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Identity through Anonymity

Leigh Alexander's picture

I selected my avatar photo thinking (foolishly) that it was something it is not.  A long while ago, I was collecting aesthetically pleasing backgrounds for my computer, and, because I happen to like his work, Googled “Caravaggio.”  Stumbling through the realms of cyberspace a ventured upon a curiously beautiful painting, one that struck me as such in comparison to Caravaggio’s other, gorier works.  I’ve always loved portraits; there’s something about them, beauty, yet anonymity.  I stare at a woman’s face, touched by her beauty and wonder her story.  Who was she to the painter, and was she this beautiful, or was she amplified somehow, her true image tainted by a lover’s paint strokes? Sometimes there is a name—but is it really hers? And even if it is, her life is lost to me, or simply summarized, an era squeezed into fine print, on a carefully worded, white museum plaque. This woman, this “Caravaggio” masterpiece, I found was mistakenly copied, not from an archive of some great museum, but from a blog forum.

At first this frustrated me, and I only thought of my own foolishness, how I, in my ignorance of art, selected a painting based on the fact that it was by a man a deemed a great artist; I was disappointed.  But then I realized the true magic—it didn’t matter who this portrait was by.  Who painted it didn’t change the beauty of the woman portrayed or the feeling of beauty and quiet thoughtfulness that watched over me as I traced the contours of her figure, or admired her smooth and freckled shoulders. She was beautiful, and moving no matter who she is or who painted her. It’s what she does, and what the artist does, not who precisely she is that matters.  In a blog setting, who I am doesn’t matter. In theory, I’m writing to a small audience that knows me, and a vastly larger audience that will never even cross paths with me on our little, spinning planet.  Who I am won’t matter to someone who will never meet me, but what I say has the power to affect everyone.