Generation Me strikes again! My parents bought our older daughter the dreaded selfie stick – the plastic arm that holds your phone 3 feet or even more away so you can take awful pictures of yourself from ridiculous angles. Sigh. Perhaps we’ve finally reached the lowest point in this whole family circus. I had done an admirable job, I think, of keeping this monstrous item out of our house. But, popular culture waits for no one.
My parents are like all grandparents everywhere in that they have a remarkable knack for buying my daughters things I simply wish we never owned because either I carefully avoided purchasing them, or it would never occur to me to even buy these things. Selfie-sticks are high on this list. I’ll give grandparents the benefit of the doubt and assume this consumerist weakness stems from love. At the same time, we all know that our parents are always and forever getting even for the things we did to them as children.
My daughter instantly knew what the item was when my parents brought it out and she proceeded to whip around a $600 iPhone like it was a toy. My father, realizing this unintended consequence, winced with each fling. But aside from the obvious fact that my daughter will very soon destroy one or both of our phones, the uncorking of the selfie stick ushers in the wider world of narcissism and self-obsession into our house.
Parent, if you’re like me, you once in a while go to your phone to find a stream of badly-taken photos. Luckily for the world, I am not on Facebook, or they would clogging up the photo streams of colleagues and aquaintances. These selfies are sometimes lovely in a weird way, capturing our children being playful and cheeky. I can appreciate that aspect of the act of taking a photo of oneself: capturing a fleeting emotion. But it’s also become a bizarre act of self-celebration. Worse yet, the iPad has some kind of App that allows you to distort and twist your face into some kind of ghoulish nightmare.
Recently, I’ve been going through an art book called “Van Dyck: The Anatomy of Portraiture.” It catalogs the remarkable artwork of the painter Anthony Van Dyck, who was a remarkable prodigy. He was apprenticed to an artist at age 12, and was a bona fide art master at age 18. His life, like so many of the 17th century, ended in his 40s, an age we would regard as “tragically young” today.
Van Dyck’s portraits burst with life, detail, and nuance. You actually feel the emotions from the subject bursting from the canvas. I found myself looking at the selfie stick and then back at the painting. The idea of capturing ourselves is as old as modern humans. We’ve been scrawling our images on cave walls for tens of thousands of years. It’s a sacred act invested with deep personal meaning. So maybe the selfie is an inevitable convergence of our deep primal urge to document ourselves, only now with the latest technology.
But the selfie-stick also represents a sad degradation compared to the pen or paintbrush. We can now generate hundreds or thousands of pictures of ourselves. Kim Kardashian published a book of entirely of selfies. But let’s not kid ourselves. The skill, determination, and inventive thought that went into even one of Van Dyck’s paintings isn’t being taught through a thousand selfie-stick portraits.
Remember, Van Dyck’s painting career began at the age of 12. It would be easy to say that he was a talent that came along once in a decade or half-century, a true genius. But the harder truth is our children are being distracted by technology from developing true observational skill. If Van Dyck had a mobile phone and selfie stick, I am guessing we wouldn’t have a book celebrating his portraiture, but rather, a Van Dyck selfie book alongside Kim Kardashian’s.