Portraiture: The Human Vanity Project

Portraiture: The Human
Vanity Project

Response to Archer’s 

“Portrait Art Has Never Been More Pointless”

James Knott

          The face is
the new currency. In fact, perhaps it always was. So it only seems natural for
artists, and painters specifically, to look to portraiture as a means for
expression. Once very popular as the only means of documenting the human face,
portraiture fell out of favour with painting after the industrial revolution
with the invention of the camera, and bourgeoning movements pushing for pure
abstraction. However, a resurgence of portrait painting has crept its way back
into relevance despite it’s seeming “pointlessness”.

Michael Archer’s article for The Guardian, “Portrait
Art Has Never Been More Pointless
”, he chastises artists who choose to work
in this genre without ever really delving into why the human face reigns so
important in our culture.

lambasts the nature of the portrait for the inherent elevation of the sitter’s
importance. “To have one’s portrait painted is to
indulge in a preposterous bit of self-aggrandizement, while to be a jobbing
portrait painter is to exercise the lucrative employment of one’s skills in a
manner that has nothing to do with contemporary art.” (Archer). But not only is
this type of “Self-aggrandizement” commonplace via the birth of social media,
but this inflated sense of self (and even projected self importance) is not
only socially acceptable, but even expected, and further societally
congratulated. Each “selfie” posted to Facebook or Instagram is showered with
little thumbs up and heart icons, littered in the comments are blushed and
kissy faced emoticons regardless of how unoriginal or un considered the picture
in question could be.

blatant vanity and nonchalant vapidity of this cultural phenomena can, and
perhaps sometimes even should be met with disgust, but either way it has become
an integral aspect to our social landscape. Good Art is a reflection of the
world around it, so of course its to be expected that when the collective
social conscious approaches a shift in behaviour so shall the art. Context is
always key. One can’t simply divorce their work from their surroundings, and
neither can Archer. It’s very contemporary to look at the face, and human
representation though a post modern lens in the (admittedly redundantly called)
post internet age; in which the face is not only prevalent, but highly
accessible and easily produced. In fact, painters might even take cues from the
notion of “remixing” in internet culture, in which anything is fair game to be
re contextualized and re distributed in any way by any body. Adopting a
practice which was previously sequestered to artists, particularly those
following pop art methods.

further combat Archer’s remark, it shouldn’t be expected that the subject of
the portrait is being inherently revered. Contemporary artists are constantly
looking at new lenses and approaches to the viewing of art, and brining a fresh
perspective like this creates interesting conceptual resonances with a genre as
historied as painted portraiture.

to some degree admits his awareness of image abundance (even if this article
was written on the cusp of the social media boom). He does however bring
portraiture back to this idea of the sitter vs the artist:

“The act of commissioning a portrait is something few of us will
do – it being restricted           to
those with more money than is good for them. There are more photographic images
  of individuals around than ever before –
perhaps because of that, and the ease with      which
  still more can be generated, the idea of
producing a composed portrait strikes me as      increasingly
pointless.” (Archer)

Portraiture doesn’t predicate itself
on the need to be commissioned from the outside. More so than ever, artists
have had the freedom to really pursue a practice on their own terms. And with
more source images than ever comes more material to explore. With virtually any
sitter that’s ever existed at your disposal it makes perfect sense why people
would take the opportunity to explore portraiture. And without the constraints
of a commissioner who’d interject and stipulate where the final product can go,
artists have the freedom to play with the figure in ways that incorporate the
historical schools of classical and abstract art, with more contemporary
materials, motifs, concepts, and concerns. Archer himself understands this,
stating: “portraiture
becomes pertinent when it breaks out of its straightjacket and offers something
more than a tastefully composed and skilfully executed representation of

touches upon the instances of abstraction of the figure in contemporary art but
fails to connect this to portraiture as a whole. In a review for an exhibition
of Elizabeth Peyton he describes:

“The people Peyton paints are famous, and their faces can be seen
everywhere in        countless
photographs. So, one of the main functions of the portrait – producing a likeness – is rendered irrelevant because we
really don’t need Peyton to show us what   [the subject] looks like. If her work is interesting it’s because it goes beyond this,        allowing us to see [the sitter] not only
as an individual, but as signifying pervasive         features
of our cultural environment, a screen upon which we can project our own desires
     and fears. Which is to say, it is not
a portrait at all, but what Reynolds would have called a      history painting: the most important kind
of art there is.” (Archer)

Archer completely misses the mark in
that he ascribes portraiture with the task of likeness. This could be a need
attributed of all art, but given historical and cultural context we know that in
fact these are merely ideologies concerning the need of art for the given
society it’s serving. Now, we understand that portraiture requires no
commission, or sense of likeness, and can still serve purpose and stand with
validity. Why traipse around the label so tediously? To avoid the historical
baggage? This is what truly serves no
purpose, as art has evolved organically so that it needn’t be weighted by this
baggage. It may have its debts, but they’re constantly being paid, so why
ignore that new charges are being made?

of this self actualization of social media is also a desire to look inward.
Self Portraiture, which also erases the notion of commission, has long stood as
a method to shed introspective light on the artist. Especially in this
“self-obsessed” era its fitting artist are turning to themselves to represent
both the inner and outer. Discussing the psychology surrounding this Courtney
Seiter posits “self-portraits are
about self-image—how we define ourselves… a way to figure out who we are”
further elaborating that “how
we see ourselves doesn’t come from who we really are, but rather from how we
think others see us.”. This is the age of self image curation.

per the history of money associated with those who’ve had the pleasure of
recording their faces through history: artists nowadays are commenting and
directly rejecting these notions by focusing their subjects on those who’d
otherwise remain invisible. One such example would be famous contemporary
portrait artist Kehinde Wiley, who’s practice focuses on extracting Black
subjects from the streets and superimposing their image in direct reference of
renaissance and rococo painting. Not only does this juxtaposition and
historical reference point introduce important dialogue about the history of
painting and representation, but it serves social purpose: bringing
representation to those who otherwise would have none, and criticizing the
society constructed to leave these people out.

also incorrect to assume that Portrait’s only value is in commission. Archer
touches upon this saying “We like people
a lot, and whether or not we have met them personally, we gain particular
satisfaction from knowing what they look like.” Clearly
there’s some intrinsic quality of the human face that has compelled us to
record it through history, and share it so rapidly the way we do now.

value in portraits will always be as we value so highly our own faces. Looking
to now at selfie culture we can see a prevalence in the output and engagement
with the face. In an article looking at the statistics of this phenomena Shea
Bennett claims “according to data from Samsung, selfies make up almost one-third
of all photos taken by people aged 18-24”.

 In a study by
Georgia Tech the discuss researchers found from the “1.1 million photos on Instagram and found
that pictures with human faces are 38 percent more likely to receive likes than
photos with no faces. They’re also 32 percent more likely to attract comments.”
Further noting “the number of faces in the photo, their age or gender didn’t
make a difference.” And that “men and women have the same chances of getting
likes or comments.” They discuss this engagement from an anthropological
perspective. “Even as babies, people love to look at faces. Faces are powerful
channels of non-verbal communication. We constantly monitor them for a variety
of contexts, including attractiveness, emotions and identity.” (Bakhshi as
quoted by Georgia Tech) Seiter also discusses this quoting Dr. Owen Churches

            “Human faces have always been
particularly effective attention-grabbing

             Most of us pay more attention to faces than we
do to anything else. We know             experimentally
that people respond differently to faces than they do to other object categories.”

Later examining
that “social media is no
exception: Face-tracking
show that the profile
picture or avatar is the first place the eye is drawn to on Facebook and other
social media profiles.”

reminded me of an interview I watched of singer/songwriter Sia being asked
about an album cover of her’s, featuring the singer drawing on her face with
markers, in which she said:

“That was just ‘cause they made me do that
because, um, apparently records sell better           if
you put your face on them. Um, Isn’t that weird? Even if it’s
ugly. Even if your face is      dog ugly,
apparently, purely market research shows that your album will sell more if   they can identify you with a human being”

The human face is able to get us to connect with something
that ultimately isn’t, by injecting our likeness into it. And this can be said
of art.

captivated by the anthropomorphic identity of the inanimate. Our
selfish human empathy will always crave our likeness, wishing to decipher the
story it hides. We care more about the narrative behind one’s eyes than perhaps
even the one spoken from their tongue. It’s funny to see Archer so baffled by
something that comes so naturally to most of us. He might argue he’s evolved a
superior taste; I might argue he’s lost his humanity.


Archer, Michael. “Portrait Art Has Never Been More
Pointless.” Editorial. The Guardian n.d.: n. pag. The Guardian.
Guardian News and Media, 24 Aug. 2009. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

“Face It: Instagram Pictures With Faces Are More
Popular.” Face It: Instagram Pictures With Faces Are More Popular.
Georgia Tech, 20 Mar. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

Bennett, Shea. “The Year Of The Selfie – Statistics,
Facts & Figures [INFOGRAPHIC].” SocialTimes. SocialTimes, 19
Mar. 2014. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

Seiter, Courtney. “The Psychology of Selfies: Why We
Love Taking and Viewing Photos of Faces.” Buffer Social. Buffer, 04
Apr. 2016. Web. 25 Sept. 2016.

Furler, Sia. “99X’s Matt Jones Interviews SIA.
Interview by Matt Jones. YouTube. 99Xdotcom, 1 July 2010. Web. 25 Sept.

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