Table of Content


1. Aristotle’s Concept of Essence

2. Likeness as
Representation of the Self

3. Wittgenstein’s
Concept of Family

4. Likeness as
of “self”

5. Master of Arts Art Exhibition




The Representation and Reality of the Self in Art

Chapter 4. Likeness as Representation of “self”

The argument that I am analyzing in my thesis is based on two assumptions: that there is an essential self, and that self-portraits represent the self of the artist. So far, I demonstrated that the first premise is false. I consider the “self” to be a fuzzy concept derived from a family resemblance among our observations of both ourselves and others. Therefore, I consider that it is false to posit the existence of the essential Self. In my view, although the essential Self cannot be posited as the referent of self-portraits, likeness still can represent the “self”. The self to which self-portraits refer is not the metaphysical essence of the person, but the concept we have about a particular person, and about the nature of persons in general. Different conceptions of the self will inspire different artwork (from the artist’s side) and yield different interpretations (from the viewer’s side). In this chapter I will analyze the viewer’s interpretation of self-portraits. I will discuss the creation of self-portraits in the last chapter of my thesis.

Representation of the self in self-portraits is a function of the interpretation of art. Self-portraits in general acquire meaning in the process of interpretation; they do not have meaning embedded in the represented likeness. On the level of realistic representation self-portraits only represent the likeness of the author, nothing more.

As soon as the concept of self is introduced into the interpretation of the self-portrait, the meaning of the self-portrait shifts to the higher, abstract level in which the image does not refer to visual experience, but to a concept. The meaning of the referred concept depends on the cognitive framework of the interpreter, not the author. In this way a self-portrait is simultaneously a mirror of the artist’s face and a mirror of the viewer’s mind. I will next provide support for this position.

In his study What is painting? Julian Bell calls the type of representation in which the image refers to a concept “symbolic representation.” [1] In symbolic representation the image functions as a type of a sign. Bell describes the mental process behind symbolic representation as “expect that when you see that picture you will think that meaning.” [2] Symbols can communicate abstract concepts, but they need a shared context for their understanding. Symbols would have no meaning without a system in which things stand for other things [3], or concepts. Artists can create personal symbols, but they cannot expect that viewers will be necessarily able to decipher their intended meaning just upon looking at the artwork.

Further analysis of interpretation can be found in Robert Salso’s book Art and Cognition. According to Salso two types of context play a role in the observation of art: the physical composition of the visual field and the personal history of the viewer. [4]

The personal history of the viewer, which engages his knowledge and the social and political setting in the interpretation of art, is called “higher-order cognition”. Although basic visual information is similarly organized by all people, because of differences in our personal histories, each of us has different perspectives in the observation of art objects. The meaning of the art, its semantic value, is subject to wide individual differences in interpretation. The interpreted meaning depends on both the observer’s previous specialized knowledge of art and his knowledge about the world. [5]

The type of cognitive process employed in the interpretation of art is top-down processing in which hypotheses about the nature of reality play a central role. Top-down processing is based on the application of schemata -- organization of the information in one’s long-term memory and rules of their use and combinations. The activation of schemata allows us to make inferences about the art and to construct a larger interpretation and understanding.

Art schemata are influenced by one’s knowledge about art. Solso gives an example: if we see Degas’ painting we may activate our “impressionism schemata”. If we see Andy Warhol’s we may activate our “pop art schemata”. [6]

Furthermore, Solso describes the creation of schemata: “Through our vast experience with the objects and ideas of the world, we form generalized impressions, or “idealized” forms, much like the Platonic forms. Thus, when I ask you to conjure up an image of, say, a teacup, it is likely that your image is one of a “standard” teacup, that is, more or less, an idealized image...”. [7] These images reside in the memory and derive from numerous experiences with a large variety of cups. The process we apply to tea-cups, we also apply to persons: “Individual personalities also represent a type of idealized form, much like teacups. When you characterize the personality of a close friend or popular figure, you select salient and more or less permanent traits of that personality. Further subdivisions are feasible until a composite structure of the personality is attained.” [8]

In my opinion, within “art schemata” we could find a “self-portrait schema” which tells us what a self- portrait is. A “Self-portrait” schema overlaps with “self schema” which defines for us what a person is.

In Chapter 2 I discussed various interpretations of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, and I stated my agreement with the position that Rembrandt’s portraits and self-portraits are suggesting an essential self through certain formal qualities of the representation of the likeness of the sitter. Such qualities are shades, specific facial expression and realistic rendering, which trigger an emotional response in the viewer.

I hold that it is a common mistake to posit a transcendent referent of an artwork as the cause of a strong emotional response that that particular artwork has on the viewer. It is enough to remind one that what we call “primitive art” played a magical, not an aesthetical, role in tribal society, and this is because of its potential to evoke an emotional effect and stir the imagination. Many paintings we today consider to be masterpieces of art were originally designed for religious functions in the Catholic Church and the mass.

It is invalid to ascribe a metaphysical referent to an art object that has a strong emotional impact. But throughout history, such art, which suggested a metaphysical referent, was consciously used to evoke such a reaction in the viewer. If an artwork does cause some vague feeling we cannot name, if it appears that there is something “unspeakable” in art (and here I am thinking about such art as Mark Rothko’s paintings), then it has to be treated as an aesthetical, not a metaphysical, phenomenon. It is a mistake to consider that such art refers to a transcendental entity.

And that’s why I hold that Rembrandt’s self-portraits do not refer to a transcendental Self. I believe that the illusion that they achieve such a referent rests on Rembrandt’s mastery of suggesting transcendence, developed through the history of religious art, such as Michelangelo’s. But, if Rembrandt’s self-portraits do not refer to the essence of his person, what do they refer to? In my opinion they refer to our concept of Rembrandt, which we interpret as his self if we try to imagine how he may have seen himself. Such a self should be understood not in terms of Aristotle’s “essence”, but in terms of Wittgenstein’s concept of a family resemblance. All we see are family resemblances of Rembrandt’s likeness in various Rembrandt’s self-portraits, and from that family resemblance we construct a unique identity and call it the self.


1. Julian Bell, What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art (New York, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1999), 208.

2. ibid., 210.

3. ibid., 212.

4. Robert Solso, Cognition and the Visual Arts (Cambridge, Massachussetts: The MIT Press, 1999), 101.

5. ibid, 102

6. ibid, 116

7. ibid, 120

8. ibid, 121


home | art | eMail | m.a. thesis | resume | web design

© Vjeran Miljenovic, 2004.