Indulge me in this question: Is all art founded in egocentrism? Can we truly appreciate a piece of art without turning it, subconsciously or not, into another version of ourselves? I ask this because some years ago, I tried out that Google Arts & Culture app that matches your selfie to a famous portrait, and my result was a painting of a goblin.
It was a harrowing experience for someone so unsuspecting. There I was, smiling for the camera, eager to meet my artistic double ego. But instead of a beautiful maiden, I was presented with a small, grimacing creature. I tried again and again, experimenting with angles and lighting. It was to no avail; I received the same response. Goblin. Goblin. Goblin. Aha! A new result: “small Dutch boy.” Back to the goblin. Soon enough I was forced to give up, and for the rest of the day I carried the knowledge of my failure with me like a pain in the side.
It wasn’t insecurity that wielded the knife, however. I had no misconceptions about my own appearance. I never considered myself much of a supermodel, but at the very least I knew I wasn’t a goblin, and I was fairly certain I wasn’t a small Dutch boy either.
So no, I wasn’t weighed down by fear of my own ghoulish features. Instead, I carried with me a heavy disappointment. Was there really no one else who looked like me? There are stories of people meeting their doppelgӓngers on airplanes and cruise ships, even on the side of the road. Would I never have that same fortune? I’d been certain that out of everyone who had ever sat for a portrait, and then had their portrait entered in the app’s database centuries later, there was bound to be at least one near match. I had eagerly reached out across generations, hoping to make contact with someone, and yet I pulled back to find my hand empty and cold.
It’s a natural impulse, I think, to try to make out your own reflection in every surface you look upon. We all crave some degree of familiarity: Our brains are drawn to patterns and connections, and where we cannot find them, we will create them. Isn’t that why Dante wrote himself into a spot by Virgil’s side, why W. S. Merwin wrote a poem to Adrienne Rich, and Allen Ginsberg to Walt Whitman? Isn’t that why a person might look at a photograph of a bird that doesn’t resemble them and say something like “me” or “same” or, in certain cases, “us” if there are two birds that look very cute together?
All art, from our grandest literature to our most relatable bird memes, is connected to other pieces of art, homage after homage strung together into an odd sort of web. I’m a firm believer of this, and, in fact, a firm supporter. I always thought of allusions as proof of the inherently collaborative nature of creation: the unique ability of art to bring people together and make connections. Now, I’m less certain. If the history of art is not a linear progression but in fact an interwoven web, then what exactly is at the center?
I was taught that there is some singular, universal experience — “the human condition,” as some call it — to be found within all art. That, supposedly, everything we write or sing or bleed onto a canvas orbits around that condition, circling closer and closer until it can just scratch the surface, as a tangent line to a circle. But perhaps “relatability” is just a cover word for self-absorption, more stroking of the ego: If we can relate with a piece of art and find ourselves within it, then we can claim it as our own. The universal is converted into the personal.
I think about this as I open up the same app in 2020 and try again to get a result that is, at the least, a human woman. Then, I start thinking about how Charlotte Brontë was the only author who really understood. “Dear reader,” she writes, and we all weep with joy because we are the reader! That is us! What a wonderful feeling, to be seen and acknowledged and understood.
But the more we rely on the feeling of being seen, the more we must learn to live with disappointment. We may place ourselves in the center of the universe, only to find that others follow a different orbit. We may call out to Virgil and Whitman and Rich, but sooner or later, we realize that they aren’t exactly hard-pressed to respond.
That’s why I’ve decided to believe, true or not, that I am not a wholly egotistical creature. Although I may never stop looking for a glimpse of myself in every piece of art I encounter, although I seem hell-bent on turning every portrait into a mirror, I am not so weak as to fall apart when I am presented with a different picture.
This I know for certain because when I tried the app again this morning, I was shown not a goblin, but another small Dutch boy.
Lauren Sheehan-Clark writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and history. Contact her at [email protected].