Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


van-gogh-self

Detail from Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Sorry, but Your Selfies Are Not Art

• December 11, 2013 • 8:00 AM

Detail from Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Selfies are no more art than a can of paint falling on a blank piece of paper is a Jackson Pollock.

Kim Kardashian’s rules for taking the perfect selfie are as follows: Your phone should always “be a little bit higher than lower … and know your angle,” the inexplicably famous celebrity explained in a recent spot on Extra TV. “And know duck face. I love that because it gives you cheekbones.” Somehow, I doubt Vincent van Gogh was thinking the same thing when he painted his delicate, painful 1889 Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear. (At least the painter already had the gaunt cheekbones down.)

Over the past year, we’ve gone selfie-crazy. The Oxford Dictionary naming it the word of 2013 was just the icing on the cake of a much larger phenomenon that stretches from tweens to celebrities. Selfie proponents would have us believe that selfie culture turns everyone into artists; that narcissism is really a form of creativity. Well, I’m here to tell you that they’re wrong. Selfies are no more art than a can of paint falling on a blank piece of paper is a Jackson Pollock.

Kardashian’s recent masterpieces of the selfie genre include a slightly racy post-pregnancy swimsuit snapshot and a photo of her and fiancee Kanye West backstage at one of the rapper’s concerts. These are difficult to mistake for the kind of costumed role-play of Cindy Sherman, who staged photos of herself in order to critique media culture, or an artist like Petra Cortright, who makes videos of herself that riff off cam-girl Internet culture. Kardashian’s photos are more like self-paparazzi than self-portraiture.

Like a Snapchat, selfies are at their best when they are instantly understandable, a punchy moment of communication between people. Art, on the other hand, can take decades to reveal its significance.

In her Pacific Standard article “In Praise of Selfies,” Casey N. Cep wrote perceptively that “self-portraits have always allowed us to craft an argument about who we are, convincing not only others, but also ourselves.” This is true—the chief purpose of selfies is communication, and that communication can be self-reflexive, particularly in the case of Kardashian, who manipulates her own identity through the media with every image she takes of herself. But we have to differentiate between the artistic medium of self-portraiture and the selfie.

It has always been easier to say what art isn’t than what it is, but there are some qualities that visual art possesses that selfies simply don’t have. The first, and most significant, is that art is made with the intention of being art. On its own, a shovel isn’t a piece of art, but Marcel Duchamp’s 1915 In Advance of the Broken Arm certainly is, because the master of readymades decided that it was and appropriated it with the intention of creating a sculpture rather than shoveling his driveway.

This appropriation strategy works for selfies as it does for Duchamp’s shovel. “Any selfie removed from its original context and put into an artistic framework could then be considered art,” Man Bartlett, a young artist who works through social media, argued when I asked him if a selfie constituted art. But retroactively applying a tag that wasn’t already inherent doesn’t make sense. “We wouldn’t likely go back to traditional examples of a photographic self-portrait and call them selfies,” Bartlett continued.

Selfies also lose relevance as time passes. Unlike a self-portrait by Rembrandt, which we can continue to appreciate if not for its reflection on the artistic economy of 17th-century Holland then for its rough-and-tumble handling of oil paint, Kardashian’s self-documentation is going to have even less value in a century than it does today (if that’s possible). One of art’s most satisfying qualities is that it continues to give back to viewers long after its creator has passed. Your reflection in the bathroom mirror does not do this.

The selfie’s ephemerality is part of its nature. “To make a true selfie you need to post it immediately to the Internet,” explained the Internet artist duo Kim Asendorf and Ole Fach, who recently created an app that turns viewers standing in front of a webcam into a mosaic of computer logos, a kind of corporatized selfie. “The audience needs to perceive [it] with the smallest possible latency. You need to receive feedback in the same moment.” Like a Snapchat, selfies are at their best when they are instantly understandable, a punchy moment of communication between people. Art, on the other hand, can take decades to reveal its significance.

Though it’s still young, the selfie is already an established medium with its own norms and visual vocabulary. What separates a selfie from a work of art in the form of a selfie is that great art turns around and critiques its own medium. Painting isn’t just about depicting a tree—it’s about commenting on the entire history of humans putting brush to canvas. It’s possible that you’re taking selfies in your bathroom to investigate the inherent biases of the selfie format, but not likely.

One of my favorite examples of a critical selfie is photographer Alexander Porter’s “bit.ly-GL27CV.” Porter took a three-dimensional scan of his own face and then unfolded it to create an entire landscape. His eyes, nose, and hair are only vaguely recognizable. The overall effect is to plunge the viewer fully into Porter’s visage, a representation of what it’s like to be in his own head or a commentary on the self-indulgence of taking selfies.

But just because selfies aren’t necessarily art doesn’t mean they’re not creative, fun, or worthwhile. They don’t need to be seen as anything other than what they are. In fact, it might be best if we stopped selfie creep. It’s taking over the world anyway. I doubt we would call paintings that are self-portraits selfies,” Bartlett mused. “But who knows, in a few years, ‘selfie’ might be the only word for any of it.”

Kyle Chayka
Kyle Chayka is a freelance technology and culture writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @chaykak.

More From Kyle Chayka

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.