A frequently heard opinion these days is that traditional portraiture is both a dated way to honor someone and a lavish and unnecessary expense. By “traditional portraiture”, I mean a physical likeness of a subject expressed by hand in either paint on canvas or sculpture. My bias is obvious, but I feel strongly that until we have some other suitable and enduring way to honor those who lead us (in either public or private life), portraiture is as important as ever.
For centuries, the people with the most power and influence have chosen to honor the people they most felt deserved a lasting tribute, and those were usually men, and usually white. These are the people we see immortalized in oil paint and bronze and stone, in public and private spaces all around us. These are the memorials to power our children see on their school trips and our foreign visitors see when learning about our history. Portraiture says something about who we are and who helped get us here.
In modern times, we are seeing slow, but at least forward, progress toward more diverse leadership. Women and minorities are reaching the highest levels of public and private institutions in far greater numbers than ever before. And yet, just as this is happening, we are deciding as a society that monuments in paint or stone are too costly and lavish, a waste of money where a photograph will do. Photography is indeed fine art, but the highest level of tribute in our world remains the hand-crafted likeness.
Until another medium grants the same distinction, I think we need to make sure portraiture continues to tell the story of today’s diversifying leadership.
Related link here.