Are Selfies Art? #cellphoneMFA

Cellphone MFA is a digital art project that I have been nurturing for a little under a year. The work arose out of my curiosity in, and observations of, the social media landscape. I am something of a social media outsider, a statement with which I am sure my friends  would agree. I have never been anything resembling an early adopter, and created my Facebook page under duress from friends who I met at camp that desired to keep in contact with me after our time together had passed. However, through my time on social media, if I have not necessarily been much of an active participant, I have had the occasion to observe. One would truly have to be blind to be unconscious of the rise of the social media culture and all of its associated idiosyncrasies, especially that of the “selfie.”

Perhaps discussing the selfie is now a bit passé… but it is still an important feature in day-to-day existence, having attained a level of normalcy and widespread adoption across generations and social groups worldwide. It is a strange confluence of pop art and celebrity culture. (Just take a look at Kim Kardashian’s book Selfish for an example.) The selfie, along with social media, has created a platform for self-expression, which the average person is able to harness, with the hope of facilitating the potential rise to personal internet celebrity and stardom. It is a democratized form of the self-portrait and is at turns both narcissistic (Google “selfie” and “narcissism” and see what pops up) and an affirmation of self-worth (as exemplified by the body positive movement.)

I’ve existed outside the realm of the selfie for the majority of my time as a social media participant. However, I would be lying if I said that the idea of the selfie and taking selfies was not strangely fascinating to me. One day, I decided that maybe it was time for me to foray into this photographic form, but within the conceptual framework of a work of art, the intention of which was to provide a critical examination of the selfie as a mode of self-expression and legitimate art form, questioning: Are selfies truly art? As soon as I begin to create them, do I manifest my personal narcissism heretofore cunningly concealed and internalized?

Going into the project, my greatest concern was that I would enjoy it too much. If I began to seek out the self-validation and self-affirmation of the selfie, mainlining the social-media induced dopamine straight into my system, would that invalidate my premise, identifying it instead as a flimsy excuse for self-indulgence? Am I truly creating artwork, or descending into self-aggrandizing vapidity and vanity? I am enjoying the creation of these pieces. I downloaded a new photo-editing app on my cellphone specifically for this purpose, and if I were to be completely objective, would now consider Cellphone MFA to be one of my primary hobbies. How can I say that I am not now a participant in the selfie culture? I cannot.

But, is there not an artistic precedent already set for Cellphone MFA? What separates this work from that of, say, Petra Cortright, whose entire career is based on web-cam videos in which the artist parades around in front of the camera in displays that even fall shy of Lena Dunham-esque exhibitionism. The haphazard intentionality displayed in her work (a visual analogue to that of the Instapoets) is legitimized as art through clever branding and orientation within some high concept, which is easily commoditized as innovation.

So, I am left sitting in front of my cellphone, diligently tweaking various visual parameters on a photo editing app— engaging in hobbyist photography all under the auspices of fine art. (One of the few disciplines that allows for technical craftsmanship far below the accepted level of professional work in that particular field (film, sound, etc.), but that is an essay for another day) Like many artists before me, I’ve developed my conceit, and I will stick with it.

I say that Cellphone MFA is art, but does that make it so?

What is art? And who makes it so?

Leave your thoughts below.


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