the unquantifiable self

Selfie-Love: Art in the Time of Narcissism

The ‘world’s #1 museum on social media’ (as proclaimed by its website) is the Saatchi Gallery. No surprise then, that they’ve assembled an exhibition on the history of the selfie.

‘From Selfie to Self-Expression’ opens with a series of Old Masters self-portraits, including well-known works by Rembrandt and van Gogh. Rather than the originals, however, reproductions of the paintings are presented on giant screens—blown-up smartphones of sorts. Visitors are given the opportunity to indicate their favorites by tapping a heart and watching the tally of ‘likes’ go up. When I visited, Egon Schiele and Frida Kahlo were way ahead in the popularity contest, leaving poor old Durer in the dust. (Note to self: don a necklace of thorns, à la Frida, for next dating app pic.)

In a Guardian interview, Nigel Hurst, CEO of the gallery and curator of the exhibition, said that allowing visitors to vote challenges the hegemony of art history education. Query whether the conclusion of the crowd, however, is any less impactful on our appreciation of a work of art. It brings to mind the default ‘most highlighted’ option on the Kindle, which draws attention to the passages that other readers have found important. Historically, experts—whether curators, editors or political analysts—wielded some influence on taste. Recent history would indicate that dismissing the gatekeepers entirely in favor of mass opinion does not necessarily lead to optimal outcomes in the realms of art, publishing or politics.

The exhibition continues with works by contemporary artists, including paintings by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, photographs by YBAs Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, and sculptural self-portraits by Tim Noble & Sue Webster. A handful of young British photographers were given smartphones by Huawei, the show’s co-sponsor, to explore the theme. Famous selfies are also represented, including snapshots by Barack Obama, Ellen DeGeneres, and the grinning macaque whose selfie spawned a legal dispute resulting in the court ruling that no, a monkey cannot hold a copyright.

Human beings are wired to respond to faces; we are among just a handful of species who can recognize their reflection in a mirror. The impetus to represent that reflection predates cave paintings, but it was during the Renaissance—with improvements in mirrors and an increasing interest in the individual as a subject—that the genre gained in popularity.

The proliferation of camera-enabled smartphones has taken the self-portrait out of artists’ studios and into the pockets of the people. The expansion of social media platforms enabling photo-sharing further fueled the selfie explosion. The usage of the word itself increased a whopping 17,000% from 2012 to 2013, earning ‘selfie’ the illustrious distinction of the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year.

Today, over one million selfies are taken each day. 14,000 submissions poured in from around the world for the #SaatchiSelfie competition, ranging from standard-issue pouty poses to meta-musings with mirrors. While I can’t shake my nostalgia for the grainy texture of film photography and the alchemy of the darkroom, the quality of the shortlisted entries confirms that smartphone cameras have reached a level of sophistication that allows selfie aficionados to achieve results at least akin to an SLR camera. The winner of the competition was Dawn Woolley, for a photo in which a flat cut-out version of herself is embraced by a real man, a play on the objectification of the female body and the two-dimensionality of the photographic form.

Dawn Woolley’s ‘The Substitute (Holiday)’


Nigel Hurst has said that the purpose of the Saatchi Gallery is to bring contemporary art to as many people as possible, and that “the art world cannot really afford to ignore the selfie”. Selfies are a cultural phenomenon, certainly, but it begs the age-old question: is it art? In her 1977 collection of essays On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote that:

Photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made. Out of language, one can make scientific discourse, bureaucratic memoranda, love letters, grocery lists, and Balzac’s Paris. Out of photography, one can make passport pictures, weather photographs, pornographic pictures, X-rays, wedding pictures, and Atget’s Paris.

One of the works in the exhibition is, in fact, a collection of daily passport photos—displaying various iterations of facial hair and hairstyles—of Columbian artist Juan Pablo Echeverri.

Where the selfie lies on Sontag’s continuum is, then, a matter of what the photographer does with the smartphone. While a smartphone can be used to make art, the daily documentation of the minutia of our lives does not in and of itself constitute an art form. In Art Objects, a series of essays on the role of art in modern life, Jeanette Winterson reminds us of the potential art has to act as a portal to the sublime by taking us out of our selves:

Against daily insignificance art recalls to us possible sublimity. It cannot do this if it is merely a reflection of actual life. Our real lives are elsewhere. Art finds them.

The solipsistic tendencies encouraged with incessant selfies risks doing just the opposite. One of the rooms in the exhibition is filled with a video montage by Christopher Baker entitled Hello World! Or: How I Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Noise, recreating the din of all the people trying to make themselves heard on the internet.

As the art world competes for attention like everyone else, the filter of social media inevitably impacts how curators choose to show their collections. The recent Instagram-enticing Henry Moore show interlaced with pieces from Burberry’s spring collection is a perfect example. (I admit that I was not immune to the siren call of the socials, either: part of my annoyance with the hordes of people in attendance was because they were blocking the photo opp.)

Brushes with the sublime are still possible, when we’re afforded the time and space to contemplate works that are strong enough to serve as a bridge out of the mundane. I had the privilege of such an experience last year, taking in Monet’s Water Lilies in the hushed reverence of Tadao Ando’s naturally-lit Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima. The number of visitors allowed in the room at any one time is limited, with no shoes, talking, or photography allowed. Such moments are more, not less, important, in a time of the ubiquity of images infinitely updating on our smartphones.

The intensity of the blue light emanating throughout the Saatchi exhibition left me with that headachy feeling you get when you’ve been staring at a screen phone too long, or upon exiting the fluorescent frenzy of an art fair. We are all suffering from image obesity. Curators, take heed: like Eric Carle’s very hungry caterpillar, after binging on junk food, one longs only for a nice, green leaf.

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