The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language recently announced its “Word of the Year” for 2013, a word that will be included in the next edition of that venerable publication.
The word is “selfie.” It means a photograph taken of oneself, usually using a smart phone. According to the Oxford Dictionary authorities, it is usually a photo that is taken by and transferred electronically from a smart phone to a social media website.
The derivation of the short-hand term “selfie” comes to us from the now archaic longer term, self-portrait. The German artist Albrecht Dürer is widely credited with having painted the first “modern” self-portrait. He painted it long about the same time that Columbus was sailing to the New World.
In Dürer’s time, if one wished to promulgate one’s self image, one had to spend years working up the expertise to paint one’s own image. Such images never got much play unless they were created for, and paid for, by nobility or by the Catholic Church. Nowadays, it only takes the click of a button to create the image, and a second click to send it hither and yon.
But before we all become too seduced by the facility of modern communication devices and the transferences that those devices allow us to use and make, we might should remember a little bit of history.
“Selfies” are great fun. They are up-to-the-minute. But there is seldom any expertise in them. There is no selection process. There is no filtering of the images (for example, to cull inappropriate images sent to and/or from minors). There is no peer review, no fact-checking, no artistic eye cast upon the images.
And, while many of the photos that are taken, sent and posted do have artistic or other merit, there is no web sieve that can weed out inappropriate images. Social media and postings on social websites—even well-established ones like Facebook and Twitter—are like the lawless Wild West. They cannot be patrolled or controlled.
I don’t believe that we should attempt to control the websites. I firmly believe that we should try to control ourselves.
The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein was fond of saying, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It won’t work, and it annoys the pig.” It is not possible to regulate morality. That’s why Islamic fundamentalists, conservative Catholics and Evangelical Christians will ultimately fail to achieve their retrograde agendas. Prohibition cannot work. The American experiment with prohibition of alcohol failed, and the War on Drugs cannot be won. In spite of religious fervor and indignation.
One cannot impose one’s value system upon others. Such attempts have never worked—except in the most dismal dictatorships, and then only as long as the dictatorships lasted—and they never will. Never try to teach a pig to sing.
The best we can hope for is for people to get along with other people who have different ideas.
While we are taking and sharing our “selfies,” we might remember the hard work and expertise that went into the creation of the self-portraits that pre-date the ephemeral “selfies” that are the descendants of those archaic self-portraits. Lest we become too seduced by our modern systems and gadgets, we might remember how hard the ancients worked to communicate to us and connect with us all down the centuries.
You’ll post your pic on Facebook. How long will it last and how meaningful will it be to anybody 50 years hence? Dürer’s “selfie” has been up on the big board for half a millennia. It will remain there for centuries to come…while all the “selfies” will be a flash in the pan: posted, glanced at and forgotten.
We shouldn’t get carried away by modern technology, just for technology’s sake. Dürer used state-of-the-art technology to execute his works. Lots of other folks used the same kinds of paints and pigments. What made Dürer special was his command of the technology that was available in his time in order to communicate his artist vision across time.
All I’m trying to say is that I hope you won’t get too caught up in the click-and-post-it world, that you won’t mistake the ease with which you can communicate with the value of the communication itself. Instant messaging is not the message itself.
At this point I usually have a nice little plug for Adarve Translations. Not this time. I’m not going to take and send a “selfie” either. Now where did I put that Dürer book? Please excuse me while I go look for it…..
Donnamarie Leemann – La Chaux-de-Fond, Switzerland
About the Author: Donnamarie Leemann is an artist and writer who has for many years contributed to the BBC and to many other public forums, and who collaborates at present with Adarve Translations as Head of Marketing.