The selfie exists everywhere that people own smartphones. DIS Magazine’s #artselfie, published by Jean Boîte Éditions, attempts to freeze one aspect of this cultural moment — the art selfie — by parlaying its meaning into a gleaming, print-only book that contains a selection of hashtagged images, an essay by writer and artist Douglas Coupland, and a conversation between DIS and Swiss Institute Director Simon Castets. This is where the first question comes up: What is the point of containing a constantly reproducible online aesthetic in a printed book in the first place? How does that create the illusion of ownership over something that remains in the public domain? It seems like anyone who hashtags their own image with #artselfie should be a part of the conversation, but instead only certain people, selected by DIS, become indicative of what the art selfie is or could be. DIS furthermore doesn’t explain why they chose certain images while ignoring others, which makes for a fairly narrow-minded perspective on a broad, ever-evolving phenomenon.
There are four main types of art selfies included in the book. The first two are distinguished by their gaze. In one variation, the picture taker treats the smartphone camera like a mirror, looking at themselves; it just so happens that this moment occurred near some art, which often contains a reflective surface. In these images, the selfie shooter is usually trying to express some sort of affect or emotion, appearing sexy, ecstatic, fierce, or just sweet. In another variation, the person obscures their face or gaze by bringing the smartphone into the frame; the image then becomes more about the relationship between them and their phone, the photograph a documentation of that moment.
In the third type of art selfie, the picture taker’s expression and pose somehow relate or react to the work they’re shown with, setting up the image as documentation of an interaction with art. In the #artselfie book, Instagram user @norauls sticks out his tongue next to a picture of a butt (#artselfie #jaimiewarren #getitwhileitshot). Another image, of @kevinmcgarry, shows him standing next to a sculpture of a bald man (#artselfie #sketchy). The picture is suggestive of a feeling elicited by the artwork, but that’s it — there’s no explanation of why this photograph was taken, what it could mean, or what brought this person to see this art. It’s just a moment in a museum or gallery, with the same message as any selfie: this is me, I am here, look at me, I want you to.
The fourth type of art selfie merely portrays a person with a work of art. An image by @josephfgeagan early on in the book demonstrates this: We see a young black man in front of a photograph of a Sports Illustrated covered with dead fish; when one goes to @josephfgeagan’s Instagram feed, however, it becomes obvious that the person pictured is not Joseph himself. Images like these qualify as selfies only because they are photos of people that have been uploaded to social media and hashtagged as such — not because they were actually shot by the subjects themselves.
The experience of looking at a printed selfie inside a hardcover book is completely different than scrolling through an Instagram feed. In the latter, a selfie has a way of breaking up the flow of images, asking the viewer to stop a second and look right now. They feel almost touchable through the smartphone screen. The selfies in the book don’t imply immediacy; instead, they appear as archived moments. As such, #artselfie seems to operate as documentation of a past trend, an experience antithetical to the current, continuing stream of art selfie hyperactivity on social media.
Because the selfie is a new, generally youthful trend, it’s not surprising that young people make up the majority of art selfie shooters in this book. There’s even one attractive young white guy, @mattardell, whose art selfies appear multiple times. A quick scroll through Instagram tells us that he is Matthew, an art student and model, and he’s beautiful and really great at taking all types of selfies, with or without art. His slender dreamy model looks are the same ones that appear on billboards and in magazines; he’s skilled at the art of knowing how to get people to want to consume his image.
The majority of art selfies in this book feature young white people like Matthew. We do see some young people of color, a pair of older white people caught selfie-ing in front of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) at MoMA, a cat #artselfie (#catartselfie?!), and P. Diddy in front of the Mona Lisa (@iamdiddy), but they all appear ancillary to the majority of young white people. This may very well have to do with the art world’s lack of diversity rather than any editing decisions by DIS, but it’s strange nonetheless. At least there’s some gender diversity in the bunch.
The book redeems itself somewhat through its textual element: a thoughtful conversation between DIS and Castets and an essay by Coupland. Lodged in the middle of the book, between the Coupland and Castets texts, there’s also a very brief, intelligently written essay by Marvin Jordan of DIS Magazine. Jordan’s name is listed nowhere else in the book, but his essay does offer an insightful art historicization of the selfie in relation to Sontag’s meditations on the photograph with astute observations such as this one:
What is historically unique in the #artselfie is that it heralds the decentralized, disruptive power of the Internet infiltrating the institutionally guarded walls of the art world. When Susan Sontag spoke about the ‘image-junkie’ of her time, she hardly could have foreseen the amplification that would occur due to the compulsory sharing endemic to social media.
Though both of these texts offer intelligent, critical takes on the art selfie trend, it is, after all, 2015 and we need to hear the voices of more than just white men. Why didn’t DIS commission an essay from a woman, a person of color, someone who is of a gender-variant identity, or perhaps even a teenager who writes about selfies as part of daily life?! This failure makes the #artselfie seem like an elitist or exclusive club, when really it’s just something anyone with a smartphone can do when they’re at an art space and feeling bored, bold, or excited — wanting to take a private art moment and make it public in an attempt to connect, or just be seen by someone, out there in the world.
#artselfie is available from Jean Boîte Éditions.