The online journal Edge features a curious essay by Hubert Burda, the German publishing magnate. On the internet today, Burda writes, “The opportunities of personal representation and self-presentation have become democratized to an extent that would have been unimaginable many years ago. Nowadays anyone who wants to draw attention to themselves and communicate to the public an image of themselves can to all intents and purposes do so.”
Burda places the contemporary phenomenon in a historical context. In the early 15th century, when portraiture came into its own as a genre, “Whoever managed to climb the social ladder automatically won the right, so to speak, to have their own portrait painted, which in earlier times had been the preserve of the saints.” A portrait was a “claim to power and status.” In Holbein’s famous painting of Georg Gisze, for example, the subject is surrounded by the trappings of a successful middle-class merchant, from an oriental rug to a gold clock. The portrait marks his place “on the cutting-edge of society.”
Portrait painters flourished for a few centuries, until they were displaced by photographers in the 19th century. “People who wanted to have their portraits taken,” writes Burda, “felt that a photograph could give them a more faithful visual representation of the image of themselves that they wanted to see than a painting could.” But the painted portrait didn’t go away. In fact, it flourished again in the early years of the 20th century, as artists like Klimt and Picasso distinguished their work from the realism of photography by experimenting with new, more abstract forms of representation. Later in the century, Andy Warhol combined painting and photography in his famous silkscreened portraits of celebrities. The portrait became an advertisement of a self that was no more than an advertisement.
Which brings us to the present, in which, as Burda puts it, “the better known your face is in the new economy of attention seeking, the higher your market value and your personal rate of return. ‘How many entries in Google do you have?’ is a question that today’s twentysomethings ask each other in order to check how important they are. The aim of other questions, such as ‘How many people read my weblog and respond to it?’ or ‘How many photos are there of me on the Flickr platform?’ is to ascertain how one’s role and standing are being portrayed and relayed.”
At that point, frustratingly, Burda’s essay peters out. He doesn’t illuminate what the past might tell us about today’s “democratization” of self-presentation, other than to say “the claim to representation made by the aspiring classes has remained and can serve as a marker for the development of portrait forms over the course of the 21st century.”
I’m not sure that I see, in today’s self-portraits on MySpace or YouTube or Flickr, or in the fetishistic collecting of virtual tokens of attention, the desire to mark one’s place in a professional or social stratum. What they seem to express, more than anything, is a desire to turn oneself into a product, a commodity to be consumed. And since, as I wrote earlier, “self-commoditization is in the end indistinguishable from self-consumption,” the new portraiture seems at its core narcissistic. The portraits are advertisements for a commoditized self, though they’re presented without Warhol’s cruel and clarifying irony.
In a comment on Burda’s open-ended essay, Douglas Rushkoff writes, “While the original renaissance celebrated the ‘individual,’ we may be moving into a cultural era that favors the collective or the network over individuality. No, we don’t see a whole lot of evidence for this in the current, adolescent, exhibitionist culture of YouTube. But I do believe it is the logical next step for a generation growing up with fame and individual recognition as such clearly temporary and ethereal phenomena … As the millions of former ‘individuals’ reproducing their images online get used to this temporality, their attention will turn instead to the project they are building together. The network itself will become more interesting as a collaborative creation than any particular individual within it – just as museums became more interesting than any of their individual works. And it’s then – during our own version of the Baroque era – that we’ll find out what mass enlightenment might really be about.”
Even discounting the surpassingly strange idea “that museums became more interesting than any of their individual works,” Rushkoff’s comment seems deeply wrong, an expression of a vague personal yearning disconnected from the reality before him. It is the very tissue-like quality of the online self, its ready disposability, that is the source of its appeal. And a merging of nothingnesses creates not mass enlightenment, whatever that might be, but simply a greater nothingness. “In dreams begin responsibilities,” wrote Yeats. But it’s in the online dream-self that responsibilities end.