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


The task of my interdisciplinary thesis in philosophy and art was to analyze two aspects of what constitutes a self-portrait: representation and reality of the self in art. The studio art research was meant to explore the representation of the self through creation of self-portraits, while the philosophical research was to examine the reality of the self through the analysis of the concept.

I started my philosophical research with an analysis of the traditional interpretation that self-portraits represent the essential self. This assumption is based on two premises: (1) there is the essential self; (2) the self can be visually represented as the likeness of the artist or the model. In my thesis I demonstrated that the first premise is false, and that the second premise is true, but only if the represented self is understood as a concept, not as a metaphysical entity.

Since both premises have their roots in Aristotle’s philosophy, in the first chapter I discussed Aristotle’s concept of essence. In the second chapter I discussed representation of the essential self as likeness, and I used as an example interpretations of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. The first two chapters were an exposition of traditional understanding of the self-portraits. In the third chapter I discussed Wittgenstein’s concept of family resemblances as a refutation of essence, to prove that the first assumption of traditional understanding of self-portraits is false. In the fourth chapter I used art theory and cognitive science to explain how self-portraits gain meaning, and to demonstrate why, in my opinion, likeness can represent concept of self. In the last chapter I described my art exhibition, which was a practical experiment in developing self-portraits using likeness as a representation of “self”.

Upon reflection, my self-portraits were clearly conceived as studio art research in the representation of the self. They were created and exhibited prior to the written part of my thesis. The primary goal of creating the self-portraits was to discover how the self-portraits might acquire meaning. The method I used was reductive. I searched for the least amount of visual information I might convey in an image that I felt preserve a meaning of self-portrait.

During four semesters prior to the art exhibition, I experimented with various styles and techniques in creating self-portraits. Once I decided on the most appropriate style and technique, I started experimenting with the amount of information contained in the drawings. I explored the effect that reduction and repetition had on the meaning of the imagery. I created self-portraits featuring figures without faces; and, self-portraits featuring repetition of the face and figure as abstract patterns. When an abstract figure became so distorted that I could not recognize it as my self-portrait anymore, I read empty negative space around the figure -- empty paper -- as representation of my self. Since empty paper with no marks cannot have any meaning independent of the viewer’s interpretation, I realized that the representation of the self in self-portraits is a function of interpretation of art. That was my final conclusion in the art research, and the point of departure for my philosophical research. Since the existence of the self is just one of the elements of the definition of self that a viewer uses in interpretation of self-portraits, the self-portraits by themselves have no relevance for reality of represented self.

While my philosophical research was focused on the analysis of existing concepts of the self, my drawings were employing traditional media and schemata for the representation of the figure. In my opinion, the most original part of my thesis was the interactive web site I created in Macromedia Flash 5. The originality of my web site was based as much on the novelty of the medium, as on my intention to use it for artistic expression – creation of the interactive digital self-portrait. My plans for the future research are to further explore artistic applications of interactive web design, and to investigate the influence that human-computer interaction has on our concepts about the world and about the self.

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© Vjeran Miljenovic, 2004.