Self-portraits have been a tool for artists since humans started documenting the world. I imagine men and women trying to draw themselves on cave walls asking, “Does this look good?” in a series of grunts. The first documented self-portrait is from 1433 and was created by a man named Jan Van Eyck. Van Eyck had an impressive career, and this now-famous painting has been hanging in London’s National Gallery since 1851.
In his famous painting, it looks to me as if Mr. Van Eyck is saying, “I was making selfies when it was underground.” Nowadays, anyone can take a self-portrait. In fact, it’s so common, taking a self-portrait is considered “low brow” to much of the population. However, we continue to self-create selfies regardless of the stigma.
The first printed mention of the word “selfie” in the Oxford English Dictionary was in 2002 in a chatroom in Australia. The word didn’t come to the United States until about 2010 and was mentioned in an article in the Chicago Tribune in 2011; “Most of us have taken a selfie at one point. But it’s the constant picture-posters who start to annoy you.” I find it pretty hilarious that the first printed usage of this word was about the negative connotations of it! Maybe the look I see in Mr. Van Eyck’s expression is accurate — maybe he actually predicted the arrival of the selfie!
I was making selfies when it was underground.
— Jan Van Eyck
My university choir recently traveled to Chile in South America where we made friends with a group of students from the university in Puerto Montt. On the final night of our stay, the most common question asked was, “Un selfie?!” They happily held their phones up to our faces, leaned in to smile, and shared posed moments. I realized then that this word’s usage had expanded — it was no longer just about the self. It’s about coming together — putting your arm around someone else and capturing the moment.
My suspicion is that people don’t really hate selfies. We’re all born to be vain. It’s in our nature to want to hold on to moments and hope that we carry on in the world after we’re gone. For a lot of performers, that’s what we’re doing with our craft. Besides the fact that we enjoy what we do, we want to make a difference to people so they feel something and talk about how we moved them. In that sense, selfies are the new performance art.
Whether you’re spreading your personal aesthetic with a new upload to Soundcloud, a tweet about finding a performance space, or a selfie posted to Instagram of the coffee helping you get through a morning rehearsal, you’re using your platforms to express yourself as a performer. I don’t think selfies should be shameful. Van Eyck might have just been having a smoulder kind of day.
Share the history of the selfie to your Facebook page and spread the word! No more selfie shaming! #SelfiegotPunkt