Whether on Buzzfeed or in TIME Magazine, I’m sure you’ve come across the term “millenials”. Millenials, also known as “Generation Y”, or worse still, the “me me me generation”, are notoriously “narcissistic” both for posting pictures of themselves all over the web, and for worshipping celebrities who publish their own “selfies”. The Guardian has an interesting take on the millennial generation, citing the proliferation of “selfies” as the cause of “the rise of … digital narcissism” and the cause of an egocentric age that has heretofore never been seen.
While cellphones with front-facing cameras do facilitate photographic self-representation, it is hard to believe that the human egocentrism so heavily associated with the “selfie” is unprecedented.
There is nothing novel about narcissism or the drive to represent the self, in a photograph or otherwise: Anyone who has ever been to an art gallery and seen the self portraiture of Rembrandt or Raphael would surely agree that shared self-representation, whether narcissistically or otherwise motivated, is not something unique to the millennial generation.
While one might argue that modern “selfies” are less authentic self portraits, as “selfies” are either too posed, distorted, filtered or photoshopped, many classical self portraits like Van Gogh’s also “filter” and distort “real” physical appearances.
To the critic who argues still that “self-portraits” are of an inherently higher culture status since their primary motivation is artistic expression rather than narcissistic exhibitionism, I invite them to regard these self portraits by Rubens and by Bandinelli:
Rubens’ self portrait on the left emphasizes his high status: he artfully painted in “status symbols” such as his regal stance, hat and clothes to “highlight [his] wealth and standing” just as he would do for paying clients hoping to impress.
On the right, Bandinelli’s self portrait “proclaims Bandinelli’s status as Florence’s official sculptor: he proudly holds a preparatory drawing for the Hercules and Caucus that secured his reputation. Around his neck is a gold chain with a shell — emblem of the Imperial Order of Santiago — which he received from Emperor Charles V.”
Conversely, artist Carla Gannis’s “selfies”, instead of boast and self-congratulate, fearlessly “weave together art historical and literary references with current technological and cultural tropes” and pose thoughtful questions about “past and present collisions, identity schisms, and the questioning of biases regarding how women author and appear in their own stories today” (more on that here).
Thus narcissism is clearly not something uniquely (or even necessarily) characteristic of the new generation (or of digital technology) and should not be framed as such. The urge to represent the self, whether for artistic, historical preservationist or narcissistic purposes is timeless and universal, and can be traced even as far back as early cave drawings.
While many “selfies” are expressions of egoism and self-centeredness, neither the “selfie” nor the self-portrait is an inherently “purer”, or more altruistically driven medium of self-representation. To anyone interested in further investigating the nature and evolution of portraiture, I recommend a visit to the McIntosh Gallery on Western Campus, where displays of even more diverse styles and media of self-representations push the boundaries of self-representation and of the “Self”.