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In the narrative of self, image is as powerful as words – something artists such as Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol have both explored.

Rembrandt Van Rijn stares out of a canvas painted in dark tones. His face is wrinkled. There are bags under his eyes. He is 51. The year before, the famous Dutch painter had been declared bankrupt. The social dishonour was painful, and the anguish in his face is evident. But there's something else in the glint of his eye: defiant pride.

Which is perfectly understandable. After all, this is a 17th-century selfie, is it not?

The easy ability to point a smartphone at yourself, click and share the image – taking a "selfie," as it is called – has produced a new obsession in self-portraiture. A phenomenon of contemporary media culture, it is practised by millions (5,313,301 #selfies were posted on Instagram at last count) across the social spectrum, from the Pope to politicians, celebrities and a young woman I saw the other day, plumping up her hair, giving a little duck-face pose into her phone and snapping her image on a train station platform. And yet it is widely seen as a tool of troubling self-absorption, a sort of digital tic, symptomatic of a millennial culture more concerned with idle distraction than engagement with the serious issues of our time. Even its cute nickname suggests its triviality.

The selfie, in other words, is starting to serve as a portrait of the culture at large, a Rorschach test for a collective anxiety about how rapid technological change and social media are shaping society, providing tools that allow us to become Neros fiddling while ice caps melt and genocides rage.

Let us, then, take a snapshot of the trend, of the selfie as part of a continuum in the timeless urge to create identity. "From reflecting pools to the invention of the mirror and then the camera, humans have always been interested in their own image," comments Pamela Rutledge, a California-based media psychologist. "The difference is, up until recently, a high level of skill and/or money was needed to have a self-portrait. The smart phone has simply democratized it."

In the art world, self-portraiture has long been a way to make a statement about identity, status and psyche. Rembrandt, among the first to create self-portraits, created more of them than any other artist, notes Cynthia Freeland, professor of art philosophy at the University of Houston in Texas and author of Portraits and Persons. "Artists such as Rembrandt and [Albrecht] Durer were doing their work on commission and their self-portraits were a way of saying that the artist was a person with a vision and genius rather than just a craftsman for hire," she says in a telephone interview. In the self-portrait painted after his bankruptcy, Rembrandt was clearly making a point: He was humbled, but not cowed. In today's terms, he was managing his brand.

Image is as powerful as words in the narrative of self, something many artists have explored. Cindy Sherman, the American photographer and film director, is known as the "Queen of the Selfie" because of her self-portraiture in which she dresses in different guises.

Her work, in fact, serves as interesting commentary on the selfie trend. "She is saying that all there is to someone's identity is just a series of poses, a masquerade," Freeland says. Andy Warhol's interest in multiple images of a person – himself, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor – is selfie-like in its commentary on the power of superficial image, as is his photo-booth project which explored the intersection of mass entertainment and private contemplation.

"Warhol would have loved selfies if he were still alive," Freeland says.

It is not surprising that young, contemporary artists are starting to use the digital selfie as a serious creative medium. Last month at The Moving Image Art Fair in London, New York-based co-curators Marina Galperina and Kyle Chayka put together the National #Selfie Portrait Gallery exhibition, a collection of inventive explorations of personhood through digital media by 19 artists. In a comment that underscores the evolution of self-portraiture – in this case, into the idea that identity is a game for self-amusement – Galperina was quoted as saying that the selfie is an opportunity to create a "digital avatar."

Should we be worried about the trend? As in the art world, the selfie is used to express different things in its everyday applications. Rihanna and other celebrities use it as a tool to reinforce their self-styled personae. It may seem intimate when they share images from the tour bus or the concert dressing room, but these images are shrewdly self-promotional morsels to feed a hungry fan base. While their selfies purport to convey unscripted normalcy, they, in fact, veil the person in the otherworldliness of celebrity.

Politicians, however, use selfies in an attempt to demystify their brittle, prepackaged identities. When she was Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton posted a selfie with her daughter Chelsea, a reminder that she's a mom like many other women.

The average selfie-er, meanwhile, is harmlessly chronicling the ongoing narrative of Me. "Think about how kids love to see pictures of themselves as babies," Rutledge says in a telephone interview. "It's trying to wrap our heads around the fact that we were small once. I don't think we ever get over trying to understand that process of life."

"In a cosmic way, it's proof of our existence," she adds, saying that the technology allows the individual to avoid the social awkwardness of asking a stranger to take a picture of you by yourself.

We may not want to admit it, but much of life is lived in the small circles of self-absorption, concerned with daily tales of what we did and why. The popularity of memoir reflects our understanding that the personal narrative is how all of us experience the world.

When we meet our friends at a café, we may talk about global issues for a while – Rob Ford having become one of them, unfortunately – but the conversation inevitably turns to what happened last night and how you ruined the mushroom risotto.

In a series of autobiographical essays, published posthumously as Moments of Being, Virginia Woolfe wrote that "the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art … we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself." Maybe, somehow, the selfie expresses our unconscious respect for the beauty in simply being alive.

All we have to hope is that the latest trend of selfies taken at funerals and in front of global leadership events – images which clearly make a statement that the photo-bombing self is more important than anything else that could be going on around us – is an expression of narcissistic parody.

It would be like Rembrandt painting a background of dying, plague-invested paupers behind his glorified image of creative genius.

Surely, he would do it only if he were being ironic.

Follow me on Twitter: @hampsonwrites

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