Look at that face

Portrait - Drawing - Rembrandt self-portrait, surprised

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait in a cap, open-mouthed, 1630

A post for National Selfie Day (June 21), most likely posted after the fact. We begin with a rewrite (or corruption) of a famous quote by E. B. White*:

On anyone who desires such queer prizes, the Internet will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.

For better and worse, those are not the sole gifts given out by the online world. Like the gods of ancient myths, the internet gives gifts that are often little understood and rarely well used. Prizes become weapons in the wrong hands, and there are plenty of wrong hands hiding behind the scrim of online identity. Everyone is who they want to be online; the nightmare is what so many people want to be. White was writing about New York city, which gave, and still gives, its prizes with a more clement hand.

For some reason National Selfie Day has passed with little observation in my social media channels. Perhaps I know the wrong people; perhaps I know the right ones. As a writer about art and a painter I have an interest in self-depiction, both in what it says about the artist and his/her desired audience, and what it does not say. I gave up representational art years ago, and nothing survives of my early struggles with realism, but I do remember one self-portrait fairly well. It was small, a canvas the size of an 8 1/2 x 11 piece of paper I think. I was wearing a velvety dark blue sweater over a shirt I have forgotten. My face was not quite in profile. I spent a lot of time on my blonde hair – subtle green tones often appear in blonde hair that are difficult to capture – and the shadows on my face. I remember being slightly unhappy with my eyes, the color and size of which seemed right for the painting but not right for the truth. I left them as they were painted. You’ll have to imagine the dark background, which the sweater faded into nicely, and anything else you want to add. The painting has been long gone, and your imagination can do with it what you will.

Strange that there never was (to my knowledge) a National Self-Portrait Day. The speed and communal qualities of the internet make it lean more toward the electronic than the hand-made. Besides, many artists would need more than a day to finish their self-portraits, and that’s rather against the rules of instantaneous virtuality, isn’t it?

You will not find me decrying the quality of selfies. Most are taken as documentation of some sort, not portraiture – more like graffiti that shows the world you were there. Artists still take self-portraits, and they take selfies, and are working toward a full understanding of how the two things differ. And there have been thousands upon millions of self-portraits that were second-rate or worse. Now we have a medium to send them out all over the world at once, laugh, and forget them. In the old days you painted over them or threw them in the wastebasket. The internet is its own wastebasket, containing much that is disposable, and some that is merely overlooked. As graffiti goes, the selfie is a marked improvement in that it doesn’t mar an existing edifice or natural site. As a declaration of commonality – “This is me; it could be you” – it has an advantage over the self-portrait, which always aspires to Art.

Because we fear the gift of loneliness, and have in some cases come to mistrust the gift of privacy, we flood the online world with ourselves. Narcissism has an element of loneliness in it, the negative side that teaches us that stillness and solitude are somehow bad. Privacy is just as strong as ever – you don’t think you really know a person because you’re acquainted with them online, do you? – but it feels compromised. The introvert and the exhibitionist share the same platform, however different their motivations. We now have a day for practically everything: Non-dairy Creamer Day is just around the corner, as is National Heresy Week and Werewolf Awareness Month. Perhaps it’s just as well we take a day to remember that everyone has a face, like yours and unlike, as a reminder to look up from your computer now and then and look them (and yourself) in the face for real.

*originally from Here is New York, 1949

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