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Artificial Authenticity? When Presentation Becomes Personality
Reviewing Tara Isabella Burton’s ‘Self Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians’
When future historians try capturing what made our era unique, they’ll undoubtedly refer to the summertime photo of a little blonde dog and a woman’s flipflop-shod foot. They’ll also refer to the person who took the photo, Kevin Systrom. It was the first photo shared on the app he built with colleague Mike Krieger: Instagram.
Instagram provided users the ability to easily present curated documentation of their lives, photos of their friends, foods, pastimes, playthings and—perhaps above all— themselves. Selfie, a word that began bubbling up in Australia in the early 2000s, was named word of the year by both CNN and the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013, thanks in large part to Instagram’s massive popularity and user-facing smartphone cameras.
Today the app sports almost two and a half billion monthly users. That’s nearly a third of the world’s population, many of whom spend time every day meticulously crafting their public personas, posting stories and images designed to showcase how they desire to be seen and known.
But we’d be wrong in assuming Instagram invented this sort of self-definition and display. The idea, as Tara Isabella Burton shows in her book Self Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, has a long pedigree.
Burton begins with the Renaissance. Arguably, you could go back even further. Ancient Cynicism, Stoicism, and Christian martyrdom reveal the self-determination and defiance of societal norms required to stand out from the pack. But self-fashioning became the fashion during the Renaissance as forms of expressive individualism began emerging in the arts.
In the medieval period most painting was religious and followed traditional patterns. Self-portraiture was beyond rare, practically nonexistent. Fourteenth-century historian Filippo Villani once claimed Giotto painted an image of himself, though there’s no surviving evidence for it. Aided by innovations in technique, paint quality, and mirror technology, however, artists in the fifteenth century and later began using self-portraiture to make personal statements.
Traditionally, the first Christian iconographer was St. Luke, who painted an image of Mary holding the young Christ. In 1440, Rogier van der Weyden painted the scene but depicted himself as the apostle. Famously, Rembrandt placed himself alongside Christ at the Crucifixion. But none was so bold as Albrecht Dürer, who in 1500 actually painted himself as Christ.1
The standard symbolism is present, only altered. Instead of making the sign of blessing, for instance, Dürer’s right hand fingers his fur lapels. Burton suggests he’s forming the letters A and D. Dürer puns with the initials AD in the date to the left of his head, as well. “Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, is also the the year of Albrecht Dürer, coming into his own,” says Burton.
That’s how he saw it. “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg,” he not-so-humbly inscribed the piece, “painted myself with everlasting colors in my twenty-eighth year.”
As an icon, Dürer‘s portrait conveys self-assertion, self-definition, even self-creation. So did his flamboyant career. “From design to implementation to dissemination, Dürer was in complete control of how he presented himself and his work to his audience,” says Burton.
“Dürer has been hailed as . . . one of the Renaissance’s finest artists, the inventor of the selfie, the world’s first celebrity self-promoter. But,” says Burton, “what he truly pioneered, in his life and his work—and the two were never easily separable—was a new and ambitious vision of the self.”
Presentation became personality: This is the me I want you to recognize.
Work, Work, Work
Such examples might lead us to presume self-fashioning represents an exercise in vanity. And one form of self-creation identified by Burton might fit that description. Exemplified by dandies such as Oscar Wilde, Burton calls this the “aristocratic strain.” But she also refers to the “democratic strain,” and this form—embodied by such figures as Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass—takes on a heightened moral quality.
Both forms of self-fashioning represent a negotiation between the individual and the wider society. Through language, custom, race, religion, class, gender roles, and other constructs, communities confer an identity upon an individual. But individuals have latitude to accept, reject, or modify these stock identities. The growing extent of that latitude represents a major factor in cultural development over the last five hundred years, especially in the West.
In his 1872 oration “Self-Made Men,” Douglass praised those of humble origins who rose by dint of self-determination and dogged effort. “Without the ordinary help of favoring circumstances” they nonetheless “attained knowledge, usefulness, power, and position,” along the way “build[ing] up worthy character.” None of this in Douglass’s view stemmed from chance or luck. “Allowing only ordinary ability and opportunity,” he said, “we may explain success mainly by one word, and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!”
Douglass’s position was widely shared, reflecting the Enlightenment liberalism of the time, reinforced by cultural authorities and popularized in books and self-help manuals. As Burton points out, it played especially well in a nation like America, where personal autonomy was paramount and self-governance a necessity.
That necessity also contained an ethical component. Skirting self-betterment was seen as lazy, even immoral. How else to explain someone on the skids?
“You were supposed to shape your own fate,” says Burton, “so if you didn’t, it meant you had failed. . . . The democratic model of self-making was, in this way, both a promise of liberation, and a new kind of prison,” something manifest in the rise of New Thought-fueled entrepreneurialism and social Darwinism.
One way out of the prison? Whereas Douglass counseled work, work, work, for some people all that work seemed to come easy; others seemed to advance without lifting a finger. Both possessed a mysterious quality Hollywood would later call it. And if you had it, you held a get-out-of-jail-free card.
New World of Influencers
As Dürer‘s example shows, celebrity has long existed. But it took on a life of its own in the mid-twentieth century, thanks to the reach of movies. Says Burton,
The founding myth of Frederick Douglass . . . had been replaced. Now there was a new American dream: that of the undiscovered star, the young man or woman working in a shop or restaurant who overnight became the next it-girl (or, to a lesser extent, it-boy), swaddled in minks and dripping in diamonds. This new fantasy of discovery rested not merely on virtuous actions that anybody could at least theoretically perform—work hard, study, hustle—but rather on a fundamental inner truth about the discovered starlet in question. Her very innermost personality, who she really was (or at least could convince audiences that she was), was the key to her success.
The silver-screen dream overhauled the old formula. You didn’t have to work, work, work. You just needed to believe sincerely in your own innate superior qualities. And since the self was fundamentally a social negotiation, the Hollywood star had an advantage: Dürer’s self-presentation was limited to a single canvas, but a Hollywood star could project their image in every cinema in the country. The me I want you to see was everywhere and unassailable.
Theatergoers participated vicariously in this image-making. They saw themselves in and as the stars and characters they loved, a fact that highlights a fundamental fraud in the deal: You could be your true self only by being someone else. And since appearance was everything, the authentic and artificial became interchangeable, indistinguishable. The persona being emulated could be totally fabricated—and likely was.
Burton follows this trail from the big screen to the little. Television—especially the rise of reality television, beginning long before the term even gained use with the perfectly named Loud family in 1973—democratized the Hollywood vision and validated trends already underway. “With innumerable variations,” said one critic cited by Burton, “the Louds are all around us.”
Larger trends toward expressive individualism had been transforming American society since the early twentieth century when ever-larger numbers moved off the farm and settled in cities. The trend accelerated after World War II, fueled by new forms of self-empowering media and commercialism.2
And then the Internet.
Web 1.0 allowed people to self-select into new communities via chat rooms, discussion boards, and other avenues that encouraged self-definition. Instead of being trapped in one physical community, you could join many virtual communities, announcing in each and all, “I am x. I believe y.”
Web 2.0 then gave us social media and selfie culture, which merged the existing self-definition of Web 1.0 with celebrity, birthing the influencer. Why keep up with the Kardashians when you could be one instead and keep your own name—or use whatever handle you employ on Instagram? It’s just a question of your personal brand.
But there’s perhaps something fraudulent in this deal, too. If personality is presentation, isn’t it just performance? When we know we’re on display, can we actually be authentic? Does authenticity even exist? How much of our self-definition is really mimetic hustling as we compare and contrast ourselves to the myriad images of self-presentation we absorb through our devices on a daily basis?
The Human Challenge
None of these forms of self-making has totally eclipsed the others. Though modified, they’re all at play all the time. In the American context that especially includes the democratic and influencer strains, which can merge in the shape of celebrity entrepreneurs—think Steve Jobs, Elon Musk—or musicians like Beyoncé. Her song “Run the World (Girls)” is a pitch-perfect blend of both served up as female empowerment:
This goes out to all the women getting it in
Get on your grind . . .
Boy, you know you love it
How we’re smart enough to make these millions
Strong enough to bear the children
Then get back to business
It’s tempting to blame social media for the unpleasant or destructive aspects of these developments, which is where most our attentions linger. But technology, whether Dürer‘s mirror and paints or the app on your phone, doesn’t create our urges and motives.
It does facilitate them, of course, and it can spread and reinforce them. It’s a factor worth engaging, but deeper cultural currents are far more determinative. We don’t love self-fashioning because we use Instagram; we use Instagram because we love self-fashioning.
As creatures of our own culture, one shaped by self-creation for the last half millennium as Burton’s history shows, we all display aspects of these various strains of self-making in our daily lives, dependent to greater or lesser degrees on our temperaments, communities, competing values, and other social variables. And whatever difficulties and costs levied by our self-made culture, we’ve all benefited in countless ways as well.
“The story of self-creation, at its core,” says Burton,
is not only a story about capitalism or secularism or the rise of the middle class or industrialization or political liberalism, although it touches upon all these phenomena and more. It is, rather, a story about people figuring out, together, what it means to be human.
It’s harder than it looks on Instagram. I can think of none who would prefer a world dictated by caste and class, and self-creation poses many perils. It also offers endless possibilities. It’s our challenge to choose wisely.
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See James Hall, The Self-Portrait (Thames and Hudson, 2014), chapters 2–4, and Laura Cumming, A Face to the World (Harper, 2009), chapter 3.
See, for instance, James Lincoln Collier, The Rise of Selfishness in America (Oxford University Press, 1991), and Alan Petigny, The Permissive Society: America, 1941–1965 (Cambridge University Press, 2009).