“What’s wrong with self portraits?”

So this post floated up my news feed today:

The New Paper: "Who are you calling narcissistic?"

The New Paper: “Who are you calling narcissistic?”

I can’t really read the newspaper article, but let’s just examine the selected quotes on the FB page, reproduced down here:

What’s wrong with taking selfies anyway? They’re just self-portraits. Vincent van Gogh painted self portraits. Leonardo da Vinci painted self portraits…I would venture that if you have a blog, you’re also a narcissist at some level… If we weren’t meant to take selfies, why do our phones have front-facing cameras? – extracts from The New Paper (18/8/13)

So there are a few lines of argument going on here:

  1. Selfies = self portraits, which is alright because if the great people did it, why not I?
  2. (I take it that this is the Even If argument) Even if taking selfies is an act of narcissism, you probably do it too, because you have a blog (assuming that the blog’s all about you, I suppose), so don’t get on your moral high horse, yo
  3. The camera’s front camera has got to be good for something, right?

One can imagine a void deck ah beng thumbing his nose at you and going “Da Vinci also got do, why I cannot?”

The arguments are going all over the place here, and (just from the extract) it would appear that the author seems to be equating narcissism with taking selfies, in other words, mixing the trait with the symptom. Is it necessary the case that if you take a self portrait, you’re narcissistic? Can we put selfies on the same level as the self portraits of the greats?

To answer the last question, we need to delve into the purpose of the artist for making these portraits. Many self portraits are not self-flattering — on the contrary, both physical and personality flaws are often exposed, even magnified.

Self Portrait with bandaged ear

Above is the cited Van Gogh’s self portrait. A sad story lies behind it:

Naifeh and White Smith argue that van Gogh, following his release from hospital, was anxious to persuade his doctors that he was indeed perfectly fit and able to take care of himself and that, despite his momentary lapse, it would not be necessary for them to have him committed, as had been suggested, to one of the local insane asylums; hence the winter coat and hat, to keep warm as they had advised, and with the window ajar still getting that much-needed fresh air into his system. The bandage too, which would have been soaked in camphor, suggests that he both accepts what has happened and is happy, literally, to take his medicine. The same note of stoic optimism, if one wishes to read the painting this way, is also found in the letters to his brother Theo, in which van Gogh, far from abandoning his dream of a “studio in the South,” talks of continuing the project, expressing the desire for more artists to come to Arles, even proposing that Gauguin and he could “start afresh.”


I’m not sure anyone can call a portrait of a lost, bandaged ear narcissistic. Maybe if the artist was perverse, in a “look i’m so angshy, girls plz come at me you know you want to heal me” way. But then in that case he would have painted a worse picture, blood dripping out, hand holding ear, etc to tug at the heartstrings instead of this seemingly composed picture.

Frida Kahlo, Self Portrait

There are many reasons for which self portraits are done, among them self reflection and as a cathartic form of release. What is the purpose of selfies? I hardly think the many photos I see on Facebook and Instagram can claim to have such reasons behind. More often than not, they aim at presenting the world an image of the self that the photo-taker is satisfied with, perhaps because (they think) it fits into the conventional notion of beauty. Self portraits are painstaking works, requiring hours of concentration; selfies are a tap away. The hours spent on self portraits are to define some idea more accurately to the artist’s intention; the hours spent on selfies, if indeed they are spent (I assume on photoshopping), are to present an even more flawless face. Selfies stay mainly on the superficial level; self portraits aim to go deeper into the self.

In the same way, the second argument reveals its narrowness of thinking. Let us exclude blogs not about the self, eg blogs for reviews, blogs for political opinions. Given the current internet culture, it is unlikely that someone who is less interested in self reflection than in exhibition would own a blog, unlike a few years ago. Instead, these people would have hopped on to the Facebook and Twitter bandwagon for maximum exposure with minimal effort. I’m generalising, of course, and am aware there are always exceptions. The argument is flawed because it equates anything about the self with narcissism, when in fact critical introspection can hardly be the same as vanity or egotism, because the latter glorifies the self while the former beats at it aiming for something more distilled, finer than before.

The third is the worst argument — it’s using an effect to justify the cause. The phone has a front camera because people take selfies, not the other way round. Also, since when did phone-makers get endowed with the power to decide whether someone is narcissistic or not? “I gave you a front camera, therefore you aren’t narcissistic if you use it.” Amazing logic there!

I’ve been careful not to link the superficial purposes of selfies to narcissism, because that’s an entirely different essay altogether. It’s probably a different thing to be exhibitionist and narcissist; they can come together, but it’s not necessarily a co-relation. All I wanted to protest against are these broad strokes lumping selfies, self portraits and blogs together, and the self-righteousness of the resultant “if they can do it, so can I” attitude — as if my decision to tip more because of a lack of change is the same as opening a non-profit organisation for charity.


One comment

  1. zoorado · August 22, 2013


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