That Portraiture is Not Art

© Donald Richardson, July, 2005


(The original form of this paper was presented to a seminar on The Moran Prize exhibition at the Royal South Australian Society of Arts, Adelaide, on 2nd July, 2005.)
This paper attempts to locate the true position of portraiture in our culture.
First, a question which gives legitimacy to my inquiry: why have London, Washington and Canberra (and several other cities) established specifically portrait galleries when they already had 'national galleries of art'? Surely this indicates that there is something uncomfortable - if un-stated - about considering portraiture to be art without some qualification at least?
The problem is partly a semantic one, resulting from the looseness that is common in the way we discuss any aspect of art. It is true that art cannot be completely confined within rational thought and language; however, defining the terms we use - and using them consistently - is the sine qua non of rational discussion in any field, art included.
If we use inconsistent and equivocal language we can find ourselves arguing at cross-purposes - and getting nowhere as a result. So it is absolutely essential that we establish coherent meanings for the key terms we need to use. And we cannot dismiss this as 'mere semantics'.
The first distinctions to make (not as simplistic as it may sound initially) are those between nature, art and design. Whereas art and design are made by humans, the natural world was certainly not made by any human action. When humans judge it as beautiful, calm, cruel, terrifying, inspiring etc these characteristics are human constructs and not, of course, inherent in nature itself.
The first humans began to make things - implements, buildings, clothing etc - things which helped to make their lives safer, richer, more liveable. Today we designate this class of things 'functional' - a term designers use to characterise what they do. They create things that are instrumental to human existence and well-being.
But humans also make non-functional things - things which we admire and collect not to use in any functional way but simply because we find them beautiful, uplifting, admirable, enriching. We have mainly aesthetic reasons for valuing things like music, poetry, paintings and sculptures.
Functional things are properly classified as design. We seem to have no problem speaking consistently of 'industrial design', 'fashion design', 'home design' etc. Things that are not functional are properly classified as art. This is not to say that things like pictures and sculptures are 'useless', of course; they are just not (intended to be) functional (this will not stop someone buying a Cézanne because it 'goes with the carpet'!). Art is a very enriching human construct, and its value is shown by how much people are prepared to pay to own a prime example (often more than for a functional object).
And we use the same intellectual and emotional faculties to make the same aesthetic judgments about nature, design and art - and use the same words: words like 'beautiful', 'striking', 'moving' and 'picturesque'. Problems begin to occur when we find some design objects (the Sydney Opera House, for example) so aesthetically pleasing that we designate them 'art' - even though they are clearly not. (Because we use the same aesthetic terms in discussing nature as well as design and art, it is invalid to think of the aesthetic exclusively as equivalent to art.)
It is important to recognise that we commonly use a number of art/design terms equivocally. The term, art itself, we use not only to describe the category of non-functional human creations (pictures and sculptures), but also as an honorific - a term of extreme approval: not only is the Opera House 'art' (when it is really design), but we speak of 'the state of the art' - of anything, except art!; and we use 'art' to mean just skill, as in 'the art of war' and when we call a clever footballer an 'artist'. All these uses of the term 'art' are honorific and do not refer to art per se at all. It assists rational discussion of works of art and design if we avoid using 'art' as an honorific.
And the term, design we use to describe both the area of functional things (clothing, buildings, vehicles etc) and also the way the elements of composition are arranged in a (non-functional) painting or sculpture. (It may be that this corruption of the language has brought about the rash of university former 'design' departments that are now called 'creative industries' departments.)
Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling is commonly recognised as a great work of art. Each of its separate episodes could notionally be seen separately as works of art (and this is how they are usually reproduced in art books). But we should realise that it is also a great work of design: first, the whole scheme had to fit on a pre-existing functional object - the ceiling - and to complement the architecture; second, Michelangelo worked to what we today call a 'design brief': detailed instructions about what must be included. If he had included a scene from the New Testament, for example, he would have failed his design brief. (We seriously delude ourselves if we believe that Michelangelo (as with other artists of his era) was free to express himself in the way modern artists are.)
And this applies to most painting and sculpture in the era preceding Modernism. Both the forms and the content of art were prescribed - and, even, proscribed - by tradition and by the power of those who 'paid the piper' (they 'called the tune'). In fact, the whole concept of what art is was re-defined by the Impressionists, the Fauvists, the Cubists, the Dadaists and the Surrealists. ('Art for art's sake' is not much more than a century old, although many people still have difficulty with it.) Now the artist is totally free to express his/her ideas and values and is not beholden to those who commission the works. It is crucial that we realise and recognise this. Modernism changed everything. It also made it necessary to re-assess all the 'art' of the past.
And the two (art and design) were both treated masterfully by Michelangelo. And the two (art and design) can be separated logically and treated separately - and they are not mutually exclusive - as we see with the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The test of whether a work is art or design is to ask of it - is it functional? If it isn't functional, it is art; if it is functional, it is design.
And now - finally (and for much the same reason) - to come to portraiture and why it should really not be considered to be 'art'. I am not denigrating the form in any way by saying this or denying that we have had - and valued - portraits since the beginning of history. I am just using both terms descriptively and not honorifically.
What may be called 'the portrait-painter's dilemma' was convincingly and poignantly - if haltingly - expressed by one of our greatest portraitists, William Dobell, during the trial in the NSW Supreme Court in 1944 when the trustees of the Art Gallery of NSW were accused of wrongly awarding the 1943 Archibald Prize to Dobell on the grounds that his picture of Joshua Smith was not, in fact, a portrait but a caricature. Under cross-examination
[1], Dobell characterised the tension between the contemporary artist's legitimate desire for self-expression and what we may call the portrait's 'implied design-brief' - which clearly is to portray the sitter[2]. He continually referred to the two aspects of painting a portrait in the 20th century: representing the 'physical appearance' of the sitter and - on the other hand - what he variously calls 'constructing a picture worthy of the name of a work of art', 'the picture as a whole' (i.e., including both representation and the composition of the work[3]), that his work is 'both a portrait and a picture' and that such is 'the licence that I as an artist I can claim'.
It surely is clear that, if a portrait does not represent its subject (however great it may look on other criteria), then it is as much 'a lemon' as is a motor-car that is continually breaking down. The car must function well as a vehicle; the portrait must function well as a representation of the sitter. So - should we not regard the portrait as design rather than art? (representation is not a primary consideration in art as it has been defined and practised for a century or more).
So, I invite my readers to consider that portraiture - because of its essentially functional nature - is design rather than art - or, at least, design as well as art - as the Sistine Chapel ceiling is. If this is accepted, the first principle of a picture or sculpture that is intended to represent a particular person is: does it - convincingly - look like him/her? Aesthetic, stylistic and expression values are important, of course, considering the work as a picture, but they are secondary when considering a portrait as such. Separating out the two aspects of the portrait can only assist our evaluation of a particular example.

Coda: Artists have to accept that non-artists - unfortunately - regard the subject of a portrait as its entire raison d'etre - as was shown abundantly in the newspaper coverage of the recent Archibald Prize competition


[1] Quotes are from a transcript of the hearing filed in the art Gallery of NSW and supplied to the writer by Mr Robert Smith.
[2] On this, the section on the Archibald Prize on the Art Gallery of NSW's website is informative.
[3] 'they are all part, naturally'.
[4] See The Australian, 17th March, 2006.