Art or just narcissism – should universities be places of refuge from popular culture?

One phenomenon of popular culture that suddenly erupted on the scene is the ‘selfie’. One can hardly call it a self-portrait, because that would suggest an artistic intention of sorts and an attempt to portray personality and appearance. Rather, the selfie is more of a casual capture of the moment, whatever that moment may be. It is everywhere: famously, Barack Obama and David Cameron shared the photographic frame in a selfie taken by Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt at Nelson Mandela’s funeral; and Ellen Degeneres provided some advertising for Samsung with her group selfie at the Oscars. And naturally you can wander through the pages of Facebook to see one of the selfie’s natural habitats. The onward march of the selfie has now even been recognised by the Oxford University Press, though not yet by its flagship, the OED.

Of course universities are not insulated from the world of selfies. Recently Bryant University in the United States asked students to stop taking selfies during graduations. And apparently the University of Alabama has tried to stop students from taking selfies in any setting at all ‘because it [is] immature and made them look bad’.

Universities sometimes have a difficult relationship with popular culture. There is often an instinctive suspicion of anything that has caught public attention in a sudden wave of enthusiasm, perhaps on the understanding that if it’s caught on too fast across society it will dumb down the academy if it enters there. While not every trend deserves academic recognition, some do. Charles Dickens was, in his day, part of popular culture, as was Shakespeare. The selfie may not generally be today’s manifestation of Rembrandt or van Gogh, but there is no need to get all worked up about it. In fact, I would love it if there were available for viewing today a collection of selfies from, say, 1914. Actually, if you look hard enough, there are.

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2 Comments on “Art or just narcissism – should universities be places of refuge from popular culture?”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    When I clicked on the Oxford University Press link in this post I could not help smiling at the following comment, offered together with the definition of selfie: “occasional selfies are acceptable, but posting a new picture of yourself every day isn’t necessary.” Its prescriptive, paternalistic nature is so exemplary of the difficulty for “established sources of knowledge” to grasp the disruptive nature of contemporary cultural phenomena.
    To say that universities “have sometime a difficult relationship with popular culture” is a bit of an understatement, bias towards so called “Mickey Mouse” subjects is still rampant in spite of the fact that scholars like Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and I’d like to include in the canonical list the Scottish born Paddy Whannel, have long since opened up an educational space for the study of popular culture within academia. Hoggart passed away earlier this month and I would really recommend reading his obituary in the Guardian in order to appreciate how “his ideas have entered the bloodstream of English discussion” (and not just the English one!).

    Back to the selfie, in search for an historical pedigree and psychological reassurance, some have reached as far back as the Greek theatrical idea of methexis “a group sharing wherein the speaker addresses the audience directly, much like when comic actors look at the TV camera and make a face”, mentioned Parmigianino’s 1523–24 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror as a favourite proto-selfie ( or considered the first self-portrait photograph by camera pioneer Robert Cornelius (1839) It has been duly noted that sharing of self-portraits also pre-dates the internet since “The 1860s saw huge popularity for the sharing of cartes de visite – little photocards. Even the photo booth dates back as far as 1880, and attracted groups of friends much as it does today”. (
    The tired line about “the greater global calamity of Western decline” has also been mentioned a few times with regards to the selfie, as it is often the case with the most popular phenomena of our digital culture. Already in 2010 artist-critic David Colman wrote in the New York Times that the selfie “is so common that it is changing photography itself.” In the same article the art historian Geoffrey Batchen commented that selfies represent “the shift of the photograph [from] memorial function to a communication device.” In fact I think that the impact of the selfie on the medium of photography will be more significant than it is currently acknowledged.
    In conclusion, universities should not be places of refuge from popular culture of course (I take the provocative tone of the post’s title), rather in the best of the cultural studies tradition mentioned above they should be safe educational spaces where not every trend might deserve “academic recognition” but all of them should deserve scholarly attention.

  2. V.H Says:

    You as a maker of photographs will know the lense of a camera can do truly nasty things to the human form. Also, you will know the arms length and from above of the usual Selfie is the very best placement to get the eery, grey, foreshortened, distorted and sometimes downright scary. You will have noted in the 1914 pictures the view is from below and up.
    I would suspect for framing, the camera used is the one with the lower mpix count, making certain of noise. All-in-all, it’s a question of technique. Better technique, better Selfie’s.

    Happy Easter Ferdinand, belatedly.

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