Portraiture and Anthropocentrism
Keywords:Ecological ethics, climate change, art, portraiture, anthropocentrism, Alice Neel
In an age in which anthropocentrism is increasingly under fire, the investment of the artistic tradition in that paradigm deserves particular attention. Portraiture is especially significant, as it seems to be the anthropocentric art form par excellence. It seems to reinforce key features of anthropocentrism: the distinction of the human from the nonhuman and the superiority of the former over the latter. We can pursue these questions most effectively if we distinguish descriptive (“weak”) anthropocentrism from normative (“strong”) anthropocentrism. The former involves some sort of focus on humans, the latter combines this with claims about their superiority over the nonhuman. Certain works by influential portraitists, such as Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, and Ana Mendieta, contest both weak and strong anthropocentrism. Other portraits seem to be involved in weak anthropocentrism, but not necessarily strong anthropocentrism. Considering the artwork of Alice Neel and the philosophy of Judith Butler, I argue that such works have an important ethical role to play in orienting us in our relationships with humans, precisely in resisting strong anthropocentrism even in expressing weak anthropocentrism.
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