Portraits of Reflection
Descartes’ search for a universal language as well as a certainty grounded within the self has now found a home within the artistic nature of Existentialism. Kierkegaard’s dual authorships, as original models for Existentialism, have been rejuvenated today in contemporary expressions of dialogism as well as autopathography. In particular, the recent proliferation of autopathography, in both memoir and self-portraiture, has now become a primary method of communicating meaning in the wake of Post-Modern relativism. As exemplified in the work of Francesca Woodman, photographic self-portraiture can be seen as a final refuge for the opposing values of subjectivity as well as objectivity.
The twentieth-century will always be remembered as a significant period in art history, particularly because it was able to destroy numerous barriers of convention while effectively expanding the overall terrain of the lone artist. During this unprecedented time, notable art personalities like Josef Beuys (1921-1986) and Andy Warhol (1928-1987) respectively proclaimed that “everybody is an artist” and “everything is art.” While dramatic statements like these may seem liberating at first, they also drain art of any possible meaning at the same time. If everything is art, then nothing is art. In the end, it is not useful to say that “everything is art” because it dematerializes any shared communal conceptions of what art actually is. Generalizations always end up as generic assumptions, even this one. So before we begin to put forth any of our theories of art, we first have to acknowledge that the most defining aspect of art is its inherent nature to elude definition. For centuries, scholars have attempted to identify, categorically, the most fundamental components of art, only to have new artists come along and create masterpieces that do not conform to these generalized aesthetic formulas. Problems always arise when academic circles try to articulate what constitutes superior art because a recipe for excellence is so simplistic that it is ultimately never illuminating and, in the end, a significant artwork can readily disprove any of the given standards of excellence. Art, therefore, can never be formulized. Equipped with only history to deduce our present status, however, it becomes necessary to examine our past in order to envision our future.
“We are only what we repeatedly do.”
-Aristotle (384 B.C.E. – 322 B.C.E.)
While art has always inherently been some form of self-representation, it is generally regarded that the first artwork devoted solely to the genre of self-portraiture was never fully actualized until the relatively recent date of 1450. The late appearance of the self-portrait, in effect, headed the birth of the Renaissance. Today, however, self-portraiture is now common practice throughout the art world, yet it still remains a perplexing fact to how exactly it could take approximately 30,000 years, since the earliest known works of art, for self-portraiture to be recognized as a subject matter worthy of our attention. While there are many reasons for the emergence of the self-portrait onto the Renaissance landscape, most notable were the new socio-economic liberties of the artisan, the technological advances in the production of mirrors, as well as the artisan’s own self-promotion as an intellectual who could rival the nobility commissioning his work. There must be other factors at work here, however, which can account for the transformation of artisans from mere tradesmen into the ‘Renaissance man’ capable of mastering other fields outside his own artistic profession. Through newfound powers of self-creation, geniuses like Michelangelo (1440-1550) and Leonardo (1450-1520) became the first ‘art stars’ to successfully advance from humble artisans into artists and eventually into the legendary figures who are now forever immortalized throughout the pages of Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 biography ‘The Lives of the Artists.’
The appearance of the self-portrait, in effect, remains a striking landmark and visual reminder of the rising independence of the artist and intellectual. The rigid hierarchy of the feudal pyramid had slowly become dismantled and was eroded all together once the Copernican revolution ousted mankind from his center of the universe. An immutable order had been negated and the subsequent void could only be filled by the independent visionary.
Today, we can precisely place the advent of Modern philosophy in 1641 with Rene Descartes’ (1490-1560) proclamation “Cogito Ergo Sum” (“I think, therefore, I am”) because here was the first attempt to build a system of knowledge free from the outside influences of others and the orthodox canon dictated from previous generations. Following thinkers were left on their own to rise from the ashes with only Descartes’ cogito model to react to and it would not be until Soren Kierkegaard’s (1813-1855) nineteenth-century writings that a new philosophy would develop which truly centered itself around the individual – above and beyond any transcendental order.
In the twentieth-century, this liberation of the individual mind has now been largely responsible for, among other things, the development of Existentialism in philosophy, the explosion of memoir in literature, as well as for the continued exponential increase of self-portraiture in the visual arts. Led by the newest ‘art star’ Cindy Sherman (1954-present), the ascension of female self-portraiture would now empower women to take control over their own image and eventually proved crucial for the overall success of Feminism in the later half of the century. Indeed, as self-portraiture had once anticipated the coming of Modern philosophy, female self-portraiture would now usher in a Post-Modern era. Throughout all of this, however, images of the self continued to flourish and the invention of photography and film only allowed for a new means of self-awareness much in the same way the mirror and the first works of art had done once before. The individual must, necessarily, identify with something outside itself and these innovative mediums enabled one to emulate his/her own self, rather than merely following the others in the surrounding environment. All art is some form of self-portraiture and it is only recently that this basic fact has been able to become more and more apparent.
Today, however, our advances have paradoxically led to a new crisis in self because the self has only acquired an unbounded and, therefore, uncertain identity. In simpler times, there was always at least something reassuring in knowing your exact place in the social order, no matter how lowly it might actually be. Only after the decisive split with the surrounding community, world, and known universe had the mind been able to begin to truly grasp itself but these divisions also exposed inherent fractures even within the self which art is now trying to mend through its persistent attempts to define personal identity.
“In the Middle Ages…. There was available for imitation a universally valid conceptual reality, whose order the artist could not tamper with. The subject matter of art was prescribed by those who commissioned works of art, which were not created, as in bourgeois society, on speculation. Precisely because his content was determined in advance, the artist was free to concentrate on his medium. He needed not to be philosopher, or visionary, but simply artificer. As long as there was general agreement as to what were the worthiest subjects for art, the artist was relieved of the necessity to be original and inventive in his ‘matter’ and could devote all his energy to formal problems. For him the medium became, privately, professionally, the content of his art, even as his medium is today the public content of the abstract painter’s art –with that difference, however, that the medieval artist had to suppress his professional preoccupation in public –had always to suppress and subordinate the personal and professional in the finished, official work of art. If, as an ordinary member of the Christian community, he felt some personal emotion about his subject matter, this only contributed to the enrichment of the work’s public meaning. Only with the Renaissance do the inflections of the personal become legitimate, still to be kept, however, within the limits of the simply and universally recognizable. And only with Rembrandt do ‘lonely’ artists begin to appear, lonely in their art. But even during the Renaissance, and as long as Western art was endeavoring to perfect its technique, victories in this realm could only be signalized by success in realistic imitation, since there was no other objective criterion at hand. Thus the masses could still find in the art of their masters objects of admiration and wonder.
-Clement Greenburg (1909–1994)
Undoubtedly one of the most influential art theorists, Clement Greenburg clearly outlined the historical role of the artist, for better or for worst, in his 1939 landmark essay ‘Avant-Garde & Kitsch.’ Accordingly, it is only in recent times that art has taken responsibility for itself by deliberately stepping away from the larger forces at work which, in the past, have merely prodded artists forward aimlessly throughout the centuries. Before this era, few artists and scholars had been able to perceive the coherent narrative underlying the history of art and even fewer had harnessed it in time to apply to their own, more urgent, circumstances. With the lessons learned from Marx (1818–1883), Greenburg was able to persuasively argue that the subject matter of the artist had finally been liberated from the confining economic chains of old and it was largely through this rhetoric that Modern abstract art was able to achieve the levels of prosperity that it did throughout the twentieth-century.
In his 1860 ‘The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy,” the art historian Jakob Burckhardt (1818–1897) was the first to articulate the transition from the Medieval Ages to the Renaissance as that of a transformation of a people who perceived themselves as engulfed in their community as to those with a new found sense of individualism. More recently, scholars like Joanna Woods-Marsden have taken Greenburg’s arguments further by giving credit to the Italian Renaissance artists, themselves, by stating that they, too, were aware of their own circumstances when they carefully constructed noble images of themselves so that they too might raise their own social standing. While both Greenburg and Woods-Marsden make extremely valid arguments, there must be something deeper going on here which can account for the undeniable fact that artists did somehow become real intellectuals, where they were not before – indeed, some of the greatest minds of all time. Furthermore, we need to give some explanation for the exponential increase in self-portraiture which continues to this day and which has now captured unprecedented levels of popularity. Clearly, Greenburg’s vision for the future of art did not make room for this apparent explosion in self-portraiture. So the question facing us now should be – why exactly is self-portraiture so en vogue today and how could a craftsman advance so far in the ranks as to be able to lead the intellectually elite in the first place?
Confessions & Meditations
While self-portraiture appeared noticeably late in the visual arts, the author as the primary subject of representation had already been pioneered throughout the other disciplines. As early as 397 C.E., St. Augustine (354-386) wrote his ‘Confessions’ which is now widely considered to be the first autobiography in the Western tradition. Saints that followed would continue this confessional genre into the Medieval era where one was guilty not just for committing a sinful act but merely just for contemplating it. An individual was accused, convicted, and imprisoned all within one’s own mind and it would not be until the Renaissance that individuals would begin to liberate their self from their own self-imposed judgments.
It is quite fitting that Augustine’s seminal text on the self would be centered around confession – for what exactly is sin but the transgression of social norms instilled within the individual. The freedom inherent to individuality cannot be legitimate until one refuses to conform to the reigning group mentality and St. Augustine, in his repentance, consequently made amends and reconfined his individuality to the morality of social religion.
For centuries, Western philosophy would be linked to the Christian doctrine associated with St. Augustine and it would not be until Descartes was able to single-handedly level the archaic Medieval structure that he began his own new philosophy built upon the self. Descartes began this immense task by doubting everything in the noble attempt to find a foothold of certainty on which his philosophy could firmly stand upon. Descartes noted that, more often than not, things are not the way they appear to be and that our senses often fool us – a stick might seem bent under water or we often awake from dreams that we mistake for reality. Descartes was forced to question how we could ever truly know if an evil demon is not tricking us to believe this reality we now perceive. In the end, Descartes concluded that we could never doubt this doubting, however, and this naturally led him to his bedrock Cogito Ergo Sum. Following philosophers would undoubtedly always refer back to Descartes’ arguments and skeptics like David Hume (1711-1776) would take Cartesian doubt even further by similarly questioning everything – even the concept of self as well as Descartes’ sacred Cogito.
Kant’s Copernican Revolution: Subject as Object
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) responded to David Hume’s formidable skepticism by not bothering to question if we can know anything but, instead, he opted to take the more practical approach of asking the obvious question of how it is that we do, in fact, know some things. For example, how is it possible that I can have some mastery over space and time and know, ahead of time, that if I leave Chicago now I can arrive in Minneapolis in about seven hours? Kant was extremely interested in how the interior thoughts of the individual (the subject) were able to correlate with his/her environment (an object) and Kant’s subsequent inquiry into this subject-object relationship led him to some fundamental questions that philosophy had previously ignored. The subject-object relationship is such an inherent part of the human condition that it has been overlooked for thousands of years yet it still, nonetheless, remains a simple, yet perplexing, question -“The thing that I know is not myself; what is it then? I am not unless I have objects, sensory data, before me; what indeed am I without them?” There is “no thinking without an object” and, therefore, “consciousness operates in the dichotomy between the thinking subject and the thought object.”
Kant realized immediately that he was doing something revolutionary and he delved further to decisively question whether the existence in space and time that we perceive derives essentially from our interior, as previous Rationalists like Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz had insisted, or rather from our worldly experiences, as the Empiricists like Locke, Berkeley, and Hume had argued. Kant, by questioning whether time and space really exist, proposed that these dimensions are simply products of the human imagination. Jaspers elucidates some of Kant’s basic arguments on the dimensions of space as mere figments of the mind by explaining “Space cannot be withdrawn from experience because it is from the very start, at the base of every experience”ix and the fact that “It is impossible to form a representation without space; but one can conceive of a space without objects.” Kant’s main argument for the illusion of space, though, was “The insights of geometry are not gained from experience but are verified in experience. How is this to be accounted for? The subject, by its form of intuition, recognizes a reality that has previously been formed by it.”
Kant comes to similar conclusions with time and so it follows that it is as if we are forever looking through what one could call space-time goggles. If we were to wear green-tinted goggles, everything would have to appear to us green. So as part of the human condition, we are born with these irremovable space-time goggles and everything has to appear to us in only space and time. Therefore, the space-time dimensions are not, necessarily, characteristics of our environment but are rather structures of our mind that conform all sensory experience into something we can comprehend. Any order that we see in our surroundings is exactly the order we have projected onto it or – “The subject, by its formation of intuition, recognizes a reality that has been previously been formed by it.” This is why I know that I can leave Chicago and probably be in Minneapolis in about seven hours because these are the dimensions and rules that my mind dictate and must work in. Kant had taken a radical approach and he “does not, like earlier philosophers, investigate objects. What he inquires into is our knowledge of objects.” This so-called Copernican revolution refocused on the individual as the ultimate source of his/her own experience (albeit as an oblivious creator) and it effectively helped to rejuvenate the arguments of the Rationalists after Hume’s formidable skepticism. To say that the mind is nothing more than a blank slate, as the Empiricists believed, is tantamount to saying that a bathtub full of silicon chips is a computer. Much like a computer, the mind has to be preconfigured to process information in the logical manner that it obviously does. Moreover, this Copernican revolution was not limited solely to the dimensions of space and time but constituted the entire experience of the individual, including causality and substance which were only two of twelve different mental categories that Kant had also designated as well. Kant had virtually set up a new formula for knowledge where we don’t necessarily have to know the secrets of the universe – just the secrets deep within our own self. Indeed, it is a curious mystery that the brain has such a hard time understanding how its own self works.
Subject as Other
If the consciousness is a dichotomy between the thinking subject and a thought object, as Kant held, then it would not be long before G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) came along and questioned further what exactly happens when the thought object is another person. It then follows that the consciousness is a dichotomy between the thinking subject and another thinking subject. Alexandre Kojeve’s (1902 – 1968) famous lectures on Hegel’s Slave/Master allegory details, psychologically, how the individual forms his/her identity despite the fact that we are usually focused on something outside our self. Because people naturally tend to objectify everything around them, when one person hypothetically meets another person for the first time “one sees in the other only an animal (and a dangerous and hostile one at that) that is to be destroyed.” Both would presumably objectify the other and, by doing so, they would deny and question each other’s uniqueness and identity. The original individual “has the ‘subjective certainty’ of being a man. But his certainty is not yet knowledge. The value that he attributes to himself could be illusory; the idea he has of himself could be false or mad. For that idea to be a truth, it must reveal an objective reality.” Even though the individual might presume s/he is somehow special, s/he needs verification in the real world – either by another person or by an object that somehow reflects his/her specialness (like a trophy, car, or photograph for example.) So when one person meets another person for the first time, there is a fight for recognition from the other. By obtaining the recognition of another, “they prove themselves, they transform the purely subjective certainty that each has of his own value into objective, or universally recognized, truth.” Paradoxically, the end result is “Self-Consciousness exists in and for itself in and by the fact that it exists for another Self-Consciousness.”
This battle for recognition cannot end in murder, however, for the recognition of the other would never be obtained and would ultimately defeat the original purpose of the fight. In the end, there must be a Master, who conquers through superior force, and a Slave, an inferior being who submits his/her will so as not to be eliminated. While the Slave now recognizes the Master as the superior being, this recognition is one-sided because the Master, in return, only views the Slave as an object. However, the recognition the Master fought so hard to win is ironically never fulfilled because “he is recognized by someone whom he does not recognize.” Moreover, “others recognize the Master as Master only because he has a Slave” and so the Master’s existence is forever dependent on a being whom he never acknowledges.
The most ironic thing of all is that, in the end, it is ultimately only the Slave who achieves the self-affirmation that both of these entities seek. This, in part, is due to the fact that the Slave is actually motivated to change for the better while the Master, on the other hand, is idle with victory and forever content to effortlessly consume the products of the Slave. While, initially, the primitive competitors were completely subject to the forces of nature, the Slave has now turned the tables and mastered nature to work according to his will. The Master, on the other hand, is always precariously at the mercy of nature because s/he is forever dependent on his/her base Desires as well as on the Slave whose work fulfills these base Desires. As Kojeve explains “The Master, who does not work, produces nothing stable outside of himself. He merely destroys.” Hegel, therefore, comes to the conclusion that it is “only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man. Only after producing an artificial object is man himself really and objectively.” When the time we spend on this earth is converted and focused into an object of work, we see our temporal efforts reflected in physical space within an actual tangible object and therefore, as in the case of art, we are now capable of seeing a manifestation of our own soul.
DE OMNIBUS DUBITANDUM
“Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to itself… Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of possibility and necessity, in short, it is a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self.”
-Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)
Hegel had viewed history as a continual progression of self-realization but he had virtually erased the individual in his totalizing State-driven philosophy as well as by revealing the schizophrenic division inherent to the human mind. The collective writings of Soren Kierkegaard were an overall assault on Hegel’s systematic thinking which ambitiously attempted to categorize and understand every aspect of the world. With his maxim “the Rational is the Real and the Real is the Rational” Hegel asserted that human rational thought is, in fact, reality. While it is true that everything we experience must necessarily be through our thoughts, this doesn’t necessarily mean that reality does not exist independent of thought and as Kierkegaard pointed out –“Life is thought backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” In effect, Hegel aligned himself with Descartes in the attempt to attempt to unite ontology and epistemology. Kierkegaard, however, declares existence is the one thing that can never be thought because thought only abstracts reality and, in the end, “Every step forward in reflection is a step back from immediacy.” By my simple suggestion, you can have a fairly good idea of the journal I am writing in right now but you cannot accurately imagine, however, the infinite amount of detail that actually constitutes this entire journal such as every hue of reddish color on its cover, its brownish stain spots, its frayed edges, its loose binding, etc., etc… Once you try to become conscious of one aspect, you must necessarily ignore the rest and as Alfred Northhead Whitehead would explain it later –“We think in generalities but we live in detail.” Thought and existence can never correspond exactly and Descartes’ and Hegel’s attempt to unify the two creates a “night in which all cows are black” and is tantamount to reading a cookbook to a man who is starving. Our physical existence has real desires and needs that cannot be satisfied merely by thought and Kierkegaard scoffed at the system builders like Descartes, Kant, and Hegel when he wrote:
“The systematic idea is subject-object, is the unity of thinking and being; existence, on the other hand, is precisely the separation. From this it by no means follows that existence is thoughtless, but existence has spaced and does space subject from object, thought from being.”
In between this void we must somehow find our self. Kierkegaard realized that no matter how much we talk about our self – our age, nationality, job, hobbies, family, etc. – there is still something always left over – our existence. Our existence is an irrational surd which will always be left over when we are done trying to put our life into words.
Like Descartes, Kierkegaard also doubted our most sacred beliefs including God, knowledge, or any claims to ‘the truth.’ Kierkegaard admired Socrates (470 B.C.E. – 399 B.C.E.) and religiously adhered to the father of Western philosophy famous proclamations – “I know I am the wisest man because I know that I know nothing” and “Know thyself.” Kierkegaard went about his skepticism by first questioning time and concluded that because we are finite beings, we can never truly know something infinite, like God. This, however, did not stop Kierkegaard from being the most radical of Christians though. He continued to hold, regardless, that even if there was such a thing as a timeless truth, we could never comprehend it anyways because we, ourselves, are not timeless. Consequently, our goal in life is to find some connection to eternity – a bridge which binds us forever to something more stable than our own self which will be able to outlast our own fragile life, whether this is accomplished through our children, religion, marriage, job, awards, art, or writing which declares, forever, that we once achieved something greater than our self. According to Kierkegaard, the meaning of life turns out to be to give life meaning.
The Advent of Photography
About the same time Kierkegaard was laying down the foundations of Existentialism, photography was simultaneously being introduced to the world. The philosophy that emphasized living in the moment was complemented by the machine that captured it.
Ever since its discovery in 1839, however, photography has represented the epitome of objectivity for seekers of the truth. Due to the disinterested nature of the machine, crude photographs, even in their most archaic forms, have been preferred to manual renderings in scientific investigation. Just as the technological innovations of art and the mirror had created a previous awareness of self, now, too, the invention of the camera also acted as a catalyst in the ongoing process of human development. In the end analysis, the widespread production and availability of the camera and mirror should, by no means, be underestimated as a factor in the proliferation of self-portraiture as well as in the creation of independent thinking.
Photography was so successful initially because it already naturally tended to speak in our everyday common language of visual imagery. The most convenient way to express one’s self immediately is often verbally, but, on the other hand, the quickest way to assess one’s environment is through vision. It is in this sense that we often say a picture is worth a thousand words. As much time as I spend trying to describe my girlfriend’s face – a million words can never compete with a simple photo of her. Constructing a picture has traditionally taken a lot more time, however, (not to mention physical material) and so we have always ended up resorting to language in order to articulate our thoughts readily. ‘Seeing is believing,’ however, and when we see something for our self we are able to obtain a first hand account of the experience rather than someone else’s abstract and unreliable interpretation. We tend to trust what we see and when different individuals see the same event there is inevitably closer understanding and less chance for miscommunication. Everyone is familiar with the old adage that photographs don’t lie, however, we always have to remember that photographers do. It was only about a half a century ago, the imagination of George Orwell (1900-1954) predicted that the future ruling governments of ‘1984’ would have labs specifically designed for doctoring pictures but no one could ever have imagined that practically everyone would now have one in their briefcase.
Modern advances in the capabilities of mass reproduction have now, more than ever, undeniably revealed the inherent importance of visual imagery. Descartes’ and the Rationalist’s dream of a universal language is almost a reality now, due to the mass production of images and the subsequent onslaught of gentrification and globalization. We all partake in the world visually but now, through the prevalence of digital photography, we are all also able to share and communicate our personal vision with others within a matter of seconds. The only question that now remains is if we can speak wisely with our new technological capabilities which empower us to create these images so easily.
Photography in Art
Like the artistic mediums that preceded it, the selective nature of photography has the ability to isolate and put on a pedestal that which it frames. Photography fixes time like an eternal truth upon which we can return to and share similar experiences. An individual, divided into differing personalities by the spectrum of time, can be held together by this unifying power found within photography and art.
For obvious reasons, the introduction of photography shook up the art world. With the mass-production of affordable and easy to use cameras like the brownie, everyone was now able to take multiple pictures at simply the press of a button. Critics were forced to question what actually distinguished one picture from the next. The technology that would advance usability would simultaneously saturate the medium as well. It would be a long while, therefore, before photography would be seriously considered as an art form and it was not until the likes of Cindy Sherman (1954–present) that the prices of photography would begin to rival that of painting in the market.
Along with Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman stands out as one the most prominent artists of the second half of the twentieth-century. In her early black-and-white stills, Sherman photographed herself in compositions closely resembling the popular cinema of the Fifties. By naming her works Untitled Film Stills, Sherman actually went out of her way to stress this close connection to film. Often labeled as a Feminist artist, Sherman satirically plays the typical Hollywood actress and, by doing so, reveals the stereotypical weak roles relegated to women throughout popular culture. When juxtaposed next to each other, these photographs show that Sherman’s characters are merely fulfilling predetermined roles and that the individuality we take for granted is, actually, a lot rarer than we think.
Similarly, Kierkegaard also wondered if the self was not like an onion which consisted of layer upon layer but which, beneath it all, contained no heart. Kierkegaard realized that behavior roles are useful for social interaction, maybe even necessary, but they seriously reduce the possibility of freedom for an individual. Indeed, Judge Wilhelm, a character in Kierkegaard’s ‘Either/Or,’ warns the reader:
“Do you not know that there comes a midnight hour when everyone has to throw off his mask? Do you believe that life will always let itself be mocked? Do you think you can slip away a little before midnight in order to avoid this? Or are you not terrified by it? I have seen men in real life who so long deceived others that at last their true nature could not reveal itself; I have seen men who played hide and seek so long that at last in madness they disgustingly obtruded upon others their secret thoughts which hitherto they had proudly concealed. Or can you think of anything more frightful than that it might end with your nature being resolved into a multiplicity, that you really might become many, become, like those unhappy demoniacs, a legion, and thus would have lost the inmost and holiest thing of all in a man, the unifying power of personality.”
A contemporary of Sherman, Francesca Woodman (1958–1981) first photographed herself at the young age of thirteen and it was then that she began her full absorption into the world of photography. Despite her premature suicide in 1981, at only twenty-two years of age, Woodman was able to fulfill an impressive portfolio of photography which remains today for us her lasting legacy. Shot in the 2 1/4 inch square format, the majority of Woodman’s work consists of black-and-white nude self-portraits and once she was even ejected from the Museum of Natural History in New York for photographing herself nude among the exhibits. The utilization of her own body as a form of art places Woodman directly into the currents of the Feminist avant-garde that epitomized the Seventies and Eighties. Being an American woman working in the photographic realm of self-portraiture, Woodman naturally has to draw comparisons to Cindy Sherman. However, Woodman’s work seems to be more about the self while, on the other hand, Sherman’s self-portraiture is more often about the social norms that she was reacting against. Consequently, Woodman emerges as the isolated individual devoid of the fashions of the time. Even though Woodman’s nude self-portraiture is clearly about the female form, one cannot help to feel that the rawness of the physical presentation is transcended by the mental aspects of the overall composition. Woodman’s portraits are often described as ghostly apparitions and perhaps it is this allusion to the spirit that ultimately dematerializes the body and immerses her work into the realm of psychology. The melancholy facts of her biography that eventually led to her suicide can’t help but to draw questions of mental disorder as an undercurrent throughout Woodman’s oeuvre.
Despite his relatively few self-portraits, it seems more appropriate to compare the apparent similarities of Woodman’s photographs with the paintings of Francis Bacon (1909-1992) to help understand the harrowing effects that both of their works conjure up. Both artists are solely concerned with portraying the human figure but in a way that dissolves the physical form in order to convey its concealed inner essence. Both Bacon and Woodman place their isolated figures in barren interiors that work to suggest interior mental spaces. The figures are free to move but it feels as if their freedom is relegated to their cell. The lack of detailed props or clothes deny the viewer any sense of a specific time or place and refocus the eye back onto the main subject. As a result, the artwork doesn’t seem to be solely confined to the present and in the case of Woodman her use of black-and-white photography acts as a relic of the past but, nonetheless, has an immediacy that brings her world into ours. Woodman’s art, therefore, has a peculiar timeless aspect to it where the spirit of her work will always be able to express her vision for generations to come.
Since its earliest beginnings with Kierkegaard, Existentialism has always been closely connected to art. Kierkegaard’s own literary style harks back to the beginnings of Western philosophy, itself, with Socrates’ disdain for the static written word as opposed to the enlightening dynamics of verbal communication. Plato, Socrates’ foremost disciple, agreed with his mentor but reluctantly opted to record, for our benefit, their conversations in the form of written dialogues. Similarly, Jean-Jacques Rousseau admonished himself for his introspective writings that he likened to masturbation since both are merely substitutes for the primary social interactions of conversation and sex. It is interesting that both Plato and Rousseau (along with maybe Descartes, Hume, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and James) stand out as only a handful of the few significant philosophers with a combined talent for exceptional writing. It is not until Existentialism and its forefather, Kierkegaard, that we see philosophy transform into a problem of writing itself. Kierkegaard’s marriage, effectively binding philosophy to literature, can be seen today in Existentialist writings found in the other prominent philosophies of Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Bergson, Kafka, Sartre, and Camus.
In Kierkegaard’s first publication and seminal masterpiece ‘Either/Or,’ he collaborates an anthology of imaginary authors with conflicting opinions and lifestyles. The point is to offer the reader a broad spectrum of beliefs so that s/he may choose their own viewpoint in life. Similarly, in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Bakhtin would later claim Dostoevsky as the ‘author’ of the first polyphonic novel as well as present us with the writings of various critics of Dostoevsky in an attempt to create a polyphonic forum where many voices are heard and in which we may eventually may make our own decisions for our self. Beginning in the nineteenth-century, the literature of philosophy finally retains some semblance of the dynamics of verbal dialogue that Socrates had privileged and set such a precedent on.
Nikki S. Lee
Kierkegaard uses literature brilliantly to spell out his theory of indirect communication but it is a bit trickier to ‘see’ how we are able to enter different conscious viewpoints in a visual image. Probably more than any other visual artist today, Nikki S. Lee (1970–present) is able to orchestrate polyphony and indirect communication in visual imagery by offering the viewer several different lifestyles from which to choose from. Lee is another notable American woman working in photographic self-portraiture who immerses herself into different cultures and actually takes on the social roles appropriate for that particular environment. Much like Cindy Sherman before her, Lee effectively demonstrates the fallibility of the concept of self. But while Sherman’s criticism never offered the viewer another mode of living in the world, Lee’s work, on the other hand, offers several pathways in her polyphony of images from which one can eventually identify with.
The Concept of Angst
Kierkegaard is widely known for his ingenious technique of indirect communication but his so-called direct communication also offers valuable insight in a manner more consistent with Woodman’s self-portraits. In his 1844 book ‘The Concept of Angst,’ Kierkegaard makes an attempt to define the elusive feeling he terms as ‘angst’ through the unusual perspective of Adam in the Garden of Eden. Angst (the Danish word ‘Angest’ which is sometimes also translated as dread, anxiety, or anguish) is difficult to ascertain because it is, fundamentally, a fear of nothing. Fear is something easier to understand because it is always a fear of something – whether it be a fear of snakes, spiders, or whatever else might seem threatening in the world outside. Angst, on the other hand, is an elusive feeling of uneasiness which never seems to go away but which only manifests itself as the gut-wrenching sensation felt in the pit of one’s stomach. According to Kierkegaard, angst came about at the exact moment God prohibited Adam from eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Where before he had lived in complete bliss and repose, Adam had now become afraid of his own self because of the fact that he might actually break God’s law. God’s law had the effect of inducing the state of angst “because the prohibition awakens the possibility of freedom.” Mankind had now been granted the awesome power to go against God’s will and because Adam realized this innately, he wished to do so.
So, basically, angst is the fear of freedom. To further illustrate angst, Kierkegaard uses the example of standing next to the edge of a cliff. Kierkegaard explains “Angst is the vertigo of possibility” and, naturally, an individual becomes apprehensive at the cliff’s edge because there is an overwhelming wariness that we might actually end up being the cause of our own demise. One fears that they may trip but, at some level, the individual also fears that they might actually jump into the abyss below. A modern-day example is similarly felt when we drive a car and, suddenly, we become aware that we could crash straight into the oncoming traffic, if we were so inclined. For example, one cannot help, at some point or another, to be angered by the possibility of running head into the inconsiderate jerk blinding them with bright lights. There is an actual judicial law which states we have to stay in our own lane but the only thing stopping us, really, is our own self. This is scary precisely because our will is such a small barrier to overcome. In the end, we are ultimately never in control because as Nietzsche points out “The will to overcome an emotion is ultimately only the will of another, or of several other, emotions.”
Since, in our enormous freedom, there is nothing definitive to guide our decision-making process we always tend to impulsively resort to and fixate on the few things which we know we are not supposed to. This is precisely because we have a pretty-good idea of what not to do but there is nothing, on the other hand, which ensures, beyond a doubt, that we are living our life correctly. Blinded by the infinite possibilities of the future, we therefore become like deer frozen in headlights which are so easily fixated on the object of their own demise. Kierkegaard warns “angst is an alien power which takes possession of the individual; he cannot tear himself away from its power because he is afraid; what we fear, we at the same time desire.” Confronted by our limits, they always tend to arise before us as the foremost of possibilities. It is like the child who cannot help to be fascinated by what the protective parents shield from him/her. Kierkegaard’s official definition of angst is now given as “a sympathetic antipathy and an antipathetic sympathy” which roughly translates into simpler terms as angst is a desire of what one fears as well as a fear of what one desires.
Freedom and possibility are primary sources of angst because we know that we are capable of the most unthinkable of deeds and as Kierkegaard warns “in possibility all things are equally possible, and whoever has truly been brought up by possibility has grasped the terrible as well as the joyful.” Interestingly enough, some individuals suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Neuroses (OCN) fear knives because they are afraid of the impulse to stab someone. In other words, they fear themselves and the possibilities of knives. Indeed, it could be argued that angst is, ultimately, the cause of all obsessive-compulsive disorders. Cleaning one’s hands repetitively or rocking back and forth in a fetal position are both just means of coping with angst by resorting to the simplistic thought found in repetition.
Kierkegaard’s favorite work, ‘The Sickness Unto Death,’ was the immediate sequel to ‘The Concept of Anxiety.’ In this particular work, Kierkegaard again takes the concept of anxiety further by introducing the concept of despair, which is roughly a form of self-hatred. Basically, in possibility, if we have ever wanted to be richer, better looking, popular, etc. there is a part of our self we have not yet obtained and therefore there is a part of our self we do not like. While considerably more complicated, Kierkegaard had again, through deep self-analysis, disclosed a part of the human condition that logically applies to everyone and remains universally true.
Kierkegaard, however, did not set out to find any truths. Kierkegaard denigrated so-called objective facts because he felt that they contained no true meaning. For example, if we suddenly found out that Caesar never really crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C.E. the validity of that ‘fact’ would never dramatically effect our life. Furthermore, the acceptance of facts ‘proven’ by science is never a risk and most people simply just limit their freedom by conforming to the facts imposed upon them by society.
With his term ‘disinterested,’ Kant was the first to begin to truly define objectivity and came to the conclusion that the simplest test for objectivity is if we can just communicate the object in question readily to other people. It is in this sense that photography and art can be extremely effective carriers of objectivity in their appeals to the senses and, while often referred to as insane, Francesca Woodman and her compelling images could be configured in with the most objective of thinkers. In the way Kant was able to establish the fact that we must always think architectonically in the dimensions of space and time, Woodman, too, was also able to vividly demonstrate our entrapment in these predetermined mental structures. Through acknowledging these constrictive mental aspects, we can go on to build an image of our self and share these same communal experiences with others. The pseudonymous characters of Kierkegaard, Lee, and Sherman, on the other hand, never truly claim their self throughout their numerous guises. It is blatantly clear, though, that Woodman’s work is as much a psychological self-portrait as it is her physical appearance and her photographs remain the most telling artifacts that truly give us a glimpse into her mindset before her untimely death.
Perhaps, it is this close association with objectivity that can explain why autobiography has become so prevalent today. In a world of uncertainty, the autobiography gives the clearest first-hand account of its author as opposed to some version fabricated by a faceless bureaucracy. Stanley Fish articulates this idiosyncratic character of autobiography when he states “Autobiographers cannot lie because anything they say, however mendacious, is the truth about themselves, whether they know it or not.”
Kierkegaard’s form of direct communication bears a close resemblance to what is today being called autopathography. In the Nineties, these autobiographical narratives of disability became prevalent as a means in which individuals could reclaim their bodies from their afflictions. These stories of affliction ring true to the outside viewer because it seems there is no profit on the part of the author in the disclosure of the disease or as George Orwell put it – “An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is a series of defeats.” By letting down his/her own gaurd, the author is able to establish an atmosphere of true intimacy.
Autopathography does not have to be limited just to rare diseases, as both Kierkegaard and Woodman are able to demonstrate, and can be about the ordinary madness like angst and despair which effect everyone. Similarly, Descartes believed everyone was mad for at least a third of their life because in sleep we become completely unaware of ourselves and the world around us. The rational thinking of Cartesian doubt also eventually led to a form of insanity where one became afraid to act because this extreme skepticism allowed one to believe a demon could possibly be eternally tricking us. Kierkegaard, however, embraced conflict as the possibility of freedom and suggests “he always keeps open the wound of negativity, which at times is a saving factor” that is “continually just as negative as positive, he is continually striving.”
Apparently, it is through what afflicts us that we truly find ourselves or as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) would put it “all the strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all of our suppressed acts of violition, which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will.” The author of the first pathography which attempted to detail the mental life of Leonardo da Vinci, Freud successfully opened a dialogue with those society had deemed insane. Freud’s own autopathography, his seminal masterpiece ‘Interpretation of Dreams,’ was instrumental in unearthing the depths of the unconscious and he also describes the author’s process “as the covert fulfillment of socially unacceptable infantile wishes in which we acquiesce on account of ‘the purely formal – that is, the aesthetic – yield of pleasure which he (the artist) offers us in the presentation of his fantasies.’” Madness is the inability to communicate on the same plane as the rest of society and art toes this line between communication and individuality upon which one must carefully balance one’s self. Artistic mediums are able to give the lone individual and other minorities the possibility of accessing a larger public. By definition, the minority is not heard enough as it is and the voice of one, as a direct access to experience, is an essential voice.
That said, the function of art, as first identified by Marx, is social criticism. To put it another way, bad art is art that upholds the current values of the existing society. In this respect, truth always rests with the dissenting minority because minorities are constituted only by those whom actually have an opinion. Popularity, therefore, should never be considered a standard of achievement in art as well as a form of truth. It is clear that the art that upholds the values of the existing society is, in the end, not just the kitsch of pop culture but also the work that lies within museums. High art should never be just any form of mere protest though and always requires some type of formal innovation.
The overall specialization of the disciplines indicative of the nineteenth-century did not exclude the world of art by any means. Greenburg was one of the first to recognize the inherent problems that art held in alienating its own audience when he wrote “The avant-garde’s specialization of itself, has estranged a great many of those who were capable formerly of enjoying and appreciating ambitious art and literature, but who are now unwilling or unable to acquire an initiation into their craft secrets.” While specialization is inevitable in any field of learning, the art world has forgotten that art is, first and foremost, a special form of communication. Art is, essentially, an attempt to represent, to yourself and to others, the important issues we are compelled to focus upon and, therefore, the success of any socially significant art must always walk a fine line between originality and communication. If art is not original enough it has nothing innovative to offer but if, on the other hand, it is too original it can never quite be readily understood by anyone else.
Today, though, visitors to museums often feel too confused as to why a particular thing is art – as if they need to read a philosophical manifesto before they can appreciate any semblance of what the art offered to them actually means. Indeed, certain works rely heavily upon adjacent placards to explain their meaning. This placard is just another way an institution confirms it power by defining meaning and by teaching us what matters – namely, their art collection. Art needs to be challenging but it also lends itself too easily to become a type of bureaucratic red-tape which denies the public any access to the actual experience of art. In an elusive search for meaning, a sterile emptiness results in leaving the viewer starved for something more fulfilling or, for that matter, comprehedible. Works of art need to be challenging but, at the same time, they need to be engaging as well. We are all familiar with how originality in art can lead to revolutionary ideas but none of this can actually come to fruition if these ideas cannot be communicated with other people.
While art, like the other fields of learning, should theoretically become more and more complex, there also comes a point where the perpetual complexity of insider language ultimately reaches an indecipherable obscurity. Like the children’s game Telephone, it can be amusing to play off the previous statements made by one’s predecessors but, in the end, the message becomes completely incomprehensible. So when Warhol finally proclaims “everything is art” he effectively crowns himself, the artist, King Midas so that everything he comes upon turns into gold. One has to remember, though, that King Midas starves to death due to the inedible nature of gold, however, and in the end both king and pawn must return back to the same box.
My art today comes directly out of these traditions of self-portraiture but how does one ever actually go about describing their own self? If you describe yourself critically, for one, you show others your flaws and thereby make your work apparently weak. If you describe yourself in a positive light, on the other hand, you automatically seem self-absorbed and therefore also appear in a negative light as well. It is a difficult tightrope upon which to balance one’s self. So how exactly does one, especially artists who are expected to continually reinvent themselves, put one’s self into abstract permanent terms of words?
“When I go toward the door of the lecture hall, I am already there, and I could not go to it at all if I were not such that I am there. I am never here only, as this encapsulated body, rather, I am there, that is, I already pervade the space of the room, and only thus can I go through it.”
-Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976)
Does my body just merely end at my skin or does it not also extend into the space around me? The door that is across the room is undoubtedly a part of my being – at this moment it constitutes the entire focus of my consciousness. So what exactly is this body that seems to follow me where ever I go and which always seems to take precedent? In the midst of the visual bombardment of the world, the observer is the constant that is an underlying common denominator of one and, therefore, ‘I’ always tends to be the ultimate reference point.
My art is always a form of self-portraiture. I often use my own image, even several different images of myself, in a single photograph in an attempt to express how the individual shapes and is shaped by the surrounding environment. The spaces presented in my images attempt to represent my own consciousness and hopefully find a connection within the viewer as well. For the majority of the time, we are focused on objects outside of yourself and it is not until we reflect upon our own self that we can come closer to grasping the reality of our situation. Through self-analysis, I struggle to understand how the individual creates his/her identity according to numerous categories such as gender, sexuality, race, and nationality. I am a white, educated, heterosexual male living in the most dominant nation the world has ever seen. I have had a more privileged life than over ninety-nine percent of the human race – so, as an artist, what right do I have to complain about anything? I have been extremely lucky, to say the least, yet still I am miserable. My introspection attempts to capture why these hidden experiences often go ignored yet remain common to us all at some point in our lives.
In the way both Kierkegaard studied his own mind to get a deeper understanding of human nature, I also attempt a similar type of self-portraiture. While we remain in indirect contact with rest of the world, we are always in direct contact with our own mind and so introspection remains the most reliable form of knowledge possible. While this may seem very self-centered, I feel that through this type of introversion, Kierkegaard was able to grasp universal human states that we all struggle with. His self-analysis has proven invaluable. Indeed, this is my ultimate goal – through brutal honesty and self-awareness I hope to portray to myself, and others, common human experiences that are often disregarded and which are often not given the attention they deserve simply because they tend to portray our own self in a negative light. Not only is my art an attempt to justify my experiences and validate my existence, I hope that others can find a bond and hopefully an awareness of their own self through this work as well. I know, for one, that I find solace when I read about Kierkegaard’s concept of dread and despair and, consequently, I am further able to understand myself. Kierkegaard obviously recognized what he was doing when he wrote “These things are true of me, so they must be true of you. If you haven’t had these abnormal experiences, there must be something wrong with you.” Words like these tend to give me insight, comfort and eventually lead me to realize that, for the most part, our condition will always seem equally disparaging and promising.
Society is always seen in its buildings and constructions. Inevitably, we are situated within these spaces which compose all of our lives but which also divide and confine us to our own interiors. Utilizing the introspection inherent to self-portraiture, I navigate these structures in order to map the psychology of space we all share and partake in. By framing the self within architecture, I ultimately explore how individuals begin to define them self throughout surrounding social structures. In the end, we choose only pathways established before us but, among concrete passages, art is also able to, subversively, manifest the soul.
“In reality, as such, there is no repetition. This is not because everything is different, not at all. If everything in the world were completely identical, in reality there would be no repetition, because reality is only in the moment. If the world, instead of being beauty, were nothing but equally large unvaregated boulders, there would still be no repetition. Throughout all eternity, in every moment, I would see a boulder, but there would be no question as to whether it was the same one I had seen before. In ideality alone there is no repetition, for the idea is and remains the same, and as such it cannot be repeated. When ideality and reality touch each other, then repetition occurs. When, for example, I see something in the moment, ideality enters in and will explain that it is a repetition. Here is the contradiction, for that which is, is also in another mode. That the external is, that I see, but in the same instant I bring it into relation with something that also is, something that is the same and that also will explain that the other is the same. Here is a redoubling (Fordobling); here it is a matter of repetition. Ideality and reality therefore collide – in what medium? In time? That is indeed an impossibility. In what, then? In consciousness – there is the contradiction. The question is not disinterested, as if one asked whether all existence is not an image of the idea and to that extent whether visible existence is not, in a certain volatized sense, a repetition. Here the question is more specifically one of a repetition in consciousness, consequently of recollection. Recollection involves the same contradiction. Recollection is not ideality; it is ideality that has been. It is not reality; it is reality that has been – which again is a double contradiction, for ideality, according to its concept, has been, and the same holds true of reality according to its concept.”
-Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)