If you peruse my Instagram, you’ll find an assortment of images. Food, cats, random things I see in travels. And pictures of myself, mostly taken by myself. (I am a greedy and jealous person who rarely forks my phone over to people.) People have been taking pictures of themselves, in one form or another, for an extremely long time. Ancient works of art clearly demonstrate that artists painted, drew, and sculpted themselves. Self-portraits in visual media have provided fascinating glimpses into how artists perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. When photography was first developed (forgive the pun), photographers used timers to shoot themselves; in part because they wanted to learn the equipment and experiment with portraiture.
Self portraiture is an established part of artistic tradition, and it’s a fascinating one. I love self portraits. And that includes the snidely-named selfie. Selfies, loathe though many people are to admit it, are an art form. Yes. There. I said it. If self portraits are an art form, so are selfies. They involve composition, with the artist considering the setting, the lighting, and the framing to create an image that expresses a mood, experience, or feeling. They may include other elements, including animals, people, or landscapes. They convey information about the photographer.
These fall under what one would generally consider art. So why are people so derisive about selfies? I have several theories worth exploring.
The first is that, bluntly, they’re produced with an accessible, mass-market medium. In general, people who want to be snobby about art are fans of being particularly snobbish about media that are easy for everyone to get and use. You can take a selfie with virtually any modern phone, although the image quality can vary considerably, and you can upload and share it very quickly. This quick accessibility (and the ephemeral nature of uploads — it’s not like I’m going to go through and print, preserve, and cherish every selfie in my feed because those images are more about specific moments than extended views of myself) makes selfies the targets of hatred because people find them alienating.
Using mass media to produce art, people argue, makes art cheaper and valueless. I would argue it does just the opposite; it makes art accessible, creating a medium for anyone to explore art and to play within it without feeling pressured or judged. Not everyone can produce an oil painting, in the literal sense of not knowing how to stretch canvas, treat it, and apply oil paints. For those who understand the mechanics, there is a sense of hidden pressure and knowledge that if they don’t display the right technique, they’ll become objects of ridicule — they’ll be people who make ‘bad art,’ people who should be mocked rather than respected for their attempt at producing something of artistic value.
Anyone with a phone or inexpensive camera (or expensive camera!) can take a selfie. Notably, self portraits made with low-cost media are ‘selfies,’ while those made with more expensive cameras (or media like oils, charcoal, etc.) are ‘self portraits.’ This seems like an artificial distinction, as both are depictions of people produced by the subject, using different media. One, apparently, has value, while the other does not — even if both are intended to be ephemeral and momentary. If an artist sketches a self portrait and tosses it or buries it in a pile of papers, it’s not really intended for preservation. If a photographer shoots some self portraits on a nice DSLR but never does anything with them other than posting them to social media (‘our trip to the Rockies was great!’), they’re hardly designed to linger in the artistic record.
When an artist creates modern art that’s deliberately ephemeral and disposable, even with easily obtained objects (a pile of candy in a room, say), it’s ‘art’ only under certain conditions. Those conditions appear to be predicated by a number of factors — an avant garde or postmodern approach, say, or an artist’s history and credentials. But another theme comes up there too. Many modern artists (not all, fair props to the ladies) are men. Which brings us to the second reason I suspect selfies are so often the target of pointed hateful commentary: Sexism.
Women in particular seem to be fans of the selfie. In a way, documenting themselves becomes a method for expressing and documenting their own lives, something which has tremendous value for people who often feel marginalised and cut out of mainstream conversations. Women’s lives are treated like they don’t matter, and the details of their lives are dismissed as unimportant girl stuff — which is why women who post pictures of what they’re baking, of their children, of their gardens and homes and other errata of their lives, are often treated like garbage. Unlike those serious Instagram photographers who publish sunsets and macros of flowers and other artfully composed things. Those images may be beautiful, and some may convey information about the life of the photographer just like those produced by women documenting their lives, but somehow a portrait of a running river has more ‘value’ than a picture of a kitchen filled with canning supplies.
It’s telling that because the selfie is often such a female endeavor, it’s treated as a lesser art form. Women taking pictures of themselves are vapid, vain, and ridiculous. Women documenting their own lives aren’t contributing anything valuable to the larger world of art. And those who are read as women and treated as women are gathered under that umbrella too — we’re not supposed to talk about our lives and express our nature because don’t we know we’re boring and no one cares?