The Paradox of Portraiture


There is often something mysterious about portraits – they can depict people who look alive and who appear to look back at us.


The goal of portraiture is when the artist shapes an inanimate object in some medium that purports to represent a person – a being with a distinctive soul, essence, or ‘air’ (to use Roland Barthes descriptive term)


The most basic problem that can be raised about the relation between portraits and people is this one: How can something that is an artefact or object ever succeed at capturing a person who is a living being, a subject.


Is the goal of portraiture ever achieved?


Would success require an animistic belief in the magical powers of artists and art works?


The key to dissolving the subjective / objective paradox, I believe is to dissolve the sharp distinction between objects and subjects.


The claim that people are themselves objects is complemented by the claim that physical things can sometimes be meaningful artefacts. In such cases the objects have become subjective.


Creating and interacting with art has been crucial to humans, cognitive functioning. We simply have an ability to enjoy the aesthetic dimensions of things we do or interact with – whether singing lullabies to children, chanting or dancing in ritual worship of the gods, decorating our bodies and homes or making what the western culture has come to call ‘fine art’.


Since the possibility of being subjective is a common feature of a vast multitude of objects that surround us, it should no longer seem so mysterious that portraits can and often do appear to us to be living and endowed with powers of animation and expression.


Among a world of meaningful objects, to me, portraits are among the most engaging of all because they reveal subjects in which we are all inevitably interested in - people.