Some people recognise Homer’s Iliad to be the most important literary work of the Western canon, but those people obviously haven’t heard of Selfish, Kim Kardashian’s groundbreaking piece of work that should be hailed as an invaluable contribution to our rich literary tradition. The book provides an exclusive insight into the process behind the selfies of Kim Kardashian West, reality TV star and trailblazer of the selfie movement. All cynicism aside, there is some truth to the idea that the selfie tradition represents an important landmark in our visual cultural history. In an article published in the Guardian earlier this year, Jonathan Jones looks back at John Berger’s hugely influential Ways of Seeing, a 1970s television programme-turned-book which explores visual culture. Berger argues how increasingly mass circulated images marked the democratisation of visual culture: “For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.” Jones wonders whether Berger would be equally optimistic about visual culture in the 21st century, a period in which, according to Jones, we are “bombarded” by “vacuous, deceitful, falsely seductive, grossly manipulative images”. Jones analyses various iconic images from our century in light of Berger’s ideas, and in doing so suggests that in fact the democratisation of visual cultural has not led to Berger’s imagined utopia, but rather to something more sinister, a world where the free and fast-paced image distribution that online platforms like Instagram and Facebook facilitate “befuddles our brains.”
“We are simultaneously aware of and blind to the artifice of these images”
I think Jones is correct in suggesting that mass production and distribution of often-deceitful images is distorting our perspective on the outside world, and what’s even more worrying is how it’s distorting the way we see ourselves. We’ve started to internalise this desire to present ourselves in a falsely seductive light – which many of us do all the time, whenever we take a selfie. We might see technology and social media as a realisation of Berger’s notion of a democratised visual culture, because of the way they enable anybody to become a celebrity. All you need is an iPhone, an Instagram account and a yoga mat, and as soon as you rack up enough followers you can capitalise on your own personal aesthetic. For many, a social media profile is no longer just about presenting yourself as an individual, but also about promoting your own unique brand. This conflation of one’s image with identity that social media inevitably engenders is concerning when we think of it in terms of children who are growing up alongside their online profiles. Two years ago my then 11-year-old sister told me that if I wanted my Instagram to be popular, I first needed to establish my aesthetic and find an Instagram niche. Obviously this sounded pretty funny coming from an 11-year-old, but the idea that children are worrying about their public personas before they’ve had a chance to get to know their own private self is concerning.
People’s egotistical desire to flaunt their status through their picture is nothing new – we can see this through Renaissance paintings where aristocrats posed next to rare artefacts and exotic foods – the only thing that has changed nowadays is the props. For rich or famous people it could be cars or expensive jewellery, but for the rest of us there are plenty of more subtle indicators of wealth – we could be snapped eating avocado toast in a café in East London, sipping on a Starbucks, or wearing a pair of Yeezys. Whereas back in Holbein’s day status was generally derived from wealth, nowadays most contemporary staples of cool present themselves as having an anti-wealth agenda, for example shabby second-hand clothing or vintage sound systems. Yet as long as those who present themselves as ironically flaunting an anti-wealth aesthetic choose to do so via social media, they become complicit in a culture of image based self-representation that ultimately goes hand in hand with consumerism. In Renaissance England a desire for self-representation can be linked to an expanding economy, leading more and more people to buy clothes and take an interest in fashion and material goods. A preoccupation with how one was perceived by others pre-empted this desire to be presented lavishly in paintings. This consumerist preoccupation with self-image lives on today through Instagram, which capitalises on our love for visual artifice.
I find it pretty strange how much we continue to praise and idealise images of people that are so obviously artificial. 19-year-old Kylie Jenner, whose Instagram has amassed 87.2 million followers (including myself), frequently uses the platform to advertise her own Kylie Cosmetics brand, to which her famous Lip Kit belongs. It promises to make your lips look just like Kylie’s own, which people are completely obsessed by. I admit that Kylie’s lips are pretty nice; the only problem is that nobody will ever get Kylie’s lips just from using her Lip Kit because she has had cosmetic surgery lip fillers, something she openly admits to. Everybody knows this, but they are still desperate to get their hands on the Lip Kit, with some people paying up to 200 dollars for it. We are simultaneously aware of and blind to the artifice of these images – the most recent Snapchat filters completely distort people’s faces beyond human recognition to make them look ‘prettier’, but people continue to use them. Everybody knows that people’s Facebook profiles are tailored to show them in the best possible light, and that Facebook likes aren’t indicative of someone’s popularity or attractiveness, but our awareness of the fallacy doesn’t stop us from wanting more. Our relationship with images becomes deeply problematic when we collude with their fallacy, and lose the capacity to interpret them critically.
It’s important that we do so because images are extremely powerful when utilised correctly, like when they are used to expose atrocious actions and events. From photos documenting the Vietnam War, dubbed ‘the first televised war’, through to the horrific image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a beach, images of violence have continued to spark international outrage. More and more people are using their iPhones to document injustice, for example racially motivated police brutality in America, and our ability to capture these events in the present prevents them being relegated to a mythical past. As Berger says: “The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless.” In an age of mass circulated imagery it is vital that we don’t lose sight of the temporal significance of images, or allow their contexts to be warped, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult. Similarly, we cannot dismiss the significance of symbolism, and ensure that we always interrogate and expose the subtext of an image, for example the way that Farage’s campaign poster of refugees resembled Nazi propaganda, or how misrepresentation of women’s bodies in the media plays into the patriarchal narrative.
It is no longer just mainstream media outlets that are responsible for sharing responsibly sourced images; access to social media has made us all into journalists who must be held accountable for what we share. As long as we use online platforms to share content, and validate it by ‘liking’ it, we become complicit in furthering an agenda. It is up to us to work out what that agenda is, which isn’t always easy when it’s often deliberately obscured. As our culture is becoming increasingly obsessed with images, it’s getting harder and harder to separate fact from fiction, profiles from personalities. It’s important we try, though, because idealising images that depict a false reality is not only detrimental to ourselves and our own sense of self worth, but it can also blind us to the real issues at hand. Perhaps if spent a bit less time massaging our own egos via social media, we might start – as Kylie Jenner once famously said – “like, realising things.”
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