I will tell you right-out that I am no authority on art or art theory but when a friend sent me the pieces presented in this post, I was so pleasantly provoked that I was compelled to try to articulate my reaction. The following is 1) me navigating something new and strange for myself, and 2) a chance for me to share the work of a friend and an artist who is making sense with territories that are new to all of us.
My reaction to Dave Douglas’ work was quite visceral; it struck me as aesthetically pleasing, funny, and wonderfully strange. But as it sat with me for a while, I came to think of it as an earnest appreciation of any and all selfie-ers, while also confounding "high" and "low culture" stereotypes. (It may come to no surprise that the artist also has a strong appreciation for Amanda Bynes concerning her recent performances on Twitter.)
The word "selfie" is interesting. While it's not (as this blogger mentions) "GPOY" (gratuitous picture of yourself), which always came across as faux-self-deprecating and is inherently degrading, "selfie" has, for whatever reason, made for an easy target for anyone willing to take shots at those who post photos of themselves. Perhaps it's the cutesy sound of the word that invites subtractors, or maybe selfies are just a new development that takes time for curmudgeons and skeptics to acclimate to. For instance, it wasn't that long that the discourse surrounding the rise of the blog was resoundingly negative.
To share an anecdote from my own experience as an example, I remember being out to dinner back in 2009 and one of my acquaintances said the following during an Internet-related conversation: "I hate anyone with a blog." I had an mp3 blog at the time, but this specific situation (as well as my cowardice) relegated me to a non-confrontational social contract, so nothing juicy came out of the exchange. But the point is, that sort of sentiment is beyond silly just 4 years later. That sort of skepticism masked as assured negativity is exhibited in reaction to selfie postings, right now. The negativity seems to be similar in that people are wary of the idea of sharing, of social networking, of the abundance that comes with a major paradigm shift in avenues of self expression. This attitude has propagated what I posit to be a plume of justifications in selfie hashtags, such as:
The last one, my favorite, isn't a justification but rather a recognition of such absurd etiquette that would request a justification for sharing your own face. Either way, an Instagram search using any such hashtag invariably yields a wealth of selfies.
As I mentioned, I really appreciate the way Dave's work disorients notions about what is "high" and what is "low culture." The prejudice I just described undeniably sets selfies comfortably in the construct of low culture. Although I'm sure it's more complex than that, I'm sure performances such as Amanda Bynes', using selfies to obliterate an easily understood and well maintained pop culture persona, have contributed to and gone hand-in-hand with people's already apprehensive perception of selfies.
And one of the bastions of high culture is art; painting and such artwork is one of the most well respected mediums, not to mention, more specifically, self portraits have been some prolific artists' most coveted work. Wonderfully, what we have with Dave's work is a composite of each of these denizens of both high and low culture.
Being the annoying and typical grad student that I am, I happened to be reading John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" just hours before coming across Dave's selfie art, and thus I couldn't help but go back and put the work in the context of some of Berger's opening thoughts about seeing. He says that "every image embodies a way of seeing," and "It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world." As Berger continues, he says that an image has just as much to do with being created as it does being seen. So according to these passages, a selfie may be interpreted as starting the conversation. In other words, by creating an image of ourselves and placing it on a social networking site, one interpretation would be that it is one's way of coming to the party, or running into you to say "hi." By the same token, it is also a way of inviting others into your own world. But that is just concerning the act of selfies. Thus, we have Dave's perspective, which, to me, is a beautiful tribute. It's a portrait of a portrait. I like to think of it as an unauthorized self portrait (...more than simply labeling it "meta"). Dave's work is a remediation that moves toward the older medium, presents a new and pervasive kind of mediation through an ancient medium to deconstruct the much maligned kind of self-expression. Lastly, there is my perspective, which is present throughout the bumblings of these paragraphs. Basically, I see this art as a simple, inventive, and deft bit against selfie backlash.
The aforementioned blogger who previously spoke out againstselfie backlash described the selfie prejudice as a way of taking the moral high ground against acts of narcissism. I concur. They even went so far as to say those (participants of social networking) who refrain from posting selfies are the narcissists. I don't think I can go that far. I don't think it's that simple. As a person who doesn't often share selfies, I can say putting yourself out there isn't always easy. Being a certain kind of shy, the possibility of being fodder for criticism (however foolish or off-base) isn't exactly inviting. For similar reasons, I didn't speak up at that dinner in 2009 to defend blogging as a useful medium. In an effort to put those reservations behind me, here’s to enjoying this new way of participating, coming to the party, and inviting others to my world.
For more of Dave Douglas’ work: