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.”