[PHOTO] “Selfies blur the line between high-art and social posturing”
Russell Smith’s essay published in The Globe and Mail on the 25th of January, considering the claims of the selfie to cultural legitimacy, even the status of high art. I largely agree with him: There’s no reason why the self-portrait is a negative form when it’s a photograph, certainly not when it’s a photograph that’s a product of modern computing technology aided by social networking platforms. At their best, the properly-cultivated selfie really can be high art, or at least great fun.
Columnist after pundit has come out to claim that one of Obama’s many strengths was a familiarity with pop music and comedy, and an ability to goof around (as with the selfie), to appear natural and self-deprecating at the same time. He appeared on late-night talk shows, he played along with comedians (Zach Galifianakis, Key and Peele, Jerry Seinfeld), he had rappers at the White House. The guy compiled Spotify playlists (on an official White House account). This, surprisingly, did not make him look unpresidential, just cool.
This goes against the intuitive feeling that many of us – well, many of us over 40 – have when contemplating the role of the selfie in young people’s lives. The taking of many amusing, sexy or boastful phone-shots, does not look, generally, to be conducive to the obtaining of high public office. Most of the selfies we see posted by young people on their social media seem to be perpetuating a culture of narcissism. Their lack of dignity and their salaciousness, we fear, endanger their future careers.
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Just as such anti-selfie sentiment seems to reach an apex, the Saatchi Gallery in London is planning a major exhibition, to open March 31, entirely devoted to the notion of instant self-representation in the contemporary age. It is more ambitious, though: called “From Selfie to Self-Expression.” It juxtaposes painted self-portraits – by van Gogh and Rembrandt – with staged and stylized contemporary photo self-portraiture – by Tracey Emin and June Calypso – and the candid, amateur selfies of celebrities, including Obama.
Its point is simple: that selfies are a part of a long tradition of great art. Painters have practised techniques on themselves since the invention of paint, and they have also used their own faces as vehicles for mood and self-expression. They are often vaguely defiant. (Think of all those sober, frowning painters’ faces: What are they so mad about?)
Endless photos of oneself in various guises or identities have also become a repeated form of feminist art: June Calypso shoots herself undergoing fantastical beauty regimens in luxurious bathrooms, surrounded by mirrors; Cindy Sherman poses as threatened heroines in nightmarish faux-Hollywood movies. Tracey Emin’s notorious narcissism – an oeuvre that celebrates the artist’s own trashiness – is also defiant, a challenge to received ideas about femininity. A photo of hers in the Saatchi show portrays her with legs splayed, scooping paper money into her crotch. These are in a sense commentaries on the selfie age and angry defiance of the disapproval of female vanity.