the perfect selfie. These days, the selfie is so popular that a number of people are employing a ‘selfie stick’ or ‘monopod’ to give the illusion that someone else is taking the photo - rather than simply getting someone else to take the photo (as our parents would have done in the ‘olden days’). The monopod allows us to get our whole body and surroundings in the frame, so it’s no longer simply about what you look like – but also what environment you place yourself in and whether that in itself is aesthetically pleasing.


The human race has for many centuries taken pride in portraying appearances, so much so that having a portrait was considered, particularly in the 14th and 15th centuries, as a symbol of not only good looks, but also wealth and status. Its curious to think that we have adapted this idea, in a technological form, to act as a symbol of pretty much these same things hundreds of years later, our good looks translated via expensive smart phones with status determined by the amount of Facebook ‘likes’ and so on. Selfies as a form of art may seem like a strange concept to the majority of us who consider the narcissistic photography as a commonplace, generic thing, but alas – the two are inextricably linked.



Selfie logic, see: lone tourist in front of landmark // Image Cred


Taking a selfie is this generation’s version of a painted portrait, a record of what we looked like at a particular moment in our personal history that could be, but probably isn’t, worth noting/remembering. The selfie could be considered a modern-day digital self-portrait, a 21st century take on works by artists such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt who (sadly) did not have smart phones with inverted cameras at their disposal. Selfies are akin to even portraits of the Renaissance in the sense that they are typically idealised (with the assistance of Instagram filters, good lighting/angles, or a face of makeup) to show the best possible version of the subject. It feels almost blasphemous to compare our generation with the geniuses of the Renaissance, and although this comparison to the Old Masters may be far fetched, the link between art and the selfie is undeniable if you consider how momentous the function of the portrait and/or self-portrait is in the art world. There is much to scrutinize about the fact that taking a selfie requires virtually no effort whilst painting a portrait can be largely time consuming, immensely sentimental and have a substantial monetary value, and while this may devalue the authenticity of selfies, they still remain a part of our culture that refuses to be ignored.


The selfie, even as a product of technology, is very much present in the contemporary art world. Take, for instance, Chinese artist Liu Zheng’s latest endeavour in creating an entire exhibition comprised only of strangers’ selfies. The exhibition (aptly titled Selfie), which is currently showing at Pékin Fine Arts in Beijing, pays homage to the selfie as a tool for expressing personality and evoking social interaction. Zheng’s project brings into focus the ordinary person as a subject of art and illustrates the freedom of identity the selfie enables in allowing people to present themselves how they want to be presented. There is no doubt that Zheng’s exhibition places social interaction under the microscope, leaving viewers questioning whether selfies can be determined as artworks, as if to resolve whether the world is ready to accept such a standard, disposable, and arguably egotistical thing, as art. Zheng deliberately confronts this idea by placing his series of selfies in an artistic context to remind us that art in itself is a form of self-expression, much like the selfies we store on our iPhones, Androids or otherwise.



[Image Cred]

Selfies are what our generation is leaving for posterity, so should we be proud of our new age portraits, or ashamed that we have fallen prey to technology in favour of what some might regard as narcissism? Or are we simply no different from the subjects in portraits of centuries ago who celebrated vanity? In my humble opinion, if someone wishes to portray him or herself a certain way and be comfortable enough in that appearance to share it with this decidedly harsh world then they get my vote of confidence. Setting a selfie free into the world can be a dangerous thing, your appearance is vulnerable to critique by an audience of unfathomable numbers here on the Internet, and not everyone is as willing to keep their thoughts to themselves. And if someone declares his or her 21st century self-portrait as a work of art, then so be it, who are we to disregard someone’s opinion on what art is, or to decide it for them? We should all make a conscious effort to disregard the familiar notion that selfies are a vain practice. Wanting to receive recognition and feeling good about our appearances should not be a negative thing. On the contrary: it should be celebrated, with likes, comments, or reblogs depending on your preferred method of social media, or selfie media [insert winking face emoji here].


In the words of Ezra Koenig, believe in your selfie.


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