Are today’s selfies simply yesterday’s self-portraits? Is there really that vast of an epistemological chasm between Kim Kardashian’s photos of herself on a bloated Instagram account and the numerous self-portraits of Rembrandt or Van Gogh hanging in art museums and galleries around the world? Aren’t they all really just products of their respective eras’ “Je selfie, donc je suis” culture, with perhaps only technological advances (and, admittedly, talent) separating them?
The debate is surely a lively one, but one of the most significant differences noted by art bloggers between selfies and self-portraits is the conversation that they both generate. Selfies are external surface recordings, from the here and meant for the now, that are intended to speak essentially to those who know (or admire) their subject. Self-portraits, on the other hand, are artfully wrought introspections, made in the now but meant for the future, that hope to speak to and for the self and all of humanity. Technology has seemingly little to do with the debate, since there are as many selfie paintings as there are smartphone self-portraits.
Few people are aware that the talents of arguably America’s greatest playwright, Tennessee Williams, extended from the pen to the paintbrush, and yet he produced almost as many paintings during his lifetime, including several self-portraits, as he had one-act and full-length plays. More than just a leisure activity or a medium to dabble in when his career in the American theatre was suffering, painting was a means for Williams to both express his creative vision and experiment with form, movement, color and composition, four elements that were central to his dramatic theory on the plastic theatre. Williams was no dilettante with a paintbrush, and many of his paintings shed light on the development of his theatre, just as his plays speak to the canvases he was painting at the time.
Whether composing a poem, developing a short story, or sketching a character for a play, Williams drew extensively from his lived experiences and put them onstage or on the page for all to see or read. In his essay “The Past, the Present, and the Perhaps” (1957), Williams admitted that “nothing is more precious to anybody than the emotional record of his youth, and you will find the trail of my sleeve-worn heart” carved into each of his works. And while audiences might have first adored the “sleeve-worn heart” of the younger Tennessee Williams, those guilt-ridden romantic Tom Wingfields of the early plays like The Glass Menagerie (1945), they soon grew tired of it and later bemoaned the older Tennessee Williams, those bitter, self-indulgent Augusts of his late plays like Something Cloudy, Something Clear (1981). Perhaps over-familiarity and the passage of time define the moment when self-portraits became selfies. I mean, do we really think Kim Kardashian will have as many Instagram followers in, say, 30 years, if she keeps on posting daily selfies? Time may prove me wrong, but I doubt it. She is a product, or more precisely a brand, of her time. The fact that Williams was still posting “self-portraits” of himself onstage well into his 70s had more to do with the artist’s need to study his self through time than it did with the man’s need to brand that self for instant viewer gratification. Williams sought more than anything the audience and critical approval that had eluded him from the late 60s till his death in 1983, but the fact that he kept putting himself out there onstage, time and time again, showed more his deep yearning for self-study and, perhaps, even self-atonement, than it did for a few likes or thumbs up. Tennessee Williams’s plays, then, are self-portraits in words, not selfies.
Featured image credit: Artistic take on Jan Vermeer’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Mitchell Grafton. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.