Josie Glausiusz’s last On Science post appeared on April 29. This column originally appeared on July 23, 2014.
On June 23, the city of Ust-Kamenogorsk in Eastern Kazakhstan erected a monument commemorating two 19th-century thinkers: the Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbaev and his friend Evgeny Petrovitch Mikhaelis, a Russian scientist and political activist sent into exile by the tsar. Sad to say, on the next day the city administrators removed the sculpture after locals ridiculed it on social media. It seemed to show the pair taking a selfie, they said.
One of the monument’s two sculptors admitted that the piece wasn’t quite right. Nevertheless, I am disappointed to see the statue ripped from its pedestal so soon after its installation. Leaving aside considerations of artistic merit, the decision seemed to be an egregious example of instant trial by social media. And what’s so bad about taking a selfie, anyway? A lot, if one believes the news reports. Selfies—snapping one’s own picture with a smartphone—are “a manifestation of society’s obsession with looks and its ever-narcissistic embrace,” according to Peggy Drexler, a research psychologist at Cornell University. They are characterized as narcissistic, addictive, and generators of low self esteem. Or, according to a University of Birmingham study, “Increased frequency of sharing photographs of the self [on Facebook], regardless of the type of target sharing the photographs, is related to a decrease in intimacy.”
Yet the desire to depict one’s own self in art is ancient. The oldest known cave art, a row of red stenciled outlines of hands possibly painted by Neanderthals, dates to about 41,000 years ago and was discovered in the El Castillo cave on Northern Spain’s Cantabrian Seacoast. Decorating the self is an even older indulgence: 100,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans living in or near the Blombos Cave of South Africa may have adorned themselves with pigments or beads made from pierced shells. “Venus” figurines—full-breasted, round-tummied, carved from ivory or limestone or molded from ceramic—date back as far as 35,000 years ago, and are thought to be hand-held fertility dolls designed to reassure women giving birth for the first time. Or maybe they were just selfie precursors.
When small children graduate from abstract scribbling to their first “representational” art—the stick figure with outstretched arms—we celebrate it as an important step in cognitive development. And while selfies can be the object of derision, no one mocks great artists for painting self-portraits. Granted, it took a little more effort for Rembrandt to paint himself than it does to point a smartphone at one’s face. But self-portraits, whether snapped or drawn, can express something fundamental about the person. A friend of mine, Fran Beallor, drew a self-portrait every day for a year in three separate years: in 1980, 2000, and 2010. The experience, she writes on her website, “enabl[ed] me to look into myself in a deeper way. I learned the vocabulary of my own features and forms, and through it, a broader experience of being human.”
My favorite form of self-representation is the “shelfie,” a snap of the books on your shelves. What says more about a person’s interests than the books they read? In fact, it was a visit to a library that brought Kunanbaev and Mikhaelis together: according to a local library’s website, the two met when the poet asked the librarian for an issue of The Russian Messenger, a magazine, and they fell into conversation. They became close friends who met every day, and Mikhaelis later “revealed [the] poetic talent of Kunanbaev.” I, too, am happy to reveal the talent of Kunanbaev, a poet who wrote, in the manner of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, that “too much knowledge becomes gall and wormwood that hastens old age if you have no one by your side to share your joys and sorrows.”