I knew taking a subject in social media communication meant that I would probably be participating in exercises that fell outside what would usually be considered standard university practice (I’m looking at you here class debate), but even I was surprised when we were asked to take part in a ‘selfie project’ – an exercise which saw me wandering around the university grounds for half an hour, frantically trying to snap an ‘exceptional’ self-portrait with my smartphone.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve taken a selfie or two in my time, but generally I see the whole ‘selfie phenomenon’ that is happening on social media as a sad symptom of our increasingly narcissistic, self-propagating society. Led by the Selfie Queen herself Ms Kim Kardashian (who incidentally has just released Selfish – a 352-page book comprised entirely of selfies), there are now over 286 million photographs hashtagged with #selfie and nearly 340 million hashtagged with #me on Instagram: arguably evidence of the rise of an increasingly self-absorbed generation, obsessed with flagrant self-promotion and image.
After reading Jerry Saltz’s (2014) article ‘Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie’ however, I began to rethink my quick dismissal of the selfie craze. As Saltz (2014: 1) puts it,
Selfies have changed aspects of social interaction, body language, self-awareness, privacy, and humor, altering temporality, irony, and public behavior. It’s become a new visual genre—a type of self-portraiture formally distinct from all others in history. Selfies have their own structural autonomy. This is a very big deal for art.
Selfies as art? Really?
Art & Culture: A VERY Brief Rundown
To explore this idea more deeply, it is necessary to look at how society defines art and culture more generally. In the mid-nineteenth century, Matthew Arnold (1869) argued that real culture was only that which sought to make “sweetness and light…prevail”. This distinction between the ‘real’ or high culture of societal elites and the music, art and fiction consumed by the masses persisted until about the mid-1960s, after which a new group of artists and critics emerged and pushed back against “modernism’s canonisation of high culture” and established a “new sensibility” that blurred the two cultural poles (Childers, 2012: 122).
While this helped break down the division between high culture and popular culture, the modernists’ insistence upon the “separateness of the artist” and the autonomous nature of art as a “closed object” still prevailed for much of the twentieth century (Henry, 1994: 85). This understanding shifted however, in the 1990s, with the rising popularity of new art forms, which focused on connecting, rather than isolating, their audiences. As Tad Friend wrote in 1993:
Good art that reaches thirty million people and makes them feel connected may have more to offer us now than great art that reaches three thousand and makes them feel more or less alone. In our time the standards for art have changed, expanded. The future belongs to Bart Simpson.
Social Media & Art: The Triumph of UCC + Vernacular Creativity?
This expanding definition of what society considers ‘art’, driven by the immense popularity of satirical sitcoms such as The Simpsons, has arguably been pushed even further by the emergence of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 (a term popularised by Tim O’Reilly in 2004) is a concept used to describe a number of different technical, economic and social developments that have taken place since the beginning of the Internet (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013: 16-17). In terms of our discussion, there are two commonly held ideas about Web 2.0 that should be noted:
- In the 2000s there has been a gradual shift from the majority of Internet users accessing content produced by a small number of professional producers to users increasingly accessing content produced by other non-professional users; and
- In the 2000s the web has shifted from being primarily a publishing medium to being primarily a communication medium (Manovich, 2009: 319-320)
The explosion of user-created content (UCC) that has resulted from these changes has led to a fundamental shift in modern media culture that is both “challenging the arts” and “providing artists with new avenues for artistic expression” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013: 77). In their work Understanding Social Media, Hinton & Hjorth (2013) look more closely at this evolving relationship between art and social media, taking care to note a number of key developments, including:
- The ways cultural institutions like museums and galleries are embracing social media to engage with their visitors;
- The erosion of the traditional domination of these same institutions over culture and cultural production;
- The different ways artists are responding to social media, including those who are incorporating it into their artistic practices; and
- The rise of art-based social networking sites (SNS), which have opened up the opportunity for both artistic works and artists to be promoted on the basis of community consensus.
For our purposes however, the most important concept Hinton & Hjorth cover is ‘vernacular creativity’. Coined by Jean Burgess in 2007, the term refers to forms of “everyday, ordinary creativity” (ie. taking photographs on holiday, writing in a journal and, yes, even taking a selfie) that have increasingly been shared and circulated due to the rise of social media (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013: 96).
For Burgess (2007: 1), while vernacular creativity is ordinary, it is not necessarily generic or boring. As he puts it:
Each example of vernacular creativity is also a representation of a specific life, a specific time, a specific place…because of this specificity, the ordinariness of vernacular creativity doesn’t necessarily equate to uninterestingness. The practices and artefacts of vernacular creativity are of course very rich and meaningful in relation to the social contexts in which they’re created, communicated, and disseminated…
In this way, according to Burgess (2007: 35), while vernacular creativity operates outside the purview of art, it should not be seen as ‘other’ to art and, in fact, to ignore the artistic value of everyday practices, such as selfie-taking, is to deny a form of individualistic self-expression.
Art & Web 2.0: Friend or Foe?
But before we all start jumping on the selfie bandwagon and hailing ol’ Kimmy K as the next Leonardo da Vinci, it is important to consider just how ‘original’ these new SNS-based art forms really are. In his work on the rise of “mass cultural production”, Lev Manovich (2009: 321) argues that in celebrating UCC as “alternative” and “progressive”, academics have largely neglected asking basic critical questions. For example:
To what extent is the phenomenon of UCC driven by social media companies themselves, who, after all, are in the business of getting as much traffic to their sites as possible so they can make money through advertising and usage data? (Manovich, 2009: 321).
For Manovich (2009: 321), given that a significant percentage of UCC either follows the templates and conventions set up by the SNSs themselves, or directly reuses professionally-produced content, it could be argued that people’s identities and imaginations are now even more firmly colonised by the commercial media’s ‘culture industry’ than they were in the twentieth century.
In terms of the selfie, since the companies that create social media platforms make money from having as many users as possible visit them, they have a direct interest in having users pour as much of their lives into these platforms as possible. Consequently, certain SNS encourage the ‘art’ of selfie-taking, by expanding the functionality of the platforms themselves. For example, in terms of Facebook, the site provides users with unlimited storage space, the ability to instantly upload their photos and even new options for geo-tagging, all promoting the kind of instantaneous, disposable, ubiquitous photo-taking that has come to define the selfie.
Free the (Artistic) Nipple
This idea that the ‘artistic’ UCC that is being increasingly shared on social media is driven more by SNSs than the users themselves is highlighted in the case of Sydney artist Ella Dreyfus. In March of this year, internationally acclaimed artist Ella Dreyfus was blocked from Facebook after posting photographs of ageing nude women as a protest to the narrow “community standards” that govern the social media site (Dumas, 2016: 1).
While Facebook (2016) is clear about restricting “some images of female breasts if they include the nipple”, Dreyfus argues that the site deems some female breasts more acceptable than others, with breasts that are young or less immediately ‘female’ often slipping through the censorship process. As Dreyfus puts it, “the view of what we are allowed to see and what’s condoned and what is acceptable has become narrower and narrower…unless you’re young, gorgeous and selling a product you have no place on Facebook” (Dumas, 2016: 1.
Looking towards the future: Can Art and Social Media Co-exist?
This brings us back to the question posed at the beginning of the article: is art still possible in the age of social media? If one is looking at the way Dreyfus’ images were censored on both Facebook and Instagram because “they might promote sexual violence or exploitation”, while Kim Kardashian’s nude selfie (and the thousands of copy-cat photos it inspired) was widely celebrated and shared, it would be hard not to feel slightly pessimistic about the direction society is headed. As Manovich observes, at the end of the day, SNSs are out to make a profit, and the explosion of UCC that we have seen on the web since the 2000s cannot be realistically separated from this fact.
It does not necessarily follow however, that it is no longer possible to create content online that holds any artistic value. Firstly, while undeniably a large majority of UCC does follow conventions established by SNSs, as well as borrow from professionally- produced content, this does not mean that the product cannot be original or imaginative. For example, some of the most creative and hilarious content seen on the Internet in 2014 were parodies inspired by Kim Kardashian’s bare-bottomed, #BreakTheInternet shoot for Paper magazine.
While this kind of creativity does not follow the modernist or romantic model of making it ‘new’, it does demonstrate what Manovich (2009: 326) describes as “tactical creativity” – that is, “working on things in order to make them your own or to make them habitable”.
It is also important to remember that UCC is not just uploaded and shared on the SNSs that we are most familiar with (ie. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube). As discussed by Hinton & Hjorth (2013: 93), a number of different spaces have emerged online that provide new platforms for painters, photographers, musicians and other artists to share their work with other like-minded users. One such platform is the website ‘deviantART’, a SNS that “allows emerging and established artists to exhibit, promote and share their works within a peer community dedicated to the arts”. The site receives over 100,000 daily uploads of original arts works – ranging from traditional media, such as painting and sculpture, to digital art, pixel art, films and anime (http://www.deviantart.com/) – and represents some of the most innovative cultural production being done today.
Evidently then, while the relationship between social media, UCC and art can at times be problematic, the rise of Web 2.0 by no means marks the end of art and creativity. In fact, the unprecedented growth in the number of people who upload and view each other’s media has led to lots of innovation, as well as providing an outlet for ordinary, everyday people to express their own ‘vernacular creativity’. As the online landscape continues to develop and evolve, we can only expect that artistic boundaries will continue to be pushed and broken and for that, I think I am willing to put up with a few more selfies.
Burgess, J.E. (2007), ‘Vernacular creativity and new media’. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology. Retrieved from: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/16378/.
Childers, J.P. (2012), The Evolving Citizen: American Youth and the Changing Norms of Democratic Engagement. New York: Penn State Press.
DeviantART (2016), ‘About DeviantArt’, DeviantART [online]. Retrieved from: http://about.deviantart.com/
Dumas, D. (2016), ‘How Facebook decides which female breasts you can see’, Sydney Morning Herald [online], 16 March. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/technology/web-culture/how-facebook-decides-which-female-breasts-you-can-see-20160315-gnjdub.html.
Facebook (2016), ‘Community Standards’, Facebook [online]. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/communitystandards.
Friend, T. (1993), ‘Sitcoms, Seriously’, Esquire, March, 112-24.
Henry, M. (1994), ‘The triumph of popular culture: situation comedy, postmodernism and “The Simpsons”, Studies in Popular Culture,17(1), 85-99.
Hinton, S. and Hjorth, L. (2013). Understanding social media. London: Sage Publications.
Jenkins, H. (2007), ‘“Vernacular Creativity”: An Interview with Jean Burgess’, Confessions of an Aca-Fan [online], 8 October. Retrieved from: http://henryjenkins.org/2007/10/vernacular_creativity_an_inter.html#sthash.42800zug.dpuf
Manovich, L. (2009), ‘The practice of everyday (media) life: From mass consumption to mass cultural production?, Critical Inquiry, 35(2), 319-331.
Saltz, J. (2014), ‘Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie’, Vulture [online], 26 January. Retrieved from: http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/history-of-the-selfie.html.