Why portraiture is different
Portraiture is unlike any other genre. With most kinds of art, the artist communicates through a medium with the audience. It’s simple, elegant, relatively unmuddied, and entirely different from a portrait’s way of communicating.
With portraiture, the artist, in collaboration with the subject, communicates through a medium with the audience as well as with the subject and her-his circle. The addition of a third player has some interesting repercussions for the portrait artist:
1) Inspiration is never far for a portraitist. A blank canvas isn’t daunting because there’s always someone else to paint.
2) It’s easy to tell when a painting isn’t working. Unlike most other artforms where the artist is “free,” a portraitist has to work inside the box of specificity. There is a right and a wrong in portraiture because the finished piece must represent some kind of a likeness in order to qualify as a portrait. Far from being a limit on the portrait artist’s imagination, this marks a clear goal for the portraitist, providing direction when other aspects of the painting are stuck.
3) Portraits are always anticipated. Most artists create without knowing for certain that anyone will care about the work they make. Conversely, there’s always someone waiting for the art a portraitist makes. The deadline for any given portrait has a human face and it’s staring right at the portrait artist as she-he works.
4) Every portrait is a collaboration. It’s the portrait artist’s art but the subject’s face and self. A portraitist can’t make a painting without the appearance and character of the subject, and those are a lifetime in the making. If a subject feels an ownership of a portrait that rivals the artist’s, it’s only natural.
5) The portraitist is responsible for the subject’s image. I understand that some portrait-makers don’t believe this, but I think it’s true. It follows from #4: when a subject sits for a portraitist, she-he is making her-him self vulnerable to the artist.
Recently, something happened to me that taught me about myself, and it revolves around the delicate and fascinating #4—portraiture’s collaborative nature.
I attended a one-man show performed by Jimmy Radosta whose portrait I painted in 2007. A few months ago, Jimmy asked if he might use my portrait in the promotional materials for the show, and, even though Jimmy specified that the painting might sometimes appear without credit given to me, I readily agreed.
That said, it wasn’t until I walked into the venue and was handed the program that’s pictured above that all the pieces fell together for me. If I’m a copyright radical and free culture nut, it has everything to do with being a portrait artist. I can’t ask Jimmy to be sure that I’m always credited when the image appears and I would never dream of charging him for use of the image, because the image is as much his as it is mine. I’m not going to cling obsessively to the rights to my images when I can’t even make a painting without a person lending me the rights to her-his face.
To my mind, portrait artists should be leading the free culture revolution. Then again, I don’t think that any kind of artist should believe in the corrupted version of copyright that exists today…
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