A 200-Year Selfie Obsession

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Before "selfie" was a word and a global obsession, there was the self-portrait. 

Artists have been painting themselves for centuries, inspired in part by pioneer Dutch artist Rembrandt, who became famous for painting himself as a master.

A new show at the National Academy Museum and School in Manhattan presents 200 years of the art form. Entitled "Self: Portraits of Artists in their Absence," the show presents about 150 pieces — the oldest from 1811 — from dozens of countries, most from female artists.

In this interview, art critic Deborah Solomon said self-portraits are so popular in the art world in part because artists are narcissistic. But in a good way.

“It takes enormous belief in yourself in order to be an artist and be alone in a room all day, trying to articulate a vision,” she said.

Solomon disagrees with a recent column by the New York Times' David Carr, where he denigrated selfies as the product of a narcissistic culture.

“What matters is that there is boring narcissism and interesting narcissism — and obviously we are looking for interesting narcissists,” she said.

For Solomon, the portraits at the National Academy are a mixed bag. She said it’s not a definitive or scholarly show, because it does not include the greats of self-portraiture — Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. But she believes the show allows you to see that every portrait is an invention and to look at selfies in the context of visual culture.

The exhibit also includes a photo booth where people can take selfies for free and visitors can enter their names in a drawing to have their portraits done by a student in the school. Three winners will be drawn over the course of the show.

Aren't self-portraits and selfies just a little too self-involved? 

“No,” said Solomon. “I think selfies have gotten a bad rep. I think smart phones have democratized the self-portraits and I think the trick is to make an interesting selfie.”

Do you think selfies are about self-expression or self-involvement? Join the conversation with a comment below.