Jerry Saltz’s article “Art at Arm’s Length” is a brief history of the selfie; that ubiquitous sign of trumped up self-importance. He claims that the selfie – simple and seemingly innocuous – has changed the way we interact and behave in our social world. It is an obvious, understated thesis. Selfies abound on the Internet today, without any real, practical reason for existing. Some are forgivable, certainly. For instance, maybe you want to show your friends or loved ones a new hairstyle; an updated picture of a four-footed family member; or a dish at a remarkable new restaurant. Here, digital self-portraiture can be a purposeful mode of sharing an experience that you may want others to enjoy. Those others, it is true, may genuinely be curious and interested in seeing that new haircut, the lovable fur-ball, or the new restaurant you occasioned. Looked at through this lens, the selfie is no longer a grotesque grab for attention. But then again, so many selfies are made to just garner attention from the “outside” world. Are these selfies simply vacuous depictions of vanity, where the subject should be dismissed for trumpery and a waste of digital space?
Any individual snapping a selfie should probably deserve more grace than that. The selfie is a glimpse into the social and psychological nature of others. What we can find there is always more complex than the banal surface shot. Take, for instance, the girl who snapped a selfie at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp last year. For those of us more grounded in reality, we may easily be offended by such blasé behavior. Immediately, the picture strikes us as distasteful and seemingly insensitive to the gravity of her surroundings. Yet, few of the 6,000 Twitter users who ventured hateful comments realized there might be anything else behind the image. Caitlin Dewey notes that the picture was taken on the anniversary of the death of the girl’s father. Auschwitz was a place she studied and desired to visit with her late father, and the picture became a personal memorial of sorts; an experience important enough to relic.
An ill-advised picture? Yes… one that the mother of the girl should probably have cautioned against putting online. But a completely worthless story of another narcissistic millennial? No. I don’t think so. While thousands of people died there, it is a part of the past. The barracks are relatively old, but the selfie is a contemporary product. Here, the lens of the camera-eye is an emotional canvas; one that makes sense for many young people to capture. I am not saying the picture is appropriate but, given the facts, I do not find it as appalling as it was made out to be either. For example, many will find the ear-bud protruding out of the girl’s ear to be the most disrespectful aspect of the image. But “tuning out” for awhile may have been unavoidable. When I was her age, I visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial in Washington D.C. Halfway through, I could not wait to get out of there. Even at the museum, you can still sense the overwhelming agony and the smell of death. The real site is undoubtedly worse…
Is the selfie a potential form of art? Saltz, peculiarly enough, describes the necessary “rules” and variations of the “artful” selfie. According to Saltz, the modern-day selfie is so important that, in a hundred years hence, academics and curators will be combing through an “incredible record of the fine details of everyday life.” As a student of History, I can understand his point. Indeed, what preservation officer or archivist would not enjoy pouring over hundreds or thousands of selfies taken during the age of imperial Rome, or right before an important battle during the American Civil War? Still, in order to be relevant, our selfies would need to be taken in a moment of future historical import, and in a setting and context both incredible and rare. I am afraid the typical bedroom or bathroom selfie does not fit that bill. Furthermore, Saltz puts Rembrandt, Warhol, and M. C. Escher on the level of selfie, which is just plain ridiculous. Their art was not an instantaneous digital capture. Their paintings necessarily included foresight, self-awareness, and bodily presence in fashioning their medium. These artists were engaged in a philosophical exercise that translated reflective meaning into art. These were not “proto-selfies” as Saltz suggests. No, they were products that took time and effort to complete. Perhaps the artists did desire to be recognized. There is, no doubt, a certain amount of narcissism in a Rembrandt. But there is also a great deal of historicity there as well. Perhaps the selfie can be made into art. But it is not art prima facie.
If you can get through it, Saltz does make some clever points in his article. The selfie can indeed reveal some important sociological facets to postmodern life. For instance, if the subject of the selfie is renowned or charismatic, they can produce popular trends; or worse… political criticism. The selfie is not exactly vacuous. Its content may be superficial and superfluous, but it is still a depiction of reality. Even “juvenile, treacly” selfies are important sociological facts. The selfie is not an inherently meaningless artifact. It does possess shades of meaning, and it does say something important, even if it is rather pathetic at times. Indeed, deeper than the messages of “This is what I had for breakfast,” or “Look at my chiseled body,” the selfie is a snap-portrait of contemporary values. It showcases how we think, feel, interact, dream, imagine, etc. Whether the bulk of our selfies show signs of societal promise is another matter entirely.