Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Portraiture as an Outdated and Irrelevant Art Practice: John Berger's Essay "The Changing View of Man in the Portrait"

John Berger wrote a paper in 1967 which condemns the practice of portraiture (p98).  In Berger's essay, the portrait has lost its relevance because of the rise of photography (ibid), a technology which captured the look of things quickly and cheaply, as well as portraiture's failure you get to the essence of its subject (p99), the decline in the value people today place on social roles (p101), the modern conception of the individual and identity (ibid), and the static nature of two-dimensional representation (p102).  These criticisms of Berger's can explain the nature of the demise of the traditional portrait, but does not rule out the opportunities for developments in portrait painting and the value which such developments could provide.

More and more, photography has become a tool in the production of art-making, at the levels of subject studies and also in mixed media art practices which involve painting.

Also Berger's account states that portraiture fails to get to the essence of the subject it targets.  In saying this he states that "ninety-nine percent" of portraits lack a "psychological insight" (p98).  Though the  number seems arbitrary it describes a large non-specific proportion of portrait painting which carries within it a lack of insight of the subject.  Implicit with this line of thought is that a small proportion of the overall portraits painted contain a psychological insight.  The term psychological insight immediately highlights a bias of Berger's and largely the modern world's and that is toward a psychological view of the person, which is a scientific view with a tradition in medicine, psychoanalysis and experimental psychology.  So long as the portrait is viewed as requiring a psychological insight, rather than a physiological, spiritual, or philosophical insight this claim is a worthy criticism.  However, if modern culture moves away from the psychological bias toward another set of theories of self and humanity, then portrait practices could adapt and probably would.  Some portrait painters could even pre-empt or create these new biases and make portraits according to their own theories and ideologies, which would speak to an audience who can appreciate those.  Berger mentions that modern culture has moved away from a theory of self which favours the individual over the social role played by that individual (p101) which was not the case in older portraits painted in more feudal times of kings, merchants, etc.  The artist is the person who should develop theories of the individual and present these through the portrait.

Of all of Berger's reasons for the demise of portraiture the most easily remedied by today's art climate is that audiences are unable to accept that an individual can be justly represented from one angle and through their looks alone:

"We can no longer accept that the identity of a man can be adequately established by preserving and fixing what he looks like from a single viewpoint in one place.......  It seems the demands of modern vision are incompatible with the singularity of viewpoint which is the prerequisite for a static painted 'likeness'." (p102)

Since Berger wrote this paper the artworld has seen a greater proliferation in the white cube gallery space than existed in his time.  Practices of digital media, installation art, and virtual spaces online have changed the way artists produce work.  The static image can be used where appropriate, the moving image otherwise.

I am confident that there is enough precedent in the contemporary artistic vocabulary to produce portraits which contain an aesthetic experience, insight, a theory of the individual, and considers its method of representation more sensitively and less driven by convention.

Berger, John "The Changing View of Man in the Portrait" in John Berger:  Selected Essays.  Edited by Geoff Dyer, 98-102.  London, UK:  Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001.

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