On , the word “selfie” was voted “Word of the Year 2013” by the editors of the Oxford Dictionary, after first appearing in its pages in August of the same year. Before becoming word of the year “selfie” was already one of the social trends of the day. And yet, is the “selfie” trend on the verge of contaminating the world of art and culture?
A self-portrait typically taken with a smartphone and then uploaded to a social media website, the “selfie” is undoubtedly the latest fad among young people, as documented in a study recently conducted by sociologist Joëlle Menrath (in French only) [859-1qrique_des_adolescents_-_le_selfie.pdf is available in PDF format (1.1 MB) | about the freeware (PDF)] for the Observatoire (of the French Telecom Federation) on the digital lives of teenagers (12–17 years). But now it is also being used by adults the world over to draw attention to themselves.
Barack Obama’s “selfie” taken at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service raised a clamour as it went around the planet, along with those of other “celebrities,” such as singer Rihanna, Nadine Morano jogging, an astronaut at the international space station, and Pope Francis, who posted their own this year.
Result of an unprecedented spread in technology
A sociological trend, the “selfie” is primarily the result of a sudden and sensational spread in technology: The skyrocketing use of smartphones (over 55 percent of the phones sold worldwide, or nearly a billion smartphones sold in 2013) and social media, especially those devoted to photography (Pinterest, Instagram, and more widely, Facebook, which had 70 million, 130 million and 1.15 billion users respectively around the world by the end of 2013). The result is that there are more than 60 million publications on Instagram tagged “selfie” and more than 170 million with the tag “me.”
Recent exhibits featuring “selfies”
Several months ago, the “selfie” began to show up in museums and cultural spaces:
- In , in London, an exhibition entitled the National Selfie Gallery opened. Some 20 artists exhibited a series of short, 30-second videos all engaging with the “selfie” theme. “Self-portraiture has a long artistic heritage, with devotees including Rembrandt, the compulsive self-documentarian, Courbet, who styled himself a suave Bohemian, and van Gogh, the fragile genius, bandaged at the ear,” explain Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina, the two curators who had the idea for the exhibit. “Today, the genre belongs to anyone with a camera. Self-portraiture is the most democratic creative medium available, both as a performative outlet for the social self and an intimate vehicle of personal catharsis, for artists and non-artists alike.” The #Selfie National Portrait Gallery was organized as part of the Moving Image Contemporary Art Fair of London. It was one of the first exhibits to feature this type of digital expression in a gallery context.
- At the same time, the Imperial War Museum of Manchester incorporated the “selfie” of Tony Blair in Iraq into its new war photography exhibit. It was a controversial snapshot that would create a widespread buzz and ensure publicity for the event.
- On , Mar Dixon and CultureTheme organized the world’s first day devoted to taking “selfies” inside a museum. The idea is simple: mobile device users all over the world were invited to share “selfies” taken at museums on Twitter using #MuseumSelfie.
- The North Carolina Art Museum in the United States lets visitors post their self-portraits on Mirror Self-Portrait, a dedicated space on its Pinterest site. The Walker Art Center also selects the most creative visitor “selfies” posted on Pinterest.
Powerful marketing tool
Museums can also use the “selfie” as a powerful marketing tool. What could be a more effective viral marketing tool than the multi-network distribution of photos of strangers in front of works of art?
The viral effect can increase geometrically if the photographer in front of the work is a celebrity. Take, for example, the recent “selfies” snapped by singer Shakira in Paris: her photos in front of the Mona Lisa and in Orsay went out to her 54 million fans. The only photo ever taken in the Musée d’Orsay in France received over 250 000 “likes,” nearly 8 000 shares and over 12 000 comments in a few days! The museum even issued a thank-you, in the form of an admission: “We owe a great deal of thanks to Shakira for this unexpected worldwide publicity … even if taking photos is prohibited inside the Musée d’Orsay.”
Is the “selfie” an art form?
The “selfie” is considered by some to be a technological extension of the self-portrait of famous artists. And yet the “selfie” has not yet become an art form. It may even be that the “selfie” is already on the way out, since visual modes come and go quickly. “I wonder, for example, if photography won’t be replaced by video selfies,” says art historian Thomas Schlesser.