Art or Vanity?

Annie Darling

3 min read

Art is foremost a medium of self-expression with infinite possibilities. It surpasses the paintbrush, embraces the present, and looks towards the future with a bright and infectious optimism. This is partially due to the fact that ‘art’ is such an ambiguous term; one that is consistently challenged, modified and reinterpreted, which is what the Saatchi Gallery, London, intends to do with their latest exhibition, From Selfie to Self-Expression.

By reclaiming the selfie from the clutches of narcissism, From Selfie to Self-Expression attempts to present this phenomenon as an integral and long-practiced form of creativity. Nigel Hurst, chief executive officer at the gallery, argues that the selfie signals a significant shift in society, spearheaded by the use of technology. “Art often provides a very useful historical document of the cultural, social and political climate of the particular period of time in which it was made,” he tells MOJEH. “Selfies have become a huge part of our contemporary culture.”

Recent statistics tell a persuasive story of self-obsession. More than 80 million photographs are uploaded to Instagram every day, while some 1.4 billion people – 20 per cent of the world’s population – regularly update their Facebook profile. It’s difficult, however, to confidently argue that self-absorption among Millennials is directly linked to social media feeds. “Selfies are often derided as an inane form of expression yet they can convey a mood, create a scene or tell a story,” clarifies Hurst.

He adds: “Selfies are often consciously staged in terms of the composition, the colours, lighting, backdrop, and that artistic intent and element of pre-production is an important factor in framing selfies in an artful way.” After all, classical painters have been referred to as the original masters of the selfie. Several renowned artists, including Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt, were particularly fond of self-portraiture. “Is it narcissism or is it a more accessible form of self-representation?” Hurst contemplates. “In selfies and self-portraiture, we take ownership of our own image, which may have been stereotyped, misused or even totally ignored.”

Rembrandt’s workmanship is scattered around the world in various museums and private collections, and his drawings intimately document his life until his death aged 63 in 1669. “In the 17th Century, it was only artists that had the tools to create self-portraits, whereas we now all have the wherewithal through our smartphones,” explains Hurst. There is one fundamental difference between historical self-portraits and the selfies of today, however: a traditional artist’s renderings involve a long process of self-examination.

“Selfies aren’t like self-portraiture in the way that a Rembrandt self-portrait is. He seems to be trying to get to the bottom of what makes him a human being. He shares his common humanity and what is unique about his character, which is evident from his face and demeanour. Most selfies are constructs; more to do with how we want the world to see ourselves, and also our lifestyle, our environment and our social world, rather than how we really are.”

The first photographic self-portrait was taken in 1839, when daguerreotype pioneer Robert Cornelius snapped a picture of himself outside his family’s store in Philadelphia. There was also some experimentation with the selfie in the Seventies, most notably by Andy Warhol and Stevie Nicks, when the Polaroid camera freed amateur photographers from the restraints of the darkroom.  Since then, according to a recent Ofcom communications report, 60 per cent of mobile phone users now own a smartphone, while a survey of more than 800 teenagers by the Pew Research Centre found that 91 per cent posted photos of themselves online – up from 79 per cent in 2006. “The camera roll of a teenager trying out various poses can by no means be compared to the skill and rigor of Van Gogh’s Self Portrait (1889),” admits Hurst, “but the art world cannot ignore the selfie phenomenon.”

These self-portraits may be worlds – and decades – apart, but they share a common component in that they document our lives and, by doing so, leave behind memories for future generations to discover. Former president Barack Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, made headlines when they took selfies at his second inauguration, as did Hillary Clinton when her daughter, Chelsea, tweeted a joint picture of them taken on her phone at arm’s length. The trend has even reached outer space: British astronaut Major Tim Peake posted a ‘space selfie’ from the International Space Station, in which you could see the Earth reflecting in his helmet’s visor.

So perhaps Hurst is right; perhaps we should think twice before writing off the selfie phenomenon. After all, we’re living in a digital age, a world of endless opportunities and bragging possibilities. The widespread use of selfies by social media users means that we’re becoming accustomed to interactions that revolve around images and, if history has taught us anything, we should consider whether self-portraiture could help us learn something valuable about ourselves, as well as others.

From Selfie to Self-Expression runs from March 31 to May 30, 2017, at Saatchi Gallery, London.