So What’s The Deal With The Selfie?

Merriam Webster Dictionary’s 2013 word of the year: the selfie is an image of oneself taken by oneself using a digital camera–especially for posting on social networks. It is essentially a digital self-portrait.

What is all the fuss about? Why is there a song on YouTube titled #SELFIE by The Chainsmokers that sports an impressive 128,099,084 views? Why is the country music star Brad Paisley stopping to take as he called it “west-Burro(ass) selfie on Twitter. But better yet, why did that make the news? Why is CNN posting an article sporting the question “Is this the world’s best selfie?” Have selfies made James Franco crazy?

Some of the craze might have to do with Charlotte Rampling. You know? That English girl with a 50-year career of being beautiful. We all grew to know the ideals of the English/French/and/Italian cinema, and laid out on numerous printed images. What Rampling taught us all is that there is power in the way that people see you and likewise in the way you look.

We want to be looked at, and therefore the look has been created. We are all after ‘the look.’ The look informs, commands and says “You are required to know this!” The look is the flame of envy. It is the acknowledgement of being an object for commodity. To be wanted is to be needed and to be needed is to belong and to belong is to have purpose. The look captured and distilled into a single moment is the ‘selfie.’ Like the recent and somewhat inexplicable urgency for smart phones, the look exemplifies how advertisement works.

The concept of the gaze is fundamentally about the relationship of pleasure and images. In psychoanalysis, the term “scopophilia” refers to pleasure in looking, and exhibitionism in the pleasure of being looked at. Both of these terms acknowledge the ways in which reciprocal relationships of looking can be sources of pleasure. Voyeurism is the pleasure in looking while not being seen, and carries a more negative connotation of a powerful, if not sadistic, position. (Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture) In social media we are all sufferers of scopophilia.

So The Art Of The Selfie Is … ?

Selfie culture has for the most part been negatively covered in the press. But how does this conversation fit an art historical context and in what ways may it be influencing our society positively? The selfie is not that different than a painting. Think of massive Renaissance portrait of Christ, or a Grand Manner style portrait by Sargent.

True, a selfie may not take months to make, but it is a form of portraiture. The lineage of portraiture has taken centuries of maturation. Portraiture’s culminating developments have found reason to add to its vocabulary the selfie. In Ways of Seeing by John Berger, Berger says that “All the languages of art have been developed as an attempt to transform the instantaneous into the permanent. Art supposes that beauty is not an exception-is not in despite of- but is the basis for an order.” If it can be said of the selfie that it lends order, then it may also be in conversation with beauty.

To debate the ways in which a selfie is constitutionally beautiful would require a separate article. Regardless, the images that we are calling selfies are being posted, (123,123,835 Instagram posts strong) and for this reason they deserve attention. To be posted is to be made permanent, and to be widely shared as an advertisement which cannot be withdrawn from the public eye. With applications like “Webstagram” documenting live feeds of users online and copying these images, even a deleted Instagram post you uploaded for 15 seconds may be available for browsing twenty years in the future.

Like a painting, self-portraits have long been regarded as objects which are subject to and created for the male gaze. This has equal roots in the history of art commerce as well as social roles of men and women. Women in portraiture were objects of a still life while men were in motion, in action, and displaying their muscles to exert power. But this fundamental building block has been reconstituted because it does not account for the pleasure of female viewers, or the more recent addition of the male figure as an object. The social canon of your grandmothers’ art history books might no longer be the way to understand art. Today’s art is made and bought by both sides of the economy, by women and men alike, and for a plethora of reasons. Today’s society ‘likes’ boys and girls and todays job market looks for one thing – your marketability. As more graduates every year tote their bachelor’s degrees as high school diplomas once reigned, the job market is molding around us. No longer are specific skills necessary for most hires …the employer wants to see the savvy employee and their promotional and adaptability potential.

The curation of your social media feed, the strict manipulation of objects all raise your market potential. We are not dealing with a vapid generation of materialism, but rather a movement of commercialism which encapsulates the objects all around us. The selfie is a construct which has a time, a place, and object. You can stage the shot but you must have access to those necessary components. You are, at least for a moment, that object which the selfie captures.

Bernard said, each stroke must “contain the air, the light, the object, the composition, the character, the outline, and the style.” While Bernard was referring to the art of painting, any maker of selfies is responsible for equal attention to detail. While 70 percent of the body’s sense receptors cluster in the eyes, seeing as we think of it really happens in the brain.

How are selfies different in the private and public sector?

In our capitalistic society we create the need for an external phenomenon as an urgent necessity. Are they bad, are they good, are they correct, or are they wrong is debatable. But in the effort to convey the subject’s introspection does it seem honest and if so then the image is successful.

“I think there is a clear measure of disingenuousness in selfies like Ellen’s corporate Samsung-sponsored selfie at the 2014 Academy Awards. This became another version of mixing advertisement and entertainment; of course, on the other hand it worked in the sense that it went totally viral, and many people copied it. Samsung made a meme, and Ellen is to thank for this. After this point, the selfie went totally ‘mainstream.’” We spoke to Hyperallergic’s selfie columnist Alicia Eler about her ideas on the construct of selfies and how to measure their success. After a year of documenting the most successful (and perhaps unsuccessful) selfies every week, the article is closing with an image of NASA’s selfie to end all selfies.

Selfies began with the birth of photography. Many of the first photographs were self-portraits, reaffirmations to say I am here. “I am self-aware and I have the means to document myself in an intimate setting, one where I can sit for an exposure and not be disturbed.” Kodak’s Brownie box camera in 1900 led to self-portraiture as a movement. These images were bold, personal, and could be easily documented at an arm’s length but only distributed by hand.

With social media Myspace bred a generation of introspective mirror selfies, lonely and sexualized. Facebook set a new precedent of friendship, and promoted the user with the most friends in their profile pictures. Myspace was less savvy and more emo.

But then, the IPhone 4 changed the selfie game.

Front-facing cameras meant once could obsessively tailor every pixel of their surrounding with complete visual understanding of its compositional effect. This smartphone-enhanced viewfinder coined what we today think of as a selfie: a self-aware yet idealistic look from the subject. The camera is no longer seen as an object with a gaze, but as a mirror to a distinct reality.

Selfies are elementally incredibly personal. They used to be sexual but now are a cry for desirability and honest conversation between the subject and their followers. They can be meant to sear an intimate moment, even one you are nervous about.

“Before I learned that selfies could be used as a positive exchange between friends, I really only exchanged selfies with a previous girlfriend as a way to suggest sex. Now I see that selfies don’t have to be sexual at all; they can be friendly and weird, funny and awkward, cute and innocent without any strings attached. It’s really nice to receive a selfie from a friend and see how they are doing. :)” Alicia Eler uses her selfies for good. She makes a strong distinction between selfies which are meant for private viewing versus public consumption. “To share an image privately is more like sending self-portraits to a friend you trust … or as if to say ‘Here I am with the people I care about.’”

Images sent to your friends during the course of the day, chronicling the self in its surroundings and your raw emotions do not have to be curated. They do not represent the ideals of your world, or the desirability of your experience. They can be candid, elemental, and decisively pointed at one element you wish to share.

Selfies can be empowering?

The selfie is powerful. Its’ notoriety as a trend has brought it to the league of academics, activist, as well as well the public.

We are seeing an empowering of the individual. Where twenty years ago the overwhelming majority of published figures and faces were of models, now there are faces of the everyday public broadcasted across every social platform. The individual, the mistakes and the honest perspective is our medium of communication. We don’t have to adhere to a rigid set of normative codes. There is an opportunity to set the industry standard of beauty to a realistic goal. Very true the first lady does this with her selfies rather she is one of those weirdoes that takes a selfie holding a notecard.

Young girls and boys start in school with comparative scores in reading comprehension versus analytical practices like math and science. Kids mature through elementary school, girls are taught self-regulation, demure attitude, and to deflect compliments. Boys are taught to be active, proud, and rational. As to the promotion of this age group: the portrayal of the young male is iconic and endearing but our society often views images of young girls to be invasive and voyeuristic. The problem’s not the subjects, it’s the eye.

Rather than promoting thousands of workshops, self-help videos and articles which help women to regain their voice and confidence, there is a tool to help women keep their confidence they had as young girls. Rather than isolating the girls who act out, there is now a platform for them to broadcast their sentiment. Not only are they encouraged to like and be liked, it is a trend today to signify the amount of likes that one wants for each photo #50likes #likeforlike #shareforshare. Girls and boys are successfully promoting themselves with permission.

On the other hand, this seems to promote a false sense of stability. One which incubates narcissism from an early age.

#Yesallwomen began as a response to the aftermath of Elliot Rodgery’s killing spree and gives women an easily-traced path of discussion about their experiences being victimized as women. In response to a Twitter user who posted #Notallmen in response to Elliot, a movement of women posting #Yesallwomen spoke to the fact that not all men victimize women, but all women have at one point felt threatened and helpless by men.
Cue Lesley Gore 1964’s You Don’t Own Me hit single. “Don’t tell me what to do, and don’t tell me what to say. And please, when I go out with you, don’t put me on display.” #lol because i’m already on display and boys i don’t need you to do it here.

Are Selfies going to turn us all into narcissistic pricks?

“Seeing is proof positive, we stubbornly insist. (“I saw it with my own eyes…”) Of course, in these days of relativity, feats of magic, and tricks of perception, we know better than to trust everything we see. (A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman)

In our dreams, and imaginations we can picture scenes intensively with great detail. Social media has become an outlet for dreaming. While its validity may be under attack, its images comfort us and give us an escape. We are seeing a need from the people for something honest and real. But what many don’t specifically realize is that a curated image can be honest too.

“I think a ‘successful selfie’ is one that accurately portrays how one is looking and feeling right now,” says Alicia Eler. “If you are feeling on top of the world and just got a great haircut and want to share it, why not go for it! Who cares, really? If you feel like shit because you’re at the hospital with your dying grandfather and you want your friend to know what’s happening in your world, that is also successful. We all need to feel loved and supported by the people in our lives. The idea of success in the selfie depends on if you are able to honestly convey your emotional state-of-being.”

Every day we are surrounded by thousands of people reading and sharing with our feelings and beliefs. They reside in virtual arenas, technically more connected then ever but more lonely and disjointed. The selfie comes from a dark place of fear, the feeling “I don’t exist” in hundreds and hundreds of images, “Do I live, am I living?” You must interject yourself in physical stature into this demanding feed of images or be lost, or assumed as a company or organization. This act allows your followers to experience your growth with you, the acceleration or falling of the individual as they struggle with this identity crisis. Alicia Eler thinks “the self-portrait and the selfie are for anyone who’s continuously documenting the act of becoming.”

Are you stable? Are you hot? Are you lonely? How do you feel in this moment and what does that mean for you in the future?

There is an extensive visual code which helps us to exemplify these feelings and portray them as actions. They’re easy to find, browsing your news feed, trending topics and exploring images and hashtags on social media. But what’s more important is the knowledge that you own the right to create that persona of yourself. You don’t need a representative to build up your work and writing. You don’t need a fancy website to broadcast why what you’re doing during the day is changing the course of humanity. In 30 words or less you have a broad audience who are not only willing, but are subscribing to read your thoughts and experiences. And for every problem that arises within this arena, this power is an undeniably beautiful existence.


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