To thine own self be true

[ Then again, consider the source. ]

Selfies are easily dismissed as narcissistic or kitschy, but the urge to self-define is neither new nor unimportant.  The convention of using physical likeness to express individuality applies along the continuum of portrait images in visual culture:  it links lowbrow selfies to high art portraits of Rembrandt.  By limiting an individual to his or her material components in a single instant, such portraiture struggles to describe change over time or the intangible aspects of identity.[1]

There are, however, other ways to construct a portrait of identity.


Identity and transcendence

“The ritual prescription of simulacra may be all we need to be healed.” (Schwartz 294)

Judith Butler asks, “To what extent is ‘identity’ a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience?” (Gender Trouble 23).  Change is inevitable.  Assuming that identity is a static thing (or set of variables) to be discovered once and quantified for perpetuity is false and harmful.  This essentialist approach to identity forces individuals into hypocrisy and self-censorship.   As Butler later explains, “to understand identity as a practice, and as a signifying practice, is to understand culturally intelligible subjects as the resulting effects of a rule-bound discourse that inserts itself in the pervasive and mundane signifying acts of linguistic life” (198).   Butler’s careful and characteristic selection of “performance” and “practice” as synonymous with identity is significant.[2]  They embrace the idea of fluidity and change in a way that affirms the present (and individual agency) without erasing the past.

The past (and an individual’s past performances of identity) affect the present in profound and complicated ways.  Joseph Campbell’s text entitled The Power of Myth presents particularly nuanced and emphatic commentary on the relationships between tradition, metaphor, and modern life.  As Campbell posits, “The themes are timeless, and the inflection is to the culture” (13).  I describe his text as nuanced, because he also warns that “You can keep an old tradition going only by renewing it in terms of current circumstances” (25-6).  In terms of identity, this affirms that we can neither efface history nor expect symbols’ signification to remain immutable.

Ellen Dissanayake’s observations on art from an anthropological viewpoint dovetail with Campbell’s comparative mythology and Butler’s feminist theory.  One commonality Dissanayake observes in Homo Aestheticus is that “We are all engaged in the universal human predilection for making sense of our individual and collective experience” (4).  There are dangers to suppressing that predilection.  She observes that “Without extravagant and extra-ordinary ways to mark the significant and serious events of our lives, we relinquish not our hypocrisy so much as our humanity” (139).  Part of that humanity is the experience of existential uncertainty.

Butler, Campbell, and Dissanayake all relate self-discovery to the concept of transcendence (and its elusiveness).  Campbell focuses on the literal meaning and paradox of the word.  As he defines it:

…”transcendent” properly means that which is beyond all concepts….Our senses are enclosed in the field of time and space, and our minds are enclosed in a frame of the categories of thought.  But the ultimate thing (which is no thing) that we are trying to get in touch with is not so enclosed.  We enclose it as we try to think of it.  (75)

In terms of identity, Campbell’s insight explains the sheer difficulty of simultaneously perceiving our unique lived experience and connections to our larger context.

Colloquial references to transcendence signify a complete transition from imperfection to perfection (such that whatever came before becomes inconceivable).  Butler in particular voices reservations about this.  To defy heteronormative or patriarchal norms is not the same thing as transcending them.  She uses drag and lesbian archetypes to explain that “The notion of gender parody…does not assume that there is an original which such parodic identities imitate.  Indeed, the parody is of the very notion of an original” (188).  The imperfection of the illusion is a purposeful clue to what is actually going on.  Queer theory is an acute example of the fact that preconceptions are weakened or strengthened, but not obviated, by our increased awareness of them.

Identity is complex and defies straightforward labeling.

Hillel Schwartz, whose Culture of the Copy focuses entirely on the implications of doubleness and repetition, goes so far as to claim that “Impostures succeed because, not in spite, of their fictitiousness” (71).   Defining the self by parody is similar to sarcasm; intelligibility relies on identifiable symbols as well as their negation.  In this dialectic, individuals who use binary language to self-define are defined by what they are not.


Composite portraiture

“Plagiarism in our culture of the copy is sticky with feelings of originality-through-repetition, revelation-through-simulation.” (Schwartz 314)

When individuality matters, portraiture relies on expression, likeness, labels, or symbolism to identify and explicate the individual.[3]  Despite its rich history, this sort of portraiture treats a single instant as the sufficient representation of the individual.  What might portraits look like if this bias was avoided?

One alternative to these portraiture conventions is the eclecticism of the postmodern pastiche.  My current series of paintings redefines the portrait as a collection of fantasies and physical characteristics.  Each painting transforms iconic images from art history and pop culture into paper doll costumes scaled for an individual’s paper doppelgänger.  The paper avatar’s face peeks through and confronts us with its risible anachronism.  In the process, a tailored network of associations forms.


Next post: applying these concepts to paper dolls

[1] Cubist portraits address time but distort and dehumanize the human form in the process.  Picasso’s oeuvre is essential to art history, but few wish to depict their quintessential self as a disjointed object.

[2]  Butler’s text deftly presents the paradigm that gender is performative rather than biologically deterministic.  As she explains, “performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body, understood, in part, as a culturally sustained temporal duration” (xv).

[3] There are precedents for portraits in which facial likeness was of negligible importance.  Patricia Simons explains that in portraits of women in Renaissance Italy the portrait’s distinguishing features of setting or adornment reflected norms of behavior or social class.  Svetlana Alpers observes that in regards to seventeenth-century Dutch art, “…the self is identified with the images of the world stored in the mind….Dutch commentators considered that working out of one’s store of visual memories…constituted working out of oneself” (The Art of Describing 40).

2 responses to “To thine own self be true”

  1. […] part 2 of the essay which began "To Thine Own Self Be True" […]

  2. […] The rest of this essay can be found here and here.  Some images and detailed description of this final section have been omitted pending […]

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: