Rembrandt Van Rijn, Cindy Sherman, and Kim Kardashian are early to modern day selfie-takers. Selfies are ubiquitous. They’ve been around for centuries in one form or another, but little has changed in how they are used. They represent who a person is as far as looks and status in life. They tell a story of a person's life. Or do they?
Rembrandt, although he wasn’t the best of business men, understood the concept self-promotion. He was not a court painter, but rather an independent artist. So he had to work twice as hard to get paid commissions. In a pre-social media era, he physically sent his early self-portrait prints everywhere. (Noted in Did Rembrandt invent the selfie?). He wanted people to know what he looked like, and to build a following in order to increase his chance of art sales.
What is more impressive is that by painting these selfies, society viewed him as someone of importance and success. To have your portrait painted up until that point in time meant that you were usually a wealthy aristocrat, and that you wanted people to notice you. Even if this wasn’t the truth, society didn’t think otherwise, and saw Rembrandt as someone noteworthy. His business choices unfortunately countered his artistic successes, as he ended up declaring bankruptcy.
The art of the selfie… notes how the artist Cindy Sherman is considered to be the “Queen of the Selfie”. Her work questions identity. Her photography consists of a series of self-portraits where she dresses in different guises. Much like Rembrandt’s work, most viewers interpret Sherman’s selfies as other than what they really are. The disguises and settings in her photos look real. The initial response is not to question the authenticity of the photos, but to assume they represent reality. This is what makes her photos so powerful.
Identity and validation - many selfies seem to be a about the insatiable need for praise. As noted in the article From Kim Kardashian to Rembrandt…
“...the act of posting a selfie is more about identifying yourself than showing off your extreme hotness.”
However, in the case of Kim Kardashian, her selfies have a mix of both. Whether her selfies reflect the real Kim, or are staged like Sherman’s doesn’t matter. She has proven that the right kind of selfies can catapult your status form mere socialite to that of celebrity.
Selfies aren’t for everyone though – especially when art is involved. Take for example the Italian Student that smashed a sculpture while taking a selfie AND the selfie-taker that smashed a priceless historic Italian statue of Hercules. In the process of trying to look funny and smart, one selfie-taker ended up creating an art disaster. It's usually not a good idea to hop into the lap of early 19th-century statue at the best of times - never mind doing so to snap the perfect selfie.
It’s great to create a story and intrigue around who you are - especially if it helps you sell your art or product. However, if you don’t want your selfie moment to end up winning a Darwin Award for asinine behaviour – keep your hands off the antiquities! Gallery security will thank you for that.