Nartcissism: The artistic merit of the selfie

Taken from Curium Edition Zero:

If art is a reflection of the society in which it exists, then some might argue that the arts are on a steep path to their demise. The emergence of such a school of thought was almost inevitable considering the hallmark of the millennial generation is an amateur parody of self-portraiture, otherwise known as the selfie. Yet somewhere amongst the hashtags and filters lies true potential. Perhaps soon there will be a new artistic movement: nartcissism.

Take Kyle Thompson for example: a 22-year-old American photographer who specialises in surrealistic, conceptual self-portraits. Despite being entirely self-taught and having begun taking photos as a hobby only three years ago, he was signed last year to French photography agency Agence Vu.

Plague IV (2014), Kyle Thompson

Plague IV (2014), Kyle Thompson

Thompson’s photographs exude a sense of escapism, be it from his hometown of Chicago, or from the burden of his emotions, which he expresses as purely as he can through visual and creative concepts. In keeping with the surrealist nature of his work, Thompson’s images are visually rich and saturated with raw, intense expressions of emotion. Despite this, the images are never overwhelming to the eye; rather it is the complexity of the emotions and concepts Thompson chooses to discuss that begin to consume one’s thoughts.

There is a certain transcendent quality to Thompson’s images -- a result of the ambiguity of the subject, whose face is often concealed with elaborate drapery or common props. The faceless subject becomes a mirror of the viewer -- a place to reflect on all of one’s insecurities, and analyse one’s own emotions, be they similar or entirely opposite. Just as Thompson experiences the catharsis that comes with pouring his feelings into his work, beholding his work can provide a much needed form of catharsis for the viewer.

Untitled (2014), Kyle Thompson

Untitled (2014), Kyle Thompson

All that said, the defining characteristic to the artist’s work is his decision to cast himself as the subject. By definition, a Kyle Thompson photograph is nothing more than a selfie -- a carefully composed, craftily lit selfie, mind you. Of course, you and I both know this is utter nonsense, that the level of thought and planning put into one of Thompson’s self-portraits surpasses that of all the 72.8 million selfies on Instagram combined. Yet more importantly, there is a question that begs to be asked: can a selfie be seen as art? I believe the answer is more complicated than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

The saying goes that a picture speaks a thousand words, yet a common selfie says only three: look at me.

Just as any artist is inextricably a product of the time he or she lives in, art too is a result of the zeitgeist. At present, the zeitgeist is greatly impacted by technology and the way in which society interacts with technology. For an artist to be inspired by his or her own time, it would only be appropriate for the selfie to be embraced and accepted as an art form. Much like artistic movements of decades past -- surrealism, pop art and performance art among others -- nartcissism is a foreign notion to the masses yet, if it were to follow in the footsteps of its aforementioned predecessors, could inspire the next Warhol.

Ultimately, the intentions of the artist seem to play an instrumental role in whether the world will perceive something as art. The artist’s self-portrait seeks to convey some emotion or thought -- the former in the case of Kyle Thompson. Yet whereas the self-portrait has greater significance and depth, the selfie is shallow. The saying goes that a picture speaks a thousand words, yet a common selfie says only three: look at me.

Perhaps it’s only with this ‘look at me’ attitude that the concept of nartcissism can become a reality. Artists have concerned themselves with themes of surveillance and vanity, yet never have the two been combined. Just imagine the commentary that could be made on a society that has effectively volunteered its own privacy in the name of vanity and external validation of that vanity. Perhaps such commentary may even lead to psychological research in this field, and the world might discover its modern day Freud. It may just be wishful thinking, but I’d like to think my selfies -- colourful lovechildren of good hair days and fluctuations in self-esteem -- might have an impact worthy of history books.

Nusardel OshanaCurium