Between Spectacle and Sight

“So as to Present a Short Digression on the Difference Between Spectacle and Sight; How an Inability to See Leads Us to Seek After Solace in Spectacle.”

I keep running into what I consider a conflation of the visual with naive or unthinking, with what we might call Spectacle versus something with substance. I suspect this comes from the unfamiliarity many people of “letters” have with the kind of experiences of sight and seeing I’ve been exposed to as a visual artist. John Berger has always appealed to me, in no small measure because of his immersion in both of these worlds.

My experience of Spectacle is that in contrast to sight, it gains its power from the lack of opportunities people have to exercise their visual perception outside of the context of spectacle. Immersed in a life in which most visual experiences are mediated by Spectacle: in advertising in all its myriad forms that has replaced people’s contact with their own direct existence. Spectacle acts as an ersatz vision, a stand-in for the visual perceptions people hunger for, lack, and have become incapable of providing for themselves. To tie this into, to make it a fundamental condition, of “the visual;” is to throw out an important avenue for perception and for engagement with Being.

When I began to train as a painter my most unsettling realization came when I was confronted with the fact that I didn’t know how to see! While we all accept that we need to learn to read, to ride a bike, to sing a song; somehow we expect that sight, the most apparently “transparent” faculty, should just work, right out of the box. I found that it doesn’t. I also began to “see” that the act of looking at sight and the act of mediating sight through the creation of drawings and paintings was a wonderful way to confront and wrestle with what it means to Be, to be engaged, and that it provided a pathway into an immersion in a direct sensory perception of the unity of the world. These realizations are fundamental to why and how I paint today.

Especially now, returning to painting after a long break, I’m struck with the way the experience affects how I see. As my vision evolves, making paintings becomes more direct, but also the way I see the world becomes interwoven with the way I see paint interacting with a surface. The somewhat theoretical notion that we are immersed in a field of interwoven dynamic forces that coalesce in our perception as things in space becomes viscerally clear. I see it. The act of “translating” these perceptions onto a surface, and then “reading them,” is a rhyme for the act of primal perception itself. The rehearsal, the ritualization, the practice of seeing; becomes a way of being-in-the-world. This is the antithesis of succumbing to the Spectacle.

“Imagery” drives Spectacle. Imagery is not the same as visual art. It is its substitute, a mass-produced, and unconsidered, bastard cousin to art. To someone unable to “see” this distinction is hidden. To someone attuned to sight it is immediately obvious. The “qualities” that give imagery its power within Spectacle are in the same character as the qualities of any junk item. They hit the most basic “taste-buds” hard and generate a harsh sensation without providing any sort of resolution. They feed appetite, but don’t satisfy hunger. They aren’t “bad” art, they are anti-art. Their entire purpose is opposed to what art is about. There are similar examples within written Spectacle that work in the same way as a substitute for literature. Movies are a hybrid of the two.

Other than showing off some “elitist” tendency, what’s the point of forcing this distinction?

Within the context of such a question lie the twisting biases that give it its power. There is nothing elitist about pointing out insights that might help people free themselves of the hold of Spectacle. There is everything elitist about the politics of playing on people’s ignorance to maintain an advantage over them.

The ability to “see” does confer, not an immunity per se, but a resistance to the power of Spectacle. Beyond this is the opening it gives us to an integration and interaction with the world at a direct level of perception.

In this response to a comment to a previous post, I brought up the way art practices might hold vestiges of pre-civilized perspectives and ways of interacting with the world. These values go well beyond whatever current social conditioning the act of making or “consuming” art labors under today. – Art can be co-opted into imagery and folded into Spectacle, it often is.

Unless we can “see” the difference between Sight and Spectacle we are condemned to relinquishing a primary sense, putting out our own eyes when we need every sense we can muster! Art practiced in this way is not just the manufacture of items to be consumed or trinkets to feed the the deadly game of glamor, feeding that confluence of greed and envy. Visual art is central to a way of Being and provides a way of sharing direct engagement as valid and valuable as any other.

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