Menus Subscribe Search
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


August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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