Are Selfies Really Art?

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 22 months ago
Are Selfies Really Art?
This selfie of Barack Obama, David Cameron and then-Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt made lots of headlines in 2013.

Like it or not, over one million selfies are taken every day. They cover the spectrum from Kim Kardashian to Barack Obama (even we are prone to a cheeky selfie on a night out).

But are selfies art — or at least, can they be?

The Saatchi Gallery is answering in the affirmative, with its exhibition From Selfie to Self-expression Everything from Rembrandt self portraits to Benedict Cumberbatch photobombing U2 score themselves valuable Chelsea wall space.

Some people will remain unconvinced. Here, we've put together both sides of the argument to help you decide whether selfies are vacuous self-indulgences or avant-garde art.

Selfies will never be art

It's a great underwater photo for a holiday snap, but is it art? © Cinzia Osele Bismarck

Let's first be clear on something: a photograph taken by someone else — or a painted portrait — is not a selfie. Immediately, we're ditching the notion that anything from a Van Gogh self-portrait through to Beyonce's Instagram breaking maternity photo is a selfie. It's not.

Selfies have to be photos, of yourself, by yourself (selfie stick optional). Three people gurning in a bar (or at a political get together) is not a selfie either — it's a photo of three people.

Which brings us to the next point. Art is used as an expression of oneself. Even when a selfie fits our three criteria above, it's essentially just proof that you were at a certain place at a certain time, and that you've managed to fit your mug/a sliver of a landmark into a rectangle. No more thought goes into the composition than that. This, friends, is not art.

Some photography, of course, is art, even when taken on a smartphone. Not a selfie though.

Selfies are art

Juno Calypso adopts an alter-ego in her fantastic photography works. But does this count as a selfie? Image courtesy of the artist and TJ Boulting Gallery

Art moves with the times. 500 years ago painting was the best way to create an image of yourself (being in opulent surroundings and posing as or with religious figures was optional but highly recommended). We'd call all Thomas Gainsborough paintings art — and many of his works were merely capturing the moment/showing people in their best light.

Then photography took over with a more realistic, and eventually affordable, representation. Now selfies are what we use to show people where we are and what we're up to.

Smartphones have made it possible for everyone to become a photographer and some images taken with phones these days are superb — many photography competitions now have a smartphone category.

If art is about expression, nothing is more expressive than the human face. Da Vinci captured the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile with a paintbrush, but now we have the opportunity to capture all the ambiguity that the full emotional range allows for via a camera.

This doesn't mean every pouting selfie on the Underground is art, just that selfies are another way for artists to express themselves; see Juno Calypso's work above or the avatar created by Amalia Ulman, where she convinced people to believe her spoof profile was a real person.

Selfies should be welcomed into the art fold just as video, performance and internet art have been.

Here's a selfie we took in the Yayoi Kusama infinity rooms when they were at Victoria Miro gallery. Can you spot us?

So where do you stand? Art or not? Let us know in the comments below.

From Selfie to Self-expression is on at Saatchi Gallery from 31 March-30 May. Entrance is free.

Last Updated 28 March 2017