The selfie is often maligned as everything that is wrong the current century. It is vain, silly, narcissistic, frivolous, etc. But hold on: Setting aside the fact that artists have been painting pictures of themselves for thousands of years, often famously, it is important to note that the photographic self portrait is as old as photography itself. Every time Kim Kardashian snaps an arm’s-length picture of herself with a smartphone, she is participating in a proud, noble tradition dating back to the mid-1800s. In a new episode of its webseries The Art Assignment, PBS now offers “The Art History Of The Selfie.” Host Sarah Urist Green traces the history of the selfie all the way back to the early, experimental days of photography when self-portraits were sometimes less a conscious choice than a necessity. As the decades rolled by and photography became more advanced, artists started using photographic self-portraits as a means of personal expression. Many major artists, including Andy Warhol, Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, and Weegee, took what would now be called selfies again and again in their careers. By donning a number of disguises and costumes, photographer Cindy Sherman has made a career out of her self-portraits. Already the selfie is seeming classier, isn’t it?
Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei was already serving as his own favorite subject when he “discovered social media,” as the video puts it. His career might be the crossover point at which the artistic photographic self-portrait becomes the modern day selfie. Urist Green sees significance here: “In my mind the basic motivations and potential for expression have stayed the same. I am not saying all selfies are art. Dear god no. But I am saying that there’s not really a difference in nature between a photographic self-portrait made by an artist and your run of the mill selfie.” So while a selfie is not automatically art, it’s not automatically disqualified as art either. So what is Urist Green’s advice? “Go forth and selfie. Just try to do it well.”