Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Selfie Is Not a Portrait

Selfies may be taken promiscuously and gratuitously but that doesn’t mean that the word “selfie” should be too. A selfie is not any picture of yourself but a picture of you that you’ve taken yourself, with your phone, or maybe looking into your computer’s webcam—the picture is taken with a device that is capable of distributing it on a network almost immediately, and the picture shows the same device (if it’s a phone pointed at a mirror) or at least reveals the body’s relationship to the device through a certain shape of posture: the face tilted toward the laptop’s surface, an arm outstretched as it holds the phone at a distance, or a bent shoulder if the phone is held more closely. This is how the selfie inscribes a body into a network—this is how it asserts a body’s connection to others through a network via their respective devices. “Receiving a photo of the face of the person you’re talking to brings back the human element of the interaction, which is easily misplaced if the interaction is primarily text-based.” Jenna Wortham wrote in “My Selfie, Myself,” a recent feature in the New York Times. The selfie is phatic: it’s an image that establishes immediate contact, by introducing gesture and mimicry—both components of face-to-face interactions—to telecommunications.

A selfie is not a portrait. A portrait is a flat monument. Like a bust or a full-body statue, a portrait (whether painted on canvas or shot by a photographer) partially extracts the sitter from her life. Portraiture asserts the sitter’s significance—it says she deserves to be inscribed in history. A great portrait, whether painted or photographed, conveys its maker’s awareness of his task and the contradictions inherent in it this task: the promise and the impossibility of immortality. A great portrait reveals the ripeness and vulnerability of the sitter’s body, both in the way it depicts his flesh and in the inclusion of a memento mori, wilting flowers, or some fruit about to rot. Time will kill him. His image will outlive him. The same is true for the self-portrait: the artist has to find a distance from herself, to step outside her body in order to think about its mortality.

A selfie is not monumental. It doesn’t inscribe its maker in history; it inscribes him in a networked present. Can a selfie be art? I think so, but it would entail discarding the conventions of subjecthood of the public sphere both for artists and for art—the artist as a singular figure creating singular works of art—and instead thinking of art as an everyday activity. Even as an everyday activity, though, art would still have to retain a certain complexity and openness of relations—the qualities that allow an image to outlive the body in it, integrated in life. I think Jessica Ciocci’s selfies on Instagram are art. Her face and body acquire grimaces, poses, wigs and outfits in in her selfies, and she posts five or six or a dozen of them consecutively; the angles are weird, mirrors and frames cut her off. Charlie Chaplin made his movements stiff and distinct, to mimic the way film breaks reality into many still images and then reconstitutes them as motion—but Jessica Ciocci’s selfies do the opposite, revealing a fluidity of the body against the cut squares of Instagram and in doing so she situates social media in the movement of ordinary, everyday life. Jesse Darling’s selfies are art, too. She tends to take them in airports or airplanes or gallery bathrooms or chain coffeehouses—a liquid embodied presence in the junkspace of the global city, a grim expression and a gaze directed at the phone (not the receiver of the image) speaking to an anxiety about the affective labor demanded of her and her resigned acquiescence.

Jesse Darling was one of the artists included in “National #Selfie Portrait Gallery,” a project organized by Kyle Chayka and Marina Galperina for the Moving Image Art Fair in London. I like the coinage “selfie portrait.” It sounds to me like a suggestion of an image that draws its characteristics from both the selfie and the portrait, but isn’t quite either one, or maybe it’s a new kind of portrait, where the conventional signifiers of fleshly vulnerability and fleeting life are replaced by references to the ephemeral, phatic time of social media. And maybe that’s what was happening in the works featured in “National #Selfie Portrait Gallery.” But that’s not how Chayka presented it in his statements about the project. “The concept of the selfie is as old as art history—selfies are simply self-portraits, the same as works created by Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Masaccio and others,” he told the British newspaper Metro. “The original selfies were painted or drawn self-portraits. Albrecht Durer created his own as early as the 15th century. From there, selfies evolved with the different media used to make art.” Chayka’s equation of selfie with self-portrait is as stupid as Blake Gopnik’s identification of Picasso’s Cubism with an Instagram filter, on the basis that both change the way one sees an image, which naturalizes the conventions, respectively, of realist painting and cell-phone photography—but I digress. Chayka’s erasure of distinctions among mediums makes does a disservice to the artists he’s showing—he fails to identify what makes their work special. It’s also a disservice to himself as a curator—why is he showing these works? In Chayka’s explanations, the selfie becomes meaningless beyond its instrumentalization as an engine of attention, a buzzword that draws coverage. Something similar is happening in art magazines, as they use the selfie to leech some of the excitement of social media, and delay their own deterioration as organs of mass media. Art in America recently asked me to submit a selfie for a “mass portrait” of the art world (I refused, rather obnoxiously, because the request didn’t recognize me as a maker or theorist of selfies, they just wanted me to be one face among many), and I heard that Art Review’s upcoming “Power 100” issue will feature pictures of the members of its list with “staged selfies.” Spontaneity is discarded, and what’s left? A plea for attention. Most of the time when you read about selfies in the mass media you learn that every selfie is narcissistic, that every selfie says “look at me.” But that’s just what happens to the selfie when it’s taken out of context.

Notes from the Studio Wall


{In August 2013 I was a resident at the Shandaken Project. I made some sketches and notes on the wall of my studio there. These are the notes}


the corporate subject grasps the

public sphere, it is his


he wants to establish its/his

Vectors in the Common Blob of

Social Media but it absorbs

and dissolves them..

Rather, it cannot dissolve them

but it dirties them—sullies

them with its slop


the vectors are the apparatus…

the apparatus establishes relations


the apparatus—

the technophallic subject—

penetrates privacy

(rather than absorb

and dissolve and dirty

like the blob)


the corporate subject

is fucking privacy

to get access to


to manage bodies—

to reassert its vectors

of control at an individuated

individualized scale


DISCOURSE (the halo of

discourse sheltering

and nurturing

the public sphere)


[the public sphere is full of brands]


[vectors emanating from the public sphere establish: history; expertise, connoisseurship, judgment; policing discourses in general; social bonds, social relations]

[the Common Blob connects bodies to the public sphere and to privacy:]




encroaching on the

corporate subject—

it is its abject


does it


it emits from—

but it is always

perceived as coming

from without—


[postscript: this is the nature of the abject, the subject is horrified by what its body produces]


the common blob assaults

both the public sphere and privacy

(because the concept of privacy

is incumbent upon the public sphere)

the blob dissolves the distinction between them—

and them with it


the common blob is not

the body but it is

a projection an

emission of bodies

just as the corporate body

is not a body—but a


a sum

(a multiplication)

of relations

among bodies


the common blob

is the abject

of the incorporated



the common blob is not heroic

its people but its nothing


[things that are on the border between the territories of the body and of the public sphere:]




[drawing of a body with a limp dick and things that pertain to it:]



sensory perception



the abject


taste belongs to the body

taste is a sense



[on Art:]

art is

a projection of a body

into the public sphere

or any public


the common blob—

even though there

it is difficult

to recognize

as art

(as we know it)

there, in the blob, art becomes stripped

of the discursive forms

of art

art is revealed as

an equitable relation



what a body makes

to commicate

with other bodies

by means that outstrip immediate

restrictions on presence

(in time & space)

the things that bind

speech, gesture,

mimicry, movement }

all of which





if they

are to enter

the field of art


when art is


when it is made by multiple


for an ideological purpose

it enters the sphere of

inequitable social relations

money and technologies

of public presentation

such as the



but—like a

person who enters

that sphere

it still has places

of vulnerability

that reveal equality


its not real art


they are not real people


some may think

the BRAND is

the same as art—

an improvement, an


but it’s something else—not art

BRANDS can be used

by art or people

to become something lese

to operate like

the corporate subject

to imitate it, the rules of its discourse


[notes on the drawing:]

the smudge

is the abject

of writing


enjambment is

the limit

of the hand

when writing

on a wall

while standing

so is stanza length


Diderot’s Pleasures

Over the summer I read Diderot’s reviews of the Paris Salon of 1767 and he became one of my favorite art writers. He knows what he likes, and he knows how to say why it’s good. As you read it you get a sense of him moving through the space of the Salon, observing the paintings, listening to the other viewers, and making his judgments, quickly, with wit and with feeling.

Diderot is credited with the invention of modern art criticism. Before him there were theories about art and histories of it, and theoretical histories—but there weren’t examples of writers who would look at a bunch of artworks and then record their response. He was the first writer to put into words the bodily experience of being among works of art, and having a sense of how his taste conditions a response to them. His approach was descriptive, lively, often conversational—a way of writing that defined journalistic criticism and persists in the best examples of it today: the reviews of Andrew Russeth, Peter Schjeldahl, Roberta Smith, Jerry Saltz. All of those critics write for general interest publications. But the general tone in art criticism today is set by the professional press, the many magazines and journals that are dedicated entirely to art, and for the most part in those publications a sense of taste—or taste as a sense that is connected to an embodied experience of art—is invisible, excised during the writing process, as writers try to project an air of scholarly objectivity, and inscribe art into the systems that govern the professional art world.

In the preface to the edition of Diderot’s writing that I read, Thomas Crow talks about how salon reviews were written before Diderot, and they were widely read and anticipated, because for people who couldn’t make it to Paris for the Salons these reviews were the only way to keep up with the latest in painting; reproductions weren’t available. But these reviews were mostly written for aristocratic collectors around Europe, who factored salon reviews into their choices of whether or not to purchase paintings, and so writing about art was highly regulated. Painters of the academy didn’t want outsiders commenting on their work because it could affect their sales. Diderot’s choice to write in a non-academic style, one that echoed the voice of art’s new public, the people who came to look at the Salons but didn’t have the money to buy anything there, was therefore a political gesture.

Diderot’s choice to write in a way that expresses the potential for spontaneity and emotive response in encounters with art works runs nicely parallel to his main criterion for good art—he likes art that is full of life.

Because Diderot is always looking for life in a work, he can address the subject of a portrait directly: “Madame la Princesse de Chimay, Monsieur le Chevalier de Fitz-James, her brother, you are terrible, absolutely terrible; you are insipid, utterly insipid. Into storage. No nuance, no transitions, no modulation in the flesh tones. Princess, tell me, don’t you feel the weight of this curtain which you’re holding? It’s difficult to say which of the siblings is the stiffest and the coldest.” Sometimes he inserts himself into paintings and imagines himself interacting with the people in them—he talks about the passions or passionlessness of the people depicted as if they’re real, as if he knows them, or could know them. On a historical painting by Halle: “Now tell me, if you will, who is this thin, ignoble, expressionless, characterless man reclining in this tent? ‘It is King Scilurus.’ That, a king! A Scythian king! Where is the pride, the feeling, the judgment, the undisciplined reason of savage man? This is a wretch.”

His judgments are terse (“He also exhibited pictures of fruit and some portraits; the fruit is beautiful, the portraits are bad.”). Or they start out that way. As he writes the review he leads you through the details that produced his judgments, and animates them: “Well, this is heavy-handed and tiresome. The scene unfolds in front of a landscape. And what a landscape! It’s  ponderous; its trees resemble those on the shop signs from the Notre Dame bridge; there’s no air between their trunks and branches; no lightness; no vibrancy in the leaves, which are so firmly glued to together that the wildest hurricane wouldn’t detach a single one.” Then he goes on about “Cupid the Knife-Grinder” present in the foreground. His gut reaction becomes the reader’s gut reaction, but he doesn’t leave it there. He can be nasty but he gives enough description of the work to enrich his account of it—he hits the gut, but gives a sense of the whole body and mind it’s attached to.

This is true his reviews of the paintings he likes as well as the ones he dislikes. When writing about “A Spanish Rider Dressed in the Old Style,” for instance, he starts out by saying “Very handsome little picture, I’ve made a mistake, a handsome large picture!” His point here is that the painter does so much with so little that even though the painting is massive it sticks in his memory as something small. His deliberate correction to his own description gives a sense of the proportion of detail to composition in the work.

He reflects on his method of writing. “A very good method for describing pictures, especially those set in the open, is to enter into the site from the right or left and, advancing forward to the lower edge, to describe its elements as they are encountered. I’m very irritated with myself for not having realized this sooner.” But he never just describes—he tells a story. A story about what is happening in the work, and a story of his encounter with it.

Diderot’s intent, as I wrote above, was to channel the voice of the people—the opinions of people who he heard talking about paintings at the salon. The way he does this is not transcription, but finding a way of writing about art that reanimates in language the immediacy of the experience of being there.

“When I censure I knit my brow,” he writes in his account of seeing some bad portraits. Taste isn’t just about a judgment—it’s a gesture. It’s felt in a body.