Time makes subjective decisions when it comes to art. As the years pass, opinions on artists and their works alter with the moving culture, and after half a century, a despised writer can become one of the most idolised figures of their day. Time continues to praise Chekhov while its eye grows suspicious of Hemingway. Some, like Woody Allen, seem immune to developments. The reputation of an artist or a form will, given time, turn them into kitsch or into classics.
Photography has always struggled with its reputation in the art world, with whether it can be called art at all. Photographers have fought against this, have created classics of artistic imagery whose credentials cannot be denied. And yet, beside a painted canvas, a photograph is likely to still be considered less seriously, as though less thought had gone into one than the other. The bias against a photograph is that anyone can pick up a camera, and the result is going to seem more accomplished than if an amateur picked up a paintbrush, or a pencil. The selfie, then, is a difficult format when it comes to audition for a position as ‘real art’. The very prominence of selfies is their accessibility and ease. No skill is required to add to the millions already online.
The San Jose Museum of Art are running an exhibition on the basis of this question. ‘Today, millions of selfies – from the funny and self-deprecating to the private and sexually explicit – are shared with friends and strangers around the world. But is the selfie the same as the fine art genre of photographic self-portraiture?’ This is from the page dedicated to the exhibition, titled, ‘This Is Not A Selfie: Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection’, will run from the 25th August until January 14th. With a gallery of self-portrait photographs, the museum is offering a view of self-portraits ‘from the vantage of the “Age of the Selfie.”’ In the collection are photographs from the likes of Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Andy Warhol and Alfred Stieglitz, amongst many more past photographers. ‘This is not a Selfie’ is seemingly using the popularity of one medium to draw attention back to a recent ancestor, but it is also drawing comparisons and contrasts. Reading the description of the exhibition, the museum appear to be drawing a line between self-portrait and selfie. ‘But is the selfie the same as the fine art genre of photographic self-portraiture? How are these two forms of photographic self-expression different? Why is it important to make the distinction between the two practices?’
The question should be reworded: is it important to make the distinction? There is no necessity to separate one from the other. When someone uploads an edited image of themselves to the internet, are they not revealing as much about themselves and their culture as any professional photographer? Given the digital era now rushing forwards, is it helpful to continue to make the art world exclusive? Time will inevitably be the deciding factor, and given enough time, the selfie will fall into the category of accepted art, or a throw-away addiction of the first truly digital generation. The fact is that it should not be dismissed or canonised definitively, but the former would be a more ridiculous choice than the latter. The custodians of ‘real art’ have always had an issue with anything popular, and the selfie is simply the latest shape of expression that anyone can access. They will have to survive for some time before any acceptance arrives.