Australia’s National Portrait Gallery, situated here in Canberra from whence I write, is a rare and important institution. It’s collection and exhibitions, both permanent and temporary, reflect the characters and events that have been important in forming the Nation. The artwork reflects the many ways we Australians consider and present ourselves to the world.
The Gallery presents an Annual Lecture, given this year by Professor Cynthia Freeland, on the topic, “a philosopher looks at portaits”. Issues raised in Professor Freeland’s analysis of what kind of depictions – sculptures, prints, paintings etc – can be considered portraits, and which may not, cross over with those surrounding euthanasia.
For a start, the subject of a portrait must be human. From almost the very beginning, Professor Freeland referenced a recent court decision in Mississippi declaring that human embryos were not fully “human” and were therefor undeserving of protection under the State Law. This type of decision informs, to some degree, laws on who may be euthanised and who may not, based on who is deemed worth of protection or not. Some laws only serve to establish neat groups of people considered too sick, disabled or old to deserve help, but who may be validly exterminated. Extending such thought to the art of portraiture might well imply that some people who, because of disability, old or young age, lacked an arbitrary and changing “human characteristic” making them worthy subjects for portraiture. I contend that people become more worthy to be depicted because their differences demonstrate the sheer variety of the human condition, proclaiming the persistence of humanity despite whatever suffering might befall us. Art about such people illuminates our fragility and inherent desire to live It is because suffering people evoke hope and empathy that they are terrific subjects for art.
In one of the Gallery’s temporary exhibitions, some photographs showed children minutes after birth, and there was one extremely moving picture a couple with their still-born child. Such works are important in any collection purporting to represent the cycle of life in a society, and its authentic development, which is movement towards the common good. Dr. Philip Nitschke’s portrait is on show. I must go and re-examine the context of other works in which it hangs. Hopefully, the dubious contribution Dr. Nitschke has made to Australian society is not dignified beyond necessity.
I digress. Back to the necessary attributes of portraiture. Now, although we attribute human characteristics to some animals, all but a few species – elephants, dolphins and chimps – lack the type of consciousness required to understand the act of having one’s picture painted. And sure, they can be instructed by rote to produce a “picture” that may appear similar to a person’s image, or their own, but this will never be spontaneously made from any desire to create or communicate a message about the one being portrayed. The potentiality of people alone to participate in life, including creativity and reproduction, regardless of any individual’s actual capacity for such, is an important topic for artists to explore, methinks.
There have been many beautiful portraits of sleeping people. Even those who have recently died have sometimes allowed images to be made of themselves. Such depictions validate the continuation of life through all its phases. Sensitively handled, they can help us come to terms with our natural end.
The subject of a portrait be human, but they must only be at least potentially capable of understanding the artistic process well enough to actively engage with the artist – and, to a point, the viewer – in order to create a desired result or effect, depict a theme. There is a a kind of reciprocity between the two parties that leads to a (hopefully) mutually satisfying depiction. Similarly, not all of us understand medical procedures, but we do allow administrators, surgeons, doctors, nurses and so on to act in our real interest and are justly aggrieved if they fail to do so, especially if they offer us death instead of basic care.
Building on this earlier criterion is another, that they are made with the sitter’s consent. Indeed, a person may deliberately request their portrait to be made, or an artist might ask their subject whether or not they wish to be drawn, sculpted and so on. One sign that consent has been given is that the depiction is be posed, no matter how hard a “natural look” has been striven for. Another is that the setting may be deliberately chosen by those involved in creating the depiction. By the same token, we must look for and acknowledge signs that consent has been given or withdrawn for any medical procedure – especially euthanasia or assisted suicide – to be validly administered. That having been said, consent by itself can never validate or excuse any intrinsically evil act like euthanasia.
Anecdotes abound about people unhappy about how or where they’ve been depicted. After professor Freeland’s lecture, the very gracious Barbara Blackman, who has been depicted twice for the Archibald Prize, Australia’a leading award for portraiture, and who is blind, spoke eloquently about her mixed feelings on having been portrayed both with and without consent, with and without knowledge of the setting or pose to be employed. It was a pleasure meeting her after the lecture.
So now the task for artists – even those, like myself who take up pencil and brush again after long creative lapses – is to explore ways of exploring these themes of consent, personal presence and humanity to aid our appreciation of life’s beauty and inherent worthiness. Maybe works of ours will hang or sit in a National Portrait Gallery someday!