It's difficult to get a grip on what an artistic era is really about, to sum it up and notice big trends until some time has passed. When I look around at this decade's paintings and sculpture, there's such a variety of art in top galleries and museums, but I'm just starting to notice what isn't there: portraiture. I'm excluding, for the moment, self-portraiture because the exploration of self is huge right now: heritage, the self in society, one's self as a marginalized person, one's own subconscious, etc. And there are some celebrity portraits too, but those are often by artists who have never met that celebrity, and I think their intent is usually to reference what that celebrity stands for, not to provide any insight into that person. What I'm not seeing is artwork that focuses on a separate, individual person for the sake of exploring that personality.
After Modigliani, Andrew Wyeth, David Hockney, Lucian Freud, Alice Neel... I come up a bit short. And when artists such as Elizabeth Peyton do focus on portraying others exclusively the thinking art world takes note of this idiosyncrasy and declares it ironic on some level.
After the seventies or so I have to look to photography to find many searching, insightful or dedicated portraitists. William Eggleston, Cindy Sherman (self-portraits, I know), Emmet Gowin, Arnold Newman, Nan Goldin, Annie Leibovitz. Most of the big headlines and controversies of photography have involved portraits: Sally Mann's kids, Diane Arbus inspiring ever photography student who ever set foot in an art school for at least the last fifteen years.
I would have guessed that because portraiture isn't shown often in top venues right now, it means issues of portraiture are simply no longer considered relevant in fine art-- but those same issues figure prominently in contemporary photography. I wonder if the difference lies in the way the two art forms are sponsored and by whom they are created and displayed. Paintings got bigger and more dramatic during the AbEx years, and then came PoMo installations and shows that take up entire galleries. I think painting and sculpture are seen as public events nowadays, whereas photography is still associated with ordinary people and family photos, as well as magazines that cater to ordinary people and with Myspace and Facebook usage. That makes photography seem smaller-scale in terms of production cost, therefore less is at stake. Perhaps that makes it more acceptable for photographers to simply portray a specific person, rather than make grand observations of society at large or explore one's own psyche in such a specific way as to be nearly universal and thus accessible to the public.
Then again maybe portraiture is no longer as esteemed in the eyes of the art world. There is, of course, the unsavory association with making a living. And perhaps as an interest in others, a form of art that is literally like a communication between two specific people (portraitist and subject), portraiture is seen as feminine, in contrast with grander, less personally specific themes of society, abstracted human experience, and massive abstract forms, which could be construed as masculine. And, being feminized, portraiture is not as valued today. Or portraiture could have fallen by the wayside during the Abstract Expressionist Movement, when a completely abstract portrait would, I'd argue, be possible but would certainly present problems for both artist and viewer. Portraiture would have continued to be sidelined by Conceptualism-- conceptual portraits are possible but also problematic-- and again by Pop Art because the movement's focus on pop culture would preclude a focus on individual non-celebrities.
I don't for a moment think portraiture is over. The genre is too basic, too essential to art history and human expression, to be abandoned. It's still alive and kicking outside of the elitest of white boxes but I expect the comeback to be from outsider art that makes its way into the art world.