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The Selfie as a Form of Self-Expression

The Selfie as a Form of Self-Expression

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Podcast with Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts, American Public University

and Dr. Mina Majstorovic
Faculty Member, School of Arts and Humanities

There are more than 30 million “selfies” uploaded to social media every week. While this may seem like a modern-day phenomenon, there’s a significant connection between “selfies” and self-portraits used by artists throughout history.

Start a degree program at American Public University.

In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to art professor Mina Majstorovic about art history and selfies. Learn why artists historically composed self-portraits as autobiographies and self-expression and how such paintings reflect the culture of the time. Also, learn how the selfies of today can help students connect to and better understand artwork from the past.

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Read the Transcript

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Welcome to the School of Arts and Humanities at American Public University. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and today at The Everyday Scholar, we’re talking to Mina Majstorovic, Art Faculty in the School of Arts and Humanities.

And today we’re talking about selfies and self-portraits. Why is seeing images of ourselves so fascinating? Welcome, Mina.

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Hi, Bjorn. Thank you for inviting me.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Great topic. I have taught art a little in my past. I love art, can’t do any art, visual art, I should say, but the history of art and how we perceive, what we see is fascinating.

So I’m going to jump into the first question. It seems like our world today is consumed by the well-known phenomenon we call the selfie. So why is that? Is selfie a recent phenomenon and a product of our contemporary world, which is usually how we think about it or not?

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Very true Bjorn, nowadays it seems like everywhere we go, someone’s taking the selfie, right? We can truly say that our world is consumed by the selfie. Some people have hundreds, if not thousands of these pictures on their devices.

So why is that? Why is seeing images of ourselves so fascinating? Is it to record a moment so we can relive it later or share it with friends and family members? Is it to track changes in ourselves as we grow and therefore explore our own personalities? Or is it just a plain vanity?

All these reasons by themselves or combined can be reasons for taking a selfie, but whatever the reason, it’s not a recent phenomenon. We know that a man called Robert Cornelius, who was an American pioneer in photography, produced an image of himself using a daguerreotype camera in 1839. And that is one of the first photographs of a person that we know of as well.

Also, the famous grand duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, who was the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, was one of the first teenagers who at the age of 13 took her own picture using a mirror to send to a friend in 1914. And it is interesting to mention that in the letter that accompanied the photograph, Anastasia wrote that she took the picture by looking at the mirror and that she was scared, that her hands were trembling. So it was a terrifying experience for her.

So invention of the portable camera in the 1900s led to selfies becoming a more widespread idea. But that idea grew even more in the 1970s with affordable instant camera such as classic Polaroid being designed.

The modern selfie has origins in Japanese culture. In Japanese Kauai culture, Kauai means and refers to something that’s cute, something that’s lovely, something that’s adorable. And involves a lot, among other things, an obsession with beautiful self-representation in photography, particularly among females.

So by the 1990s, this obsession led to self-photography being developed into a major preoccupation among Japanese school girls and became a widespread phenomenon across Asia in the ‘90s. If we think about outside Asia and the concept of uploading self-taken photographs to the internet and international popularity of the modern selfie phenomenon, it started in the very early 21st century.

And the term itself was interestingly enough coined entirely by accident, on one of the Australian internet forums by the man called Nathan Hope in 2002.

Basically, the invention of mobile phones and especially introduction of the front-facing camera that we all know about from the early 21st century, together with this obsession with beautiful self-representation in photography, which has its origins in Asia, led to almost today, 30 million selfies being uploaded every week from smartphones and other devices to social media.

And I think it’s very interesting to mention that — and I don’t know if you know about it — that all this infatuation with selfies also led to opening of selfie museums in many cities like San Francisco, then Las Vegas, and of course, where else than Los Angeles as well.

There are selfie museums in Manila, Philippines, that is supposedly the first one that had opened. Then there is a selfie museum in Vienna, Austria, and they are very interesting and interactive with creative spaces for people to create their own art. So it is very interesting to visit one of those museums.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And thank you, Mina, for that excellent context of the selfie. And I like how you went into history, including going back to the 19th century, fast forward to the ‘90s in Asia and today. Now, going on a little bit of a tangent here, do you think that say Japanese culture was able to then influence the U.S. because of how Japan has influenced us over the last few decades?

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Well, yes, of course. Japanese culture and Asian culture in this way, in many other ways, influenced West culture a lot and I think especially United States, when it comes to animation, especially. When you think about movies like “Spirited Away,” which is a masterpiece in animation, it is truly something that’s worth mentioning.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And do you think that the selfie is an inherent, guessing say human desire to look at themselves. And so now as contemporary people, we’re able to instantly see our development throughout as we get older, or do you think it’s been that way forever? It’s just in the past, well, people didn’t have a camera.

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Very true. And that’s how selfie phenomenon relates to the subject matter that I’m teaching, which is art history and art appreciation for the most part because artists had always utilized similar ideas to the selfie in their work. But if artists wanted selfies in the past, they had to make it by hand. Right?

And what we call selfie today is historically known as a self-portrait in terms of art history. Some art historians think that there may have been some self-portraits, even in ancient times. And we know about the few, but not enough paintings have survived from the time period that we can say that it was a common thing.

What we know though is that in the early 15th century, artists started to include their image in larger compositions at first and not as a main subject matter. For example, early Italian Renaissance artists like Sandro Botticelli, Masaccio and Piero Della Francesca, for example, inserted their self-portrait in larger religious compositions, such as “Resurrection” or “Adoration of Magi” and so on.

But it wasn’t until artists started using canvases and using mirrors became a common thing, that they used their own image as a main subject in works of art on regular basis.

So in 1433, a Flemish artist, Jan van Eyck painted an image that some art historians think is the first true self-portrait. Although we’re not entirely sure of that, that it’s his self-portrait, that’s why he’s also called Man in the Red Turban.

And just as a reminder, Jan van Eyck and his brother Hubert were well-known Dutch Renaissance painters known to be the first artists who started using oils as a medium in paintings more extensively. And this particular self-portrait painting can be seen today in the National Gallery in London.

But Albrecht Dürer who was a German early Renaissance artist, especially known across Europe for his high-quality woodcut prints, was the first truly prolific self-portraitist who depicted himself more often than any artists before him. Producing — and this may sound funny today, especially if we think about selfies — at least 12 images of himself that we know of.

Also, thinking about connections between the selfie and art history, I think it’s very important to mention that women artists were notable producers of self-portraits from the very beginning, almost all significant women painters have left an example of their self-portrait.

And that is important to note because until 20th century, women were rarely allowed in art schools and could not study anatomy, which is why women who wanted to be artists used themselves as models.

Also, it’s interesting to mention that most commonly women artists were showing themselves in the act of painting or at least holding a brush and pallet, which is evident in the 17th-century self-portraits. For example, made by Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi or Dutch artist Judith Leyster or 18th century self-portraits made by French artist Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun, who is also known for painting many portraits of the French queen Marie Antoinette, who was the last queen of France and a wife of Louis XVI.

What this practice means and why am I mentioning it is that by painting themselves in the act of painting, women were trying to confirm and prove their artistic skill in the profession dominated by men for centuries.

Then we also have, in the 18th century, we can find self-portraits made by the famous Swiss neoclassicism painter Angelica Kauffman who had a successful career in London and Rome as well. Then there are a few notable 19th century self-portraits produced by the famous American impressionism painter Mary Cassatt, who although American, lived most of her adult life in France and whose self-portraits we can encounter today in [the] Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and in [the] National Gallery in Washington, D.C., as well.

So basically, beginning with the early Renaissance or 15th century in Europe and Asia as well, creating self-portraits in which artists use their own image as the main subject in works of art, which is exactly what we do with selfies, right, became a common practice of artists to this day.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s a great in-depth discussion of throughout history. I especially like Mary Cassatt being the American 19th-century artists, but you’ve gone through so many. It also makes me think about how you said that women weren’t allowed into art school, which was the reality of the time.

And it makes me think of classical music where in the 18th and 19th centuries, you find women composers, women who wrote music, but generally they went up to a certain point and then when they got married, they stopped.

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Exactly. That happened with many women artists. And if they wanted to practice their skills, they had to learn from their either fathers or their husbands. And then usually when they got married, they would stop doing art altogether.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. And you’ll find excellent say, singers in the well, 19th century, not as much in the 18th century, the prevalence of the castrati in classical music, which were of course castrated men who sang soprano. But by the 19th century, women were able to then be famous for their singing and also for being piano players.

And so it’s an interesting gender study to look at art in European culture, especially where they start having some success in say the 18th and 19th centuries, a little more success. And not really, I would say until the 20th century where women were actually able to have careers, true careers in this field.

And so in everything that you talked about, are there any museums that people can go see? So in the states say, in the major hubs of say, L.A., Chicago, New York, Miami, different places like that, where there’s famous selfies that students can see that go back into history.

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Well, when it comes to selfies, that a selfie phenomenon, the modern selfie phenomena, that is we can go to selfie museums. But then when it comes to self-portraits, then probably museums, like Metropolitan Museum of Art or National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and other famous museum store many self-portraits, but there is no one museum in particular that only has the self-portraits as solely an exhibition.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s interesting, because like you said, there’s many different selfie museums that have popped up about contemporary selfies.

Now, going back into history a bit and there are, of course, portraiture has been very famous for a long time of rich people, aristocracy getting themselves painted. Are there many portraits of say the average person that have survived throughout the ages?

Or when you were talking earlier about, there’s not as many images that have survived say the ancient world, Greeks and Romans. Is that because they just haven’t survived like a millennia or two millennia and then say portraits of the average person, maybe there are more charcoal people that sketched them, then those just don’t survive as much versus if Marie Antoinette was painted. Then of course it has survived because it was Marie Antoinette and done by a famous artist?

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Well, everything you said is true. And so we don’t have portraits, maybe self-portraits or portraits from ancient times because of the medium. We just don’t have paintings survived from ancient times at all, that many paintings, we don’t have ancient Greek, ancient Roman paintings. So we don’t know about that.

And probably, until probably the 17th century Dutch Republic, Golden Age, we don’t have portraits even self-portraits but also portraits of ordinary people that were more common. So mostly we can find in the 15 or 16th century, mostly portraits of rich people that were made by famous artists.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It’s interesting when you look at all those self-portraits of the aristocracy of the time, I always think, well, what were the average people doing? And so it seems like today with the selfie phenomenon, say the world’s or the art world is going to be inundated with examples or artifacts of just the average people.

It seems like today that the art world will have countless artifacts of the daily lives of the average person. Do you think that’ll change art in how we try to portray or visualize images of people in selfies? Because now, essentially everybody is having an example of what we look like versus say very specific artists contributing their ideas.

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Well, probably that will change the art world and portraits and self-portraits all together. You see, artists use self-portraits in ways that go beyond their own likeness, especially nowadays. And usually, when artists are using their own images or images of other people, they’re doing that to bring attention to certain social and cultural issues that they find important. There are many examples of that.

For example, Frida Kahlo, who lived in the first half of the 20th century, she thought that her native country, Mexico, was seen as a second-rate country. So she insisted upon using images from her country’s folklore to show beauty and depth of Mexican culture.

And therefore in herself portrait, she included animals like monkeys and parrots and other birds or lush background with beautiful flowers together with her self-portrait and other symbols native to her culture and sought to define Mexican identity in this way as well.

I don’t know if you know the famous self-portrait of Frida Kahlo, the self-portrait with a thorn necklace. We can see that and which is imbued with symbolism either related to Mexican culture or her relationship with Diego Rivera, for example.

Another interesting, very interesting example, is a contemporary artist, Kerry James Marshall, who really uses his image beyond his own likeness. And that’s the artist who grew up in Los Angeles and currently lives and works in Chicago.

Studying art history extensively, Marshall noticed the lack of African American faces in Western art. He observed that Black people were usually shown in minor roles as assistants or slaves to white people in artworks. So he decided to change that and use his own image to question our own expectations about where and how we see people of color. So in his artworks, he challenges the marginalization of African Americans through his formerly very rigorous works of art.

And the famous artwork examples showing that are definitely a few self-portraits of the artist as a supermodel, for example, that we can see in Honolulu Museum of Art or Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where he represents himself as a blonde supermodel in various ways.

And of course, another great example that supports these ideas is definitely contemporary artist Cindy Sherman, whose works of art consists exclusively of photographic self-portraits. Depicting women, where she depicts herself in many different contexts and as various imagined characters seeking to deconstruct stereotypes of women in Western culture.

So she photographed herself reenacting stereotypical roles for women that are given to us by media, often from movies, such as “The Sweetheart Next Door,” “The Girl Left Behind,” “The Trapped Housewife” and so on. And she’s especially known for her film, “Still Series of Self-portraits.”

The famous one from the series would be where she reenacts the cinematic codes of femininity of the ‘50s, which is the film “Still #53” or “Blonde: Close-Up with Lamp” from the 1980, which we can encounter the Museum of Modern Art in New York in which her outfit and her carefully done hairdo and makeup reconstruct these codes of passivity, vulnerability, anxiety.

By representing herself in this way she is suggesting that young women had very little room at the time to maneuver in the limited space left to her between the viewer and the wall behind her, then that whole atmosphere created has certain anxiety, is showing her vulnerability at the same time. So yes, to answer your question, artists use self-portraits in many ways that goes just beyond their likeness and not only in their self-portraits, but in portraits as well. And especially that is the case nowadays.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m glad you brought up Kerry James Marshall and Cindy Sherman, and it’s so important to have diverse voices within the art community. Because if you look at the history of, say, European art, of course it’s made by Europeans. And so you’ll get other representations of people who are European for hundreds of years.

And then so in contemporary American art, it’s important to get as many people to create art and to express what they’re feeling, what they’re going through, or what they’ve lived and say what their lived-truth is out there so other people can understand that.

It’s like history and like time, everything is slow-moving and I know everybody is impatient, but it’s important work by those two artists to continue to do that. And, of course, to be supported so the art can reflect culture and what their dreams, their fears and what we hope will happen in the future. Do artists use self-portraits in ways that go beyond just their own likeness?

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Oh, Bjorn, that is a very good question, because many reasons for so many self-portraits being created by artists are probably the same or similar and often overlap with reasons I have already mentioned when it comes to modern selfies.

So artists maybe wanting to track changes in themselves and therefore explore their own personalities. Maybe they wanted to record their likeness or also for pure vanity, but also because artists were practicing new techniques, new media, they were honing their skills or just wanting to show off their skills.

And interestingly enough, some artists made so many self-portraits, making the self-portrait a major means of artistic self-expression. And in this way, they turn self-portraiture into an autobiography.

Those are certainly Frida Kahlo, Vincent van Gogh and of course, Rembrandt. For example, Frida Kahlo, who was a famous Mexican artist, she’s known for her many self-portraits, but also portraits and works of art inspired by the Mexican culture and for her turbulent relationship with Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, with whom she traveled Mexico and the United States.

Her paintings and especially her self-portraits were largely autobiographical, exploring a persona of fortitude and creative conviction in the face of physical suffering because Frida Kahlo had a very hard life. Since at the age of 18, she was seriously injured in a bus accident, confining her to a hospital bed for a very long time, which is where she took up painting and created many of her iconic self-portraits.

Then famous, of course, Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, who is also known for a series of self-portraits as well, of course, for the series of sunflowers and for the famous “Starry Night” painting, which we can all see in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Van Gogh for example, produced his self-portraits for the most part, because he wanted to practice painting people.

The majority of his self-portraits over 25, were done while he lived in Paris and he was short of money, struggled to find models. So he chose the simplest solution to the problem and painted himself.

And it is interesting that something of van Gogh’s personality can be found in each self-portrait he painted. Although he never represented himself as a sick or broken man, and we know that he was, we can see how he felt on many of those images, whether he was mentally or whether he was physically exhausted. Whatever the reason we can certainly say that these self-portraits have truly shaped our image of Vincent van Gogh, right?

But no one turns self-portraiture into an autobiography better than the famous 17th-century Dutch painter, Rembrandt van Rijn, and who created almost 100 self-portraits. Be there paintings or prints or drawings during his lifetime, which is considered the most by any well-known artist, earning Rembrandt today, the title of master or King of the selfie. That’s how we call Rembrandt today.

And all the popular interpretation is that these images represent a very personal and introspective lifelong journey, which definitely is true. The truth is also that they were painted to satisfy a market in the 17th-century Dutch Republic, which we have already mentioned for self-portraits made by prominent artists.

That is the time period in our history where we have a differentiation of genres. And it is also interesting to mention that Rembrandt self-portraits were created by the artists looking at himself in a mirror, which was also very often the case. But so what I wanted to say is that his paintings and his drawings therefore reverse his actual features.

And on the other hand, his etchings, which are prints, in the etchings, the printing process creates reverse damage, so the prints therefore show Rembrandt in the same orientation as he appeared to contemporary. So that is one of the reasons why the hands are usually omitted in his paintings because they would be on the wrong side if painted from the mirror. So these are all examples of artists who truly try to record their own likeness in various phases of their life.

But there’s also an interesting story I recently came across, and information related to this topic where the idea of selfies and self-portraits truly overlaps.

One contemporary artist called Noah Kalina, decided to create a lifelong artistic project — I don’t know if you’ve seen that; it was on CNN — which is autobiographical. He took a selfie every day for the last 20 years recording his likeness and is showing his project updated every 10 years.

So the project started in his school dorm room. And throughout the years, we can see the changing background in what now looks like a video, which shows that he had moved several times, traveled the world and, of course, got older. So the project looks pretty interesting to say the least and how the idea of selfies and self-portraits overlaps is I guess, pretty obvious in this example.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s a great example. And it’s one of those things that we all will now do is watch ourselves age. Which is terribly interesting because past humans, they would see themselves in mirrors or reflections and they would see themselves age, I guess you could say, not slowly, but not as viscerally every day, we see something change.

I don’t know which one’s better, past or present. At the same time, humans are just humans. Some people react gracefully, age is just age, some people worry about every little line that appears, and it’s the same a 100, 200, a thousand years ago, as it is today on how people age.

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Exactly. I completely agree with that. And it would help people see themselves when they’re aging. It’s a very individual thing as much as cultural.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And that’s one of the things that art, I hope, helps people do is connect us with the people, the past. When we look at these great works of art, we think, how did these great artists do this? It also connects us with the people inside the art.

So you realize you are saying, Rembrandt, that was Rembrandt at different stages of his life, which is amazing, but it connects us with that person who actually lived. And I think people often forget that those works of art were there physically being created by someone a 100, 200, 500, 600, 700, 800 years ago.

And that’s what art and say history should do. Is it connects us with the past. And this then transitions to the last question is how important is it to connect art history and art appreciation topics with a well-known phenomenon like [a] selfie, which is so relatable to students?

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Oh, it’s another great question, Bjorn. And I think it’s absolutely crucial to do that. Because very often students feel completely disconnected from art and especially art history and often feel intimidated discussing art topics, I can see that all the time.

By connecting something that every student knows, understands and feels comfortable about, with my art history and art appreciation classes, breaks down the barrier that is preventing students from embracing art and art history and makes learning about art much more fun, much more approachable and more relatable.

And in my lectures, I actually often begin talking about art after I connect students first to one of the known practices that we get engaged with regularly, like sports we play, like food we eat, and so on and have my classes revolve around it.

For example, one of my classes revolves around hygiene. I ask them to see evidence of pure hygiene in the art history.

So I ask questions like, how can you see on people in, for example, the 16 or 17th century that they didn’t take care of their hygiene as well as we do. Did they try to hide their teeth, for example, in paintings because they were so bad and what was their skin like in that regard? And so on.

Another relatable topic is also artists and their pets. Many students have pets, right? And it is a well-known fact that many artists had pets, especially cats. And so I ask questions about how often did artists represent pets in their work? Which artists in particular and what pets and why were used as models the most?

Also when I teach Mesoamerican art history, I connect it with sports. First, I ask them whether they have ever played any team sport or do they follow any team sport now? Most of them have, or do so now, and then I ask, “Did you ever wonder, where does the idea of a team sport and ballgame come from?”

Then I tell them that predecessor of most modern ball games as we play them today and the idea of the team sport was invented in Mesoamerica. And of course the story about the Mesoamerican ball game and ball court naturally follows.

In this particular case that we talked about today, which is selfie phenomenon, I ask some of the questions that you asked me today. And instead of art existing in dusty old museums, it now becomes for students something that is connected to the device, to the smartphone, that every student has in their pocket. Right?

How fun is that? Judging by students’ feedback, it seems like they really appreciate it. And they think that it’s fun to learn about art in this way. So I think it’s really important to connect students and everyday topics to the subject matter.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that reminds me of when I talk to people about classical music, where a lot of people will say, “Oh, I don’t really like classical music.” But actually, everybody loves classical music through film music.

Everybody loves music, and film music today is really stuck in the late 19th century. Where a lot of the really beautiful and say luscious elements of film music really comes from, really the 1890s. With then all the modern to contemporary type of music that’s thrown in there.

And will everybody connect to art history, to works that were created a 100, 500 years ago? No. But hopefully they do see a connection between [a] selfie and what happened in the past. Because again, it’s that connection to the past and also that understanding that creating an artistic work of art is important as say, a cultural archive or a cultural artifact of what people went through.

Any last thoughts today, Mina, before we’re done?

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Well, I wanted to say that I also in my classes and now that you were talking about music, that reminded me that I really try also to nourish the practice of integrative teaching practices in my classes, which means that I connect visual arts to music.

I always like to put Beethoven in my classes when we talk about Romanticism or I always have them listen to Mozart when we talk about Neoclassicism, when we talk about the 18th century.

So I think that’s also important for them to understand how connected everything is in the time period that we are talking about. So I think that’s also pretty interesting, too.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And I’m excited to see what works will survive say from the zeros and the teens say in 10 or 20 years, just to see what the art world will point at as representations of like the selfie and what will demonstrate the art of that time.

Dr. Mina Majstorovic: Thanks again, Bjorn. It was my pleasure talking with you about this interesting topic.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Today, we were talking to Mina Majstorovic, we were talking about selfies and self-portraits. Why is seeing images of ourselves so fascinating, here at The Everyday Scholar.

About the Speakers

Bjorn MercerDr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He writes about leadership, management and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music. 

Dr. Mina MajstorovicDr. Mina Majstorovic’s experience as an instructor includes over 20 years of teaching at colleges in Europe and the United States. She has taught art history, humanities, architectural history and cultural heritage. She holds an M.A. in art history and a Ph.D. in humanities. She is a faculty member at American Public University.  

Her dissertation, completed in 2011, explored the role that rural art colonies played in the complex cultural transformation of the world in the last two centuries. This research of various aspects of the art colony phenomenon, like social engagement, cultural tourism and gentrification, has been ongoing and she has presented her work at many conferences in the U.S. and Europe.

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