The self…as the Mona Lisa

IMG-20190411-WA0007.jpgThe iconic image of the Mona Lisa in the age of the smart phone now also includes visitors standing before her posing for selfies with her as their backdrop. The focus is not on the work of art, but on us, it has been so for almost a decade now. Is there then a difference between putting ourselves at the centre of famous art and us looking for ourselves in works of art?

When I prospect for meaning in a painting or a poem, sometimes just a bit, or a line or two call out to me, and the story of my life. Those bits become part of my very own bastardised biographical fallacy. Instead of trying to get to grips with the interpretations of the work of art, I am too busy looking for my ‘self’ in it. Critics were accused of suffering from the biographical fallacy when they picked out the author’s life story from their work of art, and not the product of their imagination.

Those early 20th century critics had never encountered a selfie, a self portrait which inserts you into the best of your own work, or the best that nature and art have to offer. Little selfie biographies are populist, aggressively front and centre and no longer just an accusation of which the lay writing person has to be wary. Our comments and selfies on social media are all our very own Mona Lisas at war with other people’s Mona Lisas. If this last sentence feels egregious, that is also what a selfie is, except, the egregiousness of the selfie is passe.

When we identify with a work of art, is that then our selfie moment? Did we find something in it that had to do with just us? Partly, we did. But maybe in the search for a pattern that we can slot into, as if life were a puzzle and all we need are the missing pieces, we also come across the universal that slots into us all. If we seek insight in a work of art, is that us looking for ourselves? To look for the personally universal, is that then a selfie? How about we up our game, separate the personal insight from the selfie. Mixing up the two feels a lot like confusing oranges and mangoes, or apples and oranges, even though for most us, it’s all just fruit.

Reading is like photosynthesis, instead of light we absorb ideas to make meaning instead of, say, sugar.


When we read we are on a quest, looking for something as simple as getting our needs met, even when we can’t quite tell what those are just yet. In the beginning, it’s all just fruit. In the search for insight, we are infants, it takes time to separate out colour, tactility and shape—for the mangoes and oranges to stand out from the fruit. It could just be something as basic as learning something new about ourselves to which we do not have access thanks to the layers of ego that blanket us like an atmosphere protecting us from the radiation of other people’s egos. At the moment of insight, just for a second the layers part to let in the painful world, and we begin to see.

A selfie is another layer upon Fort Ego. It takes our attention away from what we were supposed to see to focus on fortifying the self. The insight becomes instead relegated to the backdrop. The self is after all, religion. In order to survive, most of us worship ourselves, hence the evolution of the ego. That is the ultimate problem with the self, that when it becomes entangled with science or art, science becomes scientism and art becomes worship.

But there is a chink in the armour. Even though the selfie fortifies the armour of the ego, posting publicly acts to lift the chain mail every time some one takes a look at your public posting. Your naked self is exposed in that public second. At that moment, you can only hope that the beautiful outside world or person or work of art, you used as backdrop to your self, dresses up your dysphoria. Our need for validation is the vulnerability exposed for those who choose to see.

The amateur narcissist doesn’t have to slip on a banana peel for us to enjoy schadenfreude. The posing is it, and when people carp about selfies this is what they mean. The posing gives mirth to another budding narcissist who is quick to find neediness peeking out from the screen.

Now then, for the constant comparers. When people do look for themselves in works of art, these are familiar people from our own lives, who come to contrast our life with theirs, and either they feel smug when they conclude from looking around they have bettered us, or they leave discontented because your dinner party was more successful than theirs, or some such, insert the required example here.

A selfie or even the humblest comment you post on social media or even that irritating piece of wisdom you like to forward to friends, then becomes a peek into your inadequacy. It is also the ultimate vehicle for comparison, you in the backdrop of greatness, of a work of nature, or architecture, sometimes it is you against an achievement, which gives you a sense of accomplishment, pride. It is inevitable, that someone else like you will be trolling your feed, this piece of writing, maybe even your life, comparing, needing to find you wanting in some way.

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