The legacy of the selfie can probably be traced all the way back to self portraiture in classical painting, but it’s ubiquity in the “digital age” has interesting implications for we humans living in the 21st century. I find the Tumblr selfie, particularly interesting. Tumblr is a place where content easily detaches itself from the creator. Through hundreds of re-blogs, an image gains a viral quality with no discernible “patient zero.” An original image that is posted to tumblr by the creator of that image may end up being re-blogged thousands of times thereby separating the image creator from the final image “curator ” or viewer by hundreds of degrees.
Probably the large majority of tumblr users are not actually image creators, but rather image aggregators. They curate the content that some unknown someone has re-blogged from some other unknown someone. This disconnect between the image and the image creator quickly becomes so vast as to become irrelevant. Everything is shared in a giant creative commons of images, where the idea of ownership starts to dissolve.
The most common way to overcome this problem seems to be to the selfie. The selfie may be the only type of image that cannot be easily detached from its creator. This type of image is a privileged representation of the creator of that image. A selfie cannot be created by any person other than the subject of the image, otherwise it would cease to be a selfie. Instead, it would become merely a portrait. I’ve encountered this problem with my own work. Recently a friend was talking to me about my tumblr, and he said, “I didn’t know those GIFs were yours until you started appearing in them.” I too felt the need to assert ownership over my images. Each selfie I post is a subtle attempt to undermine the encroaching communist ethos of the tumblr community where ownership of images is fuzzy. I’ve been so indoctrinated by the capitalist system in which we live that it’s hard to resist the urge to assert my individuality or to deny my desire to be “great.” I’m not sure, however, that ownership over images is important. Regardless of the creator, the images still have value.
The capitalist idea of ownership has corrupted the way we place value on images. A painting by Picasso or Cezanne is not only valuable because it is beautiful or thought provoking, but also because it can fetch millions of dollars at auction. Tumblr’s radical image sharing approach in some small way subverts our ingrained capitalist notions of art ownership. Beautiful images are shared thousands of times with little regard for who “owns” the image or even who created it. Images should be shared. Art should be shared. Beauty should be shared. And we as artists or curators should not be so hung up on our own egos or the egos of others. As Harry S. Truman said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”