This (from a recent Chronicle article by Laurie Fendrich) is so cleanly stated that I had to have it on hand. It’s seeing portraiture as rhetorical, focusing on the message, the mediation.
The disheartening truth — a truth most often swept under the rug of aesthetic pleasure — is that while portraiture teaches us about the human range of emotions and character in general, no specific portrait can reliably be said to reveal the inner life of its subject. Instead, great artists have the daunting ability to deceive us into believing that they have painted the heart and soul of a person. When we are moved by a specific portrait, then, we are unwittingly moved by the artfulness of the artist rather than the personality of the sitter.
This perspective won’t come as surprise to citizens of a post-Einsteinian world, but it can be, as Fendrich has it, “disheartening” to confront the lie.
But then I look at the analyses of web sites that the E-Rhetoric class developed recently, re: grrl.com, and I see Fendrich’s premise hard at work on the web, and students hard at work trying to negotiate the surface, untangle the differences between the personality and the artfulness of grrl. grrl as web celeb, grrl as huckster, grrl as obsessed with fame. We read the artfulness of grrl, not the soul. The class’s study of visitor roles on the web demonstrated how mediation reigns – lies and all – and how much knowing still counts.