I own a selfie stick.
This is not really by choice. That’s not to say it was forced upon me; it was somewhat consensual, coming free with a purchase of something I actually wanted. I have never used a selfie stick, and I don’t think the mere fact that I now have one all to myself is going to change that. Its only benefit to me will be to reduce the net loss on the original purchase when it goes to a loving home via eBay.
Nevertheless, this glistening shaft of photographic egotism’s awkward intrusion into my home led me to consider the selfie more widely. This coincided with my reading a Guardian article by art critic Jonathan Jones who, even by the standards one might expect of a Guardian art critic, is so pretentious that if he were to look down his nose any more his eyeballs would be poking out of his nostrils.
Still, let’s try to forget for a moment about the fact that this is a man so out of touch that he thinks a member of the Royal Family is the arbiter of the cultural zeitgeist; instead, we will delve into his musings on the symbolism of self-portraiture:
The self portrait for Van Gogh and Picasso was a thing of fear and dread: we’ve taken that dread and airbrushed it out of existence. Selfies deny and erase a fundamental human self-consciousness. […] The widespread delusion that selfies have anything in common with real portraits – that when Rembrandt painted his own image he was somehow daubing a “selfie” – is a tragic attempt to reduce the most profound human experiences to total banality.
Is this really a “widespread delusion”? For me to try to compare a selfie I take with the work of Van Gogh would be like drunkenly falling on a piano’s keyboard and declaring through boozy breaths that the sound created was on a level with Debussy. However euphonious it sounds to me, I know this to be folly. The selfie is not about art, just as Picasso didn’t daub his visage to record his night out with the lads.
Ultimately, although it uses new technology, I can’t see that the selfie stick is a novel phenomenon. It solves the problem camera-owners have had for decades as they have tried uncomfortably to capture their likenesses with an outstretched limb and an educated guess as to the direction of the lens; meanwhile, the self-timer on a camera dates back to the early 20th century and, heck, those who could afford it centuries ago were having themselves painted surely more for the sake of ego than art. The earliest interpretation of a selfie stick was probably the jagged twig that cave-dwellers used to smear what they saw reflected in a puddle onto a wall in mammoth blood. (My understanding of cave life is admittedly limited.)
My point is that, whether you call it ego, art or simply the desire to record a moment, the urge to document the self has existed since well before anyone had even uttered the words “fundamental human self-consciousness”. And I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. I’m not saying that society doesn’t have a problem with over-emphasising the aesthetic — it does — but the aesthetic, and moreover the ability to shape your own, has a major role to play in the creation of an individual identity. The selfies you take — or your choice not to take them — influences that and should be applauded.
That’s not to say we’re not entitled to our own taste when it comes to these matters. I, for example, would not have a problem with a selfie like this:
(Remember what I said about comparing myself to Van Gogh? I think you’ll see the parallels.)
See, I don’t like taking photos of buildings and landscapes when I travel. You can go on Google Image Search and find a billion identical images, and so can your friends. If you stick your face in it — pow! Suddenly it’s unique and a genuine memory of your wonderful experience. (I have a friend who told me about her boyfriend who, instead of taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower, would take a photo of the coffee he drank in front of said edifice as that would evoke memories that only he had access to. I like that. And I like coffee. So everything about that is great.)
However, I have some Facebook friends who post selfies like this:
Now, as I’m sure you will agree, the subject of this photo looks spectacular, and a nice face is always lovely to see. However, for all I know you are not at the Grand Canyon. What’s more, given that every picture on your Facebook page is identical to this one, I doubt that looking at it will conjure up that feeling of sublime awe you experienced when you stood on the edge of that great crevasse and contemplated infinity.
Digressions into personal bugbears notwithstanding, though, I think selfies are generally not going to spell the end of civilisation. If this is the case, why am I so reluctant to join the army of selfie stick brandishers? In theory, they should be perfect: they in fact make it easier to take selfies of the ‘acceptable’ type I described above; they also reduce the facial distortion that close-up photos inflict on my flawless features.
I suppose it simply comes down to the impracticality of waving a stick around all the time. One should be able to take a selfie without risking the corneas of unfortunate passers-by. When the National Gallery banned the selfie stick last month, all the announcements were about safety to fellow art lovers and protection of the paintings, all of which is rightand proper.
Being critical, we might say that both the National Gallery and I are making excuses to mask our snobbery over a cultural phenomenon that we don’t fully understand. So be it. If you disagree with me and can’t get enough of the unwieldy gizmos, I completely respect your opinion. In fact, I encourage you to buy more. I hear there will be a brand new one popping up on eBay any day now.