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Restrain your selfie: a defence of the self-portrait

25 June 2014

I struggle to pinpoint exactly why, but I’ve always found ‘self-portrait’ a slightly unsatisfactory term. The hyphen, in rushing its words together, throws the intonation off. And it seems unfortunate that we should try to encapsulate a mysterious genre, with its uneasy mix of showiness and introspection, by perfunctorily adding up two terms to make one that sounds a little bit like ‘self-assessment’. Still, I’m going to defend it. I’d rather muddle along with that uncomfortable misfit than the apparent alternative: I can’t call a self-portrait a selfie.

At first glance, the name-swap has significant institutional support. Last year, the National Portrait Gallery in London launched a high-profile campaign to save a Van Dyck for the nation, asking people to chip in for ‘the only £12 million selfie in existence’. This month, the National Trust ‘gained’ a Rembrandt which had been tucked away, unauthenticated, in one of their properties for years. This ‘selfie’ was revalued at £30 million, blowing Van Dyck out the water. Last week, Stylist magazine’s article on Frida Kahlo (to coincide with an exhibition in California) billed her as the superlative selfie-maker – they even threw in a hashtag on the cover for good measure.

The temptation to jump on the selfie bandwagon is understandable. Campaigns such as the NPG’s require visibility to succeed – and the best way to be visible these days is to go viral. You probably won’t get very far with an archaic art-historicism like ‘self-portrait’. The term selfie attaches art to popular culture, to related threads and Google spiders, and drags its fusty frame into Instagram territory with its pretty vignettes and square crops. Once there, you can introduce and eventually win people round to the humble self-portrait. But museums ought to stand up for historic art as worthy in its own right.

‘Today, of course, we are…more familiar than ever with Frida’s chosen medium’, Anna Hart asserts in Stylist, because ‘documenting ourselves in pictures is as commonplace as eating or sleeping.’ But we’re not familiar.

(1503), Parmigianino.

Self-portrait in a convex mirror (1503), Parmigianino. Source: Wikimedia commons

Imagine painting a traditional self-portrait from scratch. Choosing your setting, your clothes, your props, your expression – the tell-tale clues to your identity as you want to project it to the world. Then turning an objective eye onto your own features, breaking them up, flattening them out, and measuring them; laying down a sketched skeleton, building a face up in layers onto the canvas. To paint a (good) portrait from nothing you generally need to notice everything, so that even every flattery stems, initially, from the conscious acknowledgement of the flaw, every abstraction from a detail. You can’t say that of taking a selfie. You choose your setting, your clothes, your props, your expression – and then which filter to lay over the top.

That’s not to say that selfies aren’t a creative force to be reckoned with. As Jerry Saltz argues in his essay on the subject, the best of them have real artistic and emotional clout, and their popularity alone is culturally significant. He goes so far as to call them a new genre, but stops short of conflation. ‘A type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history’, the selfie doesn’t approach its subject by the same route, or choose the same frame, as its predecessors.

Why not make more of those distinctions? Shouldn’t institutions be asking whether this new ‘genre’ can ever match the Old Masters, or how and why it departs from them, instead of trying to pass the oldies off – however superficially – as something they’re clearly not? We don’t have to rewrite the history of the selfie to start with Dürer, as if all roads inevitably led to Instagram. There are plenty of people who would be ready to define, defend and discuss selfies and self-portraits on their own merits. Art history gets dull when we pretend it is just another, instantly accessible, reflection of ourselves.

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