From Self-Portrait to Selfie:
Contemporary Art and Self-Representation in the Social Media Age
(Forthcoming from ARTS - open access journal, MDPI, Guest Edited by Ace Lehner)
Defined as a self-image made with a hand-held mobile device and shared via social media platforms, the selfie has facilitated self-imaging becoming a ubiquitous part of globally networked contemporary life. Beyond this selfies have facilitated a diversity of image making practices and enabled otherwise representationally marginalized constituencies to insert self-representations into visual culture. In the Western European and North American art-historical context, self-portraiture has been somewhat rigidly albeit obliquely defined, and selfies have facilitated a shift regarding who literally holds the power to self-image. Like self-portraits, not all selfies are inherently aesthetically or conceptually rigorous or avant-guard. But, -as this project aims to do address via a variety of interdisciplinary approaches- selfies have irreversibly impacted visual culture, contemporary art, and portraiture in particular. The essays gathered herein reveal that in our current moment it is necessary and advantageous to consider the merits and interventions of selfies and self-portraiture in an expanded field of self-representations. Selfies propose new modes of self-imaging, forward emerging aesthetics and challenge established methods, they prove that as scholars and image-makers it is necessary to adapt and innovate in order to contend with the most current form of self-representation to date. From various interdisciplinary global perspectives, authors investigate various sub-genres, aesthetic practices, and lineages in which selfies intervene to enrich the discourse on self-representation in the expanded field today.
Due in large part to the advent of the selfie, self-imaging has become a defining factor of globally networked contemporary life.
Defined as a self-image made with a hand-held mobile device and shared via a social media platform, the popularity of online users sharing selfies on social media sites such as Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram led Oxford Dictionaries to proclaim “selfie” as its 2013 word of the year. Since then there has been a continued proliferation of self-imaging and great popular and intellectual interest in selfies.
Not only are selfies a ubiquitous part of contemporary life, but selfies are a complex form of social interaction, an emerging aesthetic, and they are having an irrevocable impact on self-portraiture.
While there is increased scholarship on selfies, the complexity of selfies remains under-articulated. Many selfies for example are in a rich lineage of radical performative self-portraiture committed to challenging representational politics, canonized aesthetics and the parameters of portraiture, but this is an area as of yet that is yet to be significantly explored. In its very definition, self-portraiture is both specific and amorphous. It is a representation, a production, and a creation of someone made by that same individual, but the specifics of how and why are unarticulated. The advent of the selfie has highlighted the problematic politics of this fickle definition. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a self-portrait as “a portrait of oneself done by oneself,” while Oxford Dictionary defines self-portrait as “a portrait of an artist produced or created by that artist.” What a self-portrait is and what its aims are remain up to the maker.
The distinction about who is authorized to create a self-portrait - “oneself” or an “artist” - is at the core of the contention around self-portraits and selfies.
Self-portraiture has a long-standing art-historical tradition. Although not always explicitly stated, in the Western European and North American art-historical context, self-portraiture has been associated with the work of canonized artists made within specific media-based, aesthetic and conceptual frameworks, and visual traditions. In western art this translates into the canonization of self-portraits by recognized artists produced using traditional and established materials. The 16th-century artist Albrecht Dürer is widely recognized as a foundational figure in the genre of self-portraiture and was a prolific self-portraitist. In what may be his most recognized painting titled simply Self-Portrait from 1500, Dürer painted an image exemplifying the aesthetic expectations of self-portraiture that are still present today. (See image to the left).