Private. Please come in.

The flourishing of internet applications such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and the pervasion of media and celebrity culture has brought a corresponding escalation of the theatrical conditions of everyday life. Self-branding has become mandatory, not just for corporations but for individuals seeking visibility in the public arena. These developments have drastically increased the contrast between private and public. In 1959 the sociologist Erving Goffman published his influential theory for human behavior governed by a theatrical metaphor in which everyday social life was enacted as if on stage in front of an audience, while another self is backstage. This view of the split between public and private protects the vulnerable self yet dooms it to secrecy, hiding behind a performing mask.

There has been continuing debate over the paradoxical exposure of the private sphere, over what Roland Barthes described as ‘the creation of a new social value, which is the publicity of the private’. Concern about the effects of the changing social balance became a recurrent theme for twentieth-century writers such as Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas and Richard Sennett, who believed that the shared public realm was undermined by the increased clamour for attention by private lives.

Exposure is often thought to be a desirable function of self-portraits. But self-portraits also work by concealment, a technique pursued ingeniously by Rembrandt through lighting effects that obscured his face or elaborate costume changes that multiplied his identity. In the twentieth century artists have gone further, replacing the notion of hidden private depths with that of a camouflage or a disappearing self. Most notably Andy Warhol overrode the idea of privacy in favour of an aesthetic of fame. After the hyperactive glamour of his images, depth became less tenable; identity is defined in terms of shifting surface appearances, a development corresponding with the abandonment of a singular model for human identity, characteristic of later twentieth-century art and philosophy.

Yet this emphasis on surface and the underlying disconnect between self and society, public and private, enabled an expansion of selves within societal norms. The performance of self gave cathartic expression to otherwise repressed emotions and created new models for human identity that have fed back into the diversity of human culture.