The Selfie as a Descendant of Renaissance Portraiture

“Can you guys help me pick a filter? I don’t know if I should go with XX Pro or Valencia. I wanna look tan. What should my caption be? I want it to be clever. How about, ‘Living with my bitches, hashtag LIVE.’ I only got 10 likes in the last 5 minutes, do you think I should take it down? Let me take another selfie.”

– The Chainsmokers, #SELFIE

In the music video for the song  #SELFIE, heavy base pulses rhythmically as a female clubber monologues about her night on the town and bemoans her inability to take a good selfie. Images of her and her friend fixing their hair and makeup in a bathroom mirror are interspersed with bright strobing lights from an outdoor music festival and tilted shots of strangers on the club’s dance floor. As the base drops, video clips and pictures posted on the social media sites Vine and Instagram featuring celebrities and non-celebrities alike swipe across the screen, at once glorifying and mocking the eponymous selfie. It’s no surprise that the the selfie’s cultural significance helped thrust the song’s creators (electronic dance music duo The Chainsmokers) into the spotlight, even though this song was apparently never intended to reach the radio audience. Chosen as the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2013, a selfie is defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” While this definition of selfie isn’t inherently negative, the sudden saturation of this type of photo, enabled by the introduction of the front-facing phone camera in 2010, caused a well-documented cultural backlash against the selfie. Selfies have been condemned as degrading, obsessive, narcissistic and even dangerous. On the other hand, some defend the selfie as empowering and self-constructive; however, these people are few and far between. No matter one’s personal opinion, it is clear that the selfie is a vehicle for self-expression that is substantially more accessible than painting or poetry. Even though the selfie seems to be a modern phenomenon, the practice of documenting the self dates back to the year 1493, when the earliest known formal self portrait was painted by arguably the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer. By examining the culture surrounding the selfie in comparison to the culture that surrounded self portraits during the Renaissance, one could argue that although the technologies used to create images of the self have changed, the selfie has clear historical roots that lend it cultural significance and inherent value.

The discourse surrounding the selfie has been largely one-sided. There is no shortage of articles decrying the selfie as a “cry for help,” or an “out of control” symptom of the narcissistic “me” generation. Through this lens, the selfie is a modern production of societal vice. What these people do not realize is that the selfie is actually the latest version of the age-old tradition of depicting oneself in a pleasing matter to gain social capital. This tradition can be easily traced to before the Renaissance, when the visual arts were commonly seen as a form of manual labor, whereas literature and music were seen as forms of intelligent expression. During the fifteenth century, a person’s social status was decided by their occupation (Woods-Mardsen, Renaissance Self-Portraiture: The Visual Construction of Identity and the Social Status of the Artist), with t those who worked in manual labor taking up the lowest class. The artistic community of the time wanted to reclassify art as a respectable, intellectual field, and evidence of their desire for social recognition can be found in the ways they chose to depict themselves. For example, Dürer’s first self portrait, titled Portrait of the Artist Holding a Thistle, shows the artist dressed in expensive robes of Italian fashion, signifying his international success and reputation. As said earlier, this is the earliest known formal self-portrait, and it currently resides in the Louvre. In the same way, it has been reported that teenagers are “branding themselves, starting with the selfie and then moving to the hashtag.” (Gordon, CBC News). The very point of taking a selfie is to to share it on a social media site and thus show the world the way in which that person desires to be viewed by their digital social circles. The action of seeking attention and affirmation from one’s peers is not inherently bad, but have been deemed as such by many. Similarly, Renaissance artists often worked for a court or a patron, and had nothing to gain monetarily by painting themselves. Thus, the Renaissance self-portrait fulfilled the same role of the selfie in it’s day, to be no more than a promotion of the artist and a celebration of the self.

On the other hand, a major discrepancy between the self portrait and the selfie is the characteristics associated with each form self-expression. Selfies are seen as vain and pointless, whereas Dürer’s series of self-portraits are seen as a testament to his genius. Additionally, it is interesting to note that teenage girls are the group most commonly associated with the selfie, and are also the group that is often stereotyped by society as petty, vain, and unimportant. Certainly, more effort goes into making a painting rather than taking a photo, but the fact that vanity has been dissociated from portraiture seems laughable when one takes into account the money and time spent preparing and sitting for those portraits. The most self-evident example of the dissociation comes from Dürer’s final self portrait, titled Self-Portrait In a Fur-Collared Robe. It is commonly considered a masterpiece, and many agree that the artist painted as himself in imitation of previous depictions of Christ. Even though the artist painted himself as Christ, this work is not even remotely considered narcissistic by the art community of today. One reporter comments that “selfie culture doesn’t enhance the self but degrades it” (Guengerich), another remarks that selfies are “a high tech reflection of the… way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness” (Ryan). However, if both selfies and self-portraits are driven by both “the desire to represent the subject accurately and the desire to transform or idealize the subject” (The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia), where did this massive backlash about selfies come from?

Perhaps the cultural significance put on self portraits and stripped from the selfie is a product of historical value and stereotypes of age and gender. Perhaps, like the Renaissance self-portraits, the selfie is an unconscious effort by teenagers to raise their own social capital–to say, like Dürer, that they are doing something of worth, that they want to be respected, that they want to be given meaning. Perhaps the cultural significance of the selfie is not as petty or vain as it’s often made out to be. Perhaps one day the selfie will be recognized as a respected medium of self-expression. Perhaps instead of being dismissed as a side effect of digital culture or a sad form of exhibitionism, the selfie will share another aspect with Renaissance paintings and become a form of visual social commentary, a way to mark the trends of the rapidly changing digital landscape that will hold up over time. Either way, it is clear that the cultural climates surrounding the advent of the self portrait and selfie are similar, and though the means with which these images of the self are created has greatly changed, the both possess cultural value