THE WORD Are selfies art?

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Yes? Hell no! … depends, says Kat Tiidenberg

As a scholar I answer all interesting questions with “it depends”. It’s not a terribly satisfying position, but it really does depend. How do we define art? Who decides what is and is not art?  Is it desirable for something to be art? Are we after a generalizing judgment about all selfies?

First of all, cards on the table, I am not an artist. I’m firmly on the “and crafts” end of the arts-and-crafts spectrum. I am not an art critic; I am not even an art scholar. I am a sociologist and an ethnographer. I study people. I am interested in the how, the what, the where, the when, and the why people do things. This is how I’ve found that selfie practices can be a way for people to think, to feel, to interact, to express, to protest, to work. This is how I’ve found out that selfies can sure feel like art for some people. But is that enough to make them art?

If we look at how selfies are done and spoken about, we do see that there is a certain clustering in what is on them, how they are captioned and predominantly interpreted. This would justify invoking the concept of genre.


Now, I disagree with people who claim that selfies are just a form of self-portraiture - I think what makes a selfie a selfie is that in it three definitional features merge – that they are photographic (like family and travel snapshots), self-representative (like a painted self-portrait, but also like autobiographical writing) and networked (like a Tweet or a Tinder profile). 

But I do agree with art critics like Jerry Saltz, who consider selfies a new genre - either a new genre of folk art, or a new visual genre of self-portraiture. But is this enough to claim they are art?

Typically, for something to be defined as art, we should find it aesthetically pleasing, or aesthetically stimulating, and not just practically functional. In that sense many selfies seem to pass as art. But this is not how it works, is it?

We can’t generalize to all beautiful, creative, mesmerising, interesting selfies, because too many people have smartphones in their pockets, and it matters who takes the selfie. While the selfies of that one girl you know - the one who takes “too many selfies” - are called frivolous, narcissistic and banal, 9.5 out of 10 times it is possible that if she had sent hers to the #SaatchiSelfie competition, the process of curation by someone with abundant cultural capital would have elevated one of hers to art.

Yet, Kim Kardashian could take the most aesthetically stimulating selfie and most of us would still not want to call it art. Why? Because she makes money off it? So do (some lucky) artists. Because her fame is scandalous, simulacra-esque and manipulative? Err … Richard Prince, anyone? He was accepted as an artist prior to stealing other people’s selfies (and other Insta posts), which I suppose was what made those pieces art enough to be hung in an institutionalised art space and sold for $100,000. So original authorship apparently is not relevant for delineating art from not-art. And it’s not like a pre-existing status is automatically an issue. I mean, Cindy Sherman is a pre-existing phenomenon, but her Insta-selfies are spectacular, not stolen, and impressively manage to continue the overall symbolic and political work that her portraits started in the late 70s.

What about the poet Rupi Kaur’s period selfies? I’m guessing many people would be willing to view her work as art, because we interpret it as making an expressly critical, political statement using tools of visual self-expression. Perhaps we see that she criticises social media platforms, or capitalism, or professional visual culture. But isn’t the rebellion we see in that period stain still kind of in the eyes of the beholder? After all, not every nipple-showing-selfie (invoking Kim Kardashian again) will be read as a critique of Instagram’s notoriously misogynist neurosis about women’s nipples.

So … you see, it really does depend. Whether we think selfies are art and which selfies we think are art is hopelessly political, and probably more telling about us, the judgment passers, than those who have created the selfies in question.

Dr Katrin Tiidenberg is associate professor of social media and visual culture at the Baltic Film, Media, Arts and Communication School of Tallinn University, Estonia. Her new book, Selfies: Why We Love (and Hate) Them, is published by Emerald Books


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