"Man is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation which relates itself to itself... Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of possibility and necessity, in short, it is a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self."

- Soren Kierkegaard, 'The Sickness Unto Death'

While art has always inherently been some form of self-representation, it is generally regarded that the first artwork devoted solely to the genre of self-portraiture was never fully actualized until the relatively recent date of 1450. The late appearance of the self-portrait, in effect, headed the birth of the Renaissance. Today, however, self-portraiture is now common practice throughout the art world, yet it still remains a perplexing fact to how exactly it could take approximately 30,000 years, since the earliest known works of art, for self-portraiture to be recognized as a subject matter worthy of our attention. While there are many reasons for the emergence of the self-portrait onto the Renaissance landscape, most notable were the new socio-economic liberties of the artisan, the technological advances in the production of mirrors, as well as the artisan's own self-promotion as an intellectual who could rival the nobility commissioning his work. There must be other factors at work here, however, which can account for the transformation of artisans from mere tradesmen into the 'Renaissance man' capable of mastering other fields outside his own artistic profession. Through newfound powers of self-creation, geniuses like Michelangelo and Leonardo became the first 'art stars' to successfully advance from humble artisans into artists and eventually into the legendary figures who are now forever immortalized throughout the pages of Giorgio Vasari's 1550 biography 'The Lives of the Artists.' The appearance of the self-portrait, in effect, remains a striking landmark and visual reminder of the rising independence of the artist and intellectual. The rigid hierarchy of the feudal pyramid had slowly become dismantled and was eroded all together once the Copernican revolution ousted mankind from his center of the universe. An immutable order had been negated and the subsequent void could only be filled by the independent visionary. Today, we can precisely place the advent of Modern philosophy in 1641 with Rene Descartes' proclamation "Cogito Ergo Sum" (I think, therefore, I am) because here was the first attempt to build a system of knowledge free from the outside influences of others and the orthodox canon dictated from previous generations. Following thinkers were left on their own to rise from the ashes with only Descartes' Cogito model to react to but it would not be until the nineteenth-century writings of Soren Kierkegaard that a new philosophy would develop which truly centered itself around the individual - above and beyond any transcendental order. In the twentieth-century, this liberation of the individual mind has now been largely responsible for, among other things, the development of existentialism in philosophy, the reexamination of Narcissus in psychology, as well as the overall rejection of beauty in the art world. Led by the newest 'art star' Cindy Sherman, a phenomena of female self-portraiture would now empower women to take control over their own image and eventually proved crucial for the overall success of Feminism in the later half of the century. Indeed, as self-portraiture once anticipated the coming of Modern philosophy, female self-portraiture would now usher in a Post-Modern era. Throughout all of this, however, images of the self would flourish and the invention of photography and film only allowed for a new means of self-awareness just as the mirror and the first works of art had done once before. The individual must, necessarily, identify with something outside itself and these innovative mediums enabled one to emulate his/her own self rather than merely following the others in the surrounding environment. Art has always been some form of self-portraiture and this basic fact is only now becoming increasingly apparent through images of the self, introspective psychological constructions, as well as the new trend in the visual arts which might be called hyper-self-portraiture. Today, our advances have paradoxically led to a new crisis in self because the self has only acquired an unbounded and, therefore, uncertain identity. In simpler times, there was always at least something reassuring in knowing your exact place in the social order, no matter how lowly it might actually be. Only after the decisive split with the surrounding community, world, and known universe had the mind been able to begin to truly grasp itself but these divisions also exposed inherent fractures even within the self which art is now trying to mend through its persistent attempts to define personal identity.

"When I go toward the door of the lecture hall, I am already there, and I could not go to it at all if I were not such that I am there. I am never here only, as this encapsulated body, rather, I am there, that is, I already prevade the space of the room, and only thus can I go through it."

- Martin Heidegger, 'Building, Dwelling, Thinking'


Thomas Cummins art philosophy