Blog / 2009 / Politics for Art’s Sake

March 10, 2009

In the last few months, three articles have chastised Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard for buying the portrait I painted of him. Though the Tribune article along with The Oregonian blog post and article bring up important questions about the way public officials should use leftover campaign funds, both these media outlets also took the opportunity to badmouth portraiture. They imply that the genre is meant only for royalty, and they insisit that anyone who owns a painting of themselves must be selfish and emotionally immature.

It’s time to set the record straight: there is no artform more democratic than portraiture.

The genre may have been invented to immortalize kings and popes, but it wasn’t until the proto-democracy of the 16th century Dutch got a hold of it that the genre truly flourished. While the other European nations reserved painted portraiture for patricians, in both the Dutch Republic and the early United States everyone was as noble as their work ethic and getting richer every day. Portraiture of the people and for the people reflected democracy’s ideals as perfectly as land ownership by commoners, and it played a significant role in the development of an American character and culture.

It’s ironic that such a delightful expression of freedom is so effortlessly equated with the frippery and wastefulness of an aristocracy. This unflattering and false association comes from a misreading of portraiture’s celebration of the individual.

The assumption is that a person would have to be hugely self-important (and possibly even snobby and blue-blooded) to own a portrait of themselves, because no one with a proper sense of modesty would be caught looking at an image of themselves. But that’s ridiculous. Well-adjusted non-egomaniacs do it all the time. In the mirror. In official photos taken to mark special occasions. In the ever-proliferating snapshots of our digital world.

Let’s face it: we love looking at ourselves. There’s no image more interesting to us than our own. And what’s wrong with that? What’s so undemocratic about really trying to see yourself as others do? Isn’t it possible that the self-reflection prompted by seeing a portrait might even reveal a thing or two about how you could be a better person?

painted portrait of Randy Leonard
Gwenn Seemel
Randy Leonard (Portland City Commissioner)
acrylic on canvas
24 x 18 inches

The real issue in these recent articles about Leonard’s portrait isn’t a City Commissioner’s campaign funds or his morals. It’s not even my work or portraiture’s embattled status as a fine art. It’s how art is generally seen in the US today.

The United States is supposed to be the guiding light of the free world, but how can it be when art is mocked as a luxury and specifically a luxury that’s easier to make fun of than a steakhouse dinner? Maybe that’s why the state of Oregon has seen fit to divert the Oregon Cultural Trust’s money for other purposes. We’ve forgotten that art and the support of art—financial and otherwise—is integral freedom.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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