Spectatorship

The Oxford English Dictionary defines spectatorship as “The state of being a spectator or beholder; the fact of (merely) looking on.”[1] Thus the word ‘spectatorship’ can be linked to the idea of the gaze, visual culture, spectacle, and the observer.  However, a better definition is that which Jonathon Crary presents in his book, Techniques of the Observer.  ‘Spectator’ derives from the Latin word ‘spectare’ meaning to ‘to look at’.  In his book he prefers the word ‘observer’ as oppose to ‘spectator’ claiming that ‘spectator’ has connotations in the context of 19th century art which imply the idea of a passive onlooker (Crary, 5).  When it comes to Latin American art, it seems that this connotation of the word ‘spectator’ does have merit.  The European or North American spectator (what will be referred to as Euro-American) looks at Latin American art in a way that could be termed passive.  The Euro-American spectator views Latin American art having absorbed a euro-centric bias and construction of the ‘Other’, and rarely challenges the constructed stereotypes.

Latin American’s position as a colonized region has meant that it has largely been defined by first world regions as ‘Other’.  This construct of ‘Otherness’ has a direct impact on Euro-American spectatorship.  Spectators from America and Europe put labels on Latin American art even before seeing it.  The art is expected to be exotic, different, and ripe with cultural conflicts that have inflicted the region from the first moment of colonization.  Spectatorship then, is a very broad and complex topic when it comes to Latin America, with an endless amount to talk about.[2]  Of particular interest in the discussion on spectatorship of Latin American art, is the ramifications of Euro-American spectatorship, the euro-centric construct of Latin America as ‘Other, and how Latin American artists use their art to reverse Euro-American spectator’s view of them as ‘Other’.

Of extreme importance to the discussion of spectatorship, is the understanding of connotative and denotative meanings, and how such meanings are constructed.  Terry Barrett demonstrates that by identifying the denotative meaning, followed by the connotative meaning, one can pick out contrast between what is literally being stated, and what is metaphorically being stated. (Barrett, 12)[3]  In other words, one has to be careful when viewing images because the denotative meanings of images may actually connote something different depending on what other images they are juxtaposed with.  Another important aspect to this concept is that the connotative meaning may not be accessible to every spectator because of their culture, gender, age, or class (Barrett, 11).  Taking this into consideration, the interpretation of Latin American images will vary greatly depending on if you are looking at the images as a Latin American or a North American, or a European. It can be concluded that many Euro-American spectators will connote something completely different than what may have been intended by the Latin American artist who produced the work.

One thing that must be remembered is that the spectacle, or thing being observed, is very much controlled and constructed for the viewer by another authority that the viewer may not be aware of.  In other words, the act of spectatorship can be biased even despite the spectator’s effort to examine it from an unbiased perspective primarily because the spectacle is created, controlled, censored by someone other than the artist.[4]  The artist is merely the middle man, and the point they wish to convey to the spectator can easily be undermined or altered depending on how the institution displays their work, or juxtaposes their work with other work.  For instance, North American exhibitions of Latin American art are constructed in such a way that the spectator’s gaze is directed to a constructed narrative   The works are selected to represent the North American definition on Latin American art, and are chosen based off of what the American culture values. (Ramirez, 66)[5]  In essence, it is always good to be a critical viewer when looking at anything, and consider not only the artists intent, but also the possible intent of the institution.

Corinn Columpar states that the ethnographic gaze acts to “empower white culture and reduces indigenous bodies to static icons of difference.” (Columpar, 38)[6]  Thus the gaze is political because it gives the viewer power (Columpar).  However, with some images of what Euro-Americans have defined as ‘Other’ the question arises, who is gazing at who?  In Katrina Eileraas article, “Reframing the colonial gaze”, she discusses identity portraits of Algerian women and how the subjects were forced into the position of being the subject, thus losing control over how they were seen (Eileraas, 816)[7].  This is very similar to how Latin American art has lost the power to control how it is seen in European and American institutions, instead the power being thrown into the hands of those who define them as ‘Other’. However, this idea is juxtaposed by an article written by W.J.T Mitchell in which he discusses the image as if it is an active thing.  He argues that images have the power to reverse the spectator-subject relationship by making the subject reverse the gaze onto the viewer.  The example he used was the Uncle Sam poster in which the figure points out to the spectator as if confronting him/her (Mitchell, 76)[8].  The confrontation  makes it so that the viewer is the object of the gaze; in Latin American portraiture looking back makes it impossible for the viewer to situate the subject in the portrait as ‘other.’

Latin American portraiture, whether intentionally or not, manages to subvert the long standing tradition of locating Latin American art as ‘Other.  The way in which the artists embrace their ‘otherness’ does not act to enhance or justify Euro-American view of ‘otherness’ but rather, it makes the Euro-American spectator feel like the ‘Other’.  Frida Kahlo’s numerous self portraits can be used to illustrate this idea.  Through her embrace of her own cultural hybridity in her self-portraits, and the direct gaze at the viewer, she turns the subject-viewer relationship around.  The spectator becomes aware that this hybridity, although labelled as ‘Other’ by the first world, is in fact normal.  The portraits make Euro-Americans re-think their definition of Latin American culture which was constructed through the institution.  Therefore, although Latin American portraits adhere to European art tradition, they challenge the institution’s efforts to once again colonize them and create their culture for them.

Spectatorship is a complex thing and can take various forms.  One thing that must be remembered is that spectatorship can often be controlled or constructed for the viewer without them even being aware of it.  Latin American artists face the challenge of getting the international public to observe their work from a fresh perspective, a perspective not riddled with expectations of previous cultural definitions and constructs.  Therefore it is always good to be a critical viewer and think about who selected the works you are viewing.

Robyn Lester

Fall 2010

Notes

[1] Oxford English Dictionary Online: http://dictionary.oed.com.subzero.lib.uoguelph.ca/entrance.dtl (November 22, 2009)

[2] Although this topic is strictly related to spectatorship as it relates to art and visual culture, it is also worth noting that Latin America is also a spectacle for its own inhabitants, and the rest of the world, in regards to its politics.  Political backdrop of Latin America affects its own definition of cultural and national identity.  In addition, the European and American definition of Latin American identity is very biased because of our differing perspective and stereotype we place on Latin America based on our understanding of Latin American political system.

See: Ardila, Ruben.  “Political Psychology: The Latin American Perspective.”  Political Psychology 17.2 (1996): 339-351.

[3] In Terry Barrett’s article “Interpreting Visual Culture” Barrett gives various images to different age groups to determine how effectively they can come up with the denotative and connotative messages communicated in the image.  He revealed that even at the age of 3, the child spectator is susceptible to connotative messages that images produce.  He used the example of a teddy bear.  When asking the children why their teddy bears were not scary, but real bears were, they replied that their teddy bears were not scary because they could hold them and they did not have sharp teeth.  So although the literal message indicates a scary animal, they connote something different because of the way it is presented.

For more information on visual culture, and how it is changing do to technological advances, in particular, digital visual culture, see: Vall, Renée van de.  At the Edges of Vision: A Phenomenological Aesthetics of Contemporary Spectatorship.  Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008.

[4] It is beneficial to mention cultural production at this point.  Cultural production does give marginalized artists the means to challenge dominant ideology, however it is also just as controlled by the institution in which it is shown.  Therefore the cultural identity produced through means of cultural production (film, video, art) can be easily misinterpreted by the spectator.

See: Mahon, Maureen.  “The Visible Evidence of Cultural Producers.”  Annual Review of Anthropology 29 (2000): 467-492. 

[5] Mari Carmen Ramirez’s article examines U.S exhibitions of Latin American art and brings to light the issue surrounding the fact that works are selected to fit into European art tradition, and are chosen to emphasize a certain image of what Latin American art looks like.  Thus the spectator of such exhibitions is getting a constructed glimpse of Latin American art.

See Also: Bois, Yve-Alain, Paulo Herkenhoff, Ariel Jimenez, Luis Enrique Perez Oramas, Mary Schneider Enriquez.  Geometric Abstraction: Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps De Cisneros Collection = Abstracción geométrica : Arte Latinoamericano En La colección Patricia Phelps De Cisneros.  Cambridge: Harvard University Art Museums, 2001.

[6] Columpar also makes an interesting link between the male gaze, from feminist theory, and the European gaze, arguing that just as male gaze projects fantasy onto the female, the European gaze projects fantasy onto indigenous groups.

Along these same lines is an article by Nanneke Redclift in which there is a discussion of how Latin American gender difference is constructed by examining Latin America as a homogenized region, ignoring any diversity.  European gaze has projected this idea of a homogenized ‘Other’ on Latin American region, and this has an impact on how we understand and view their art.

See: Redclift, Nanneke.  “Re-Reading Gender: Comparative Questions, Situated Meanings, Latin American Paradoxes.”  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and  African Studies 66.3 (2003): 486-500.

[7] This article explores the issues around the female Algerian identity cards which Marc Garanger was assigned to take by the French army as a means to identify and control Algerians. The main debate that arises with these images is who is gazing at who?  Eileraas argues that Garanger, in essence, highlights the contrast between colonial desire and the disarming looks of the subjects.  The author further argues however, that these images have to be examined taking into consideration their context.  The disarming looks of the subjects were due to the fact that the photos were taken as a means to identify and control.  In addition, these women were forced to unveil, something that goes against their culture.  In other words they were forced to abandon their culture and engage in a gaze-subject relationship which was forced upon them.  This idea can be applied to the broader field of Latin American art, which is also the subject of first world gaze.

[8] See also: Mitchell, W.J.T. “What Is an Image?”  New Literary History 15.3 (1984): 503-537.

In this article, written previous to “What do Pictures ‘Really’ Want?” Mitchell opens up a discussion on how our theoretical understanding of the image can be used to understand not only what an image is, but what it indicates about human nature.  He looks at images as if they are an active thing, whose presence indicates a history and a future which can be analysed to reveal what human’s value, and what story human’s have created through the use  of images throughout history.

Works cited

Ardila, Ruben.  “Political Psychology: The Latin American Perspective.”  Political

     Psychology 17.2 (1996): 339-351.

Barrett, Terry.  “Interpreting Visual Culture.”  Art Education 56.2 (2003): 6-12.

Bois, Yve-Alain, Paulo Herkenhoff, Ariel Jimenez, Luis Enrique Perez Oramas, Mary

Schneider Enriquez.  Geometric Abstraction: Latin American Art from the Patricia

     Phelps De Cisneros Collection = Abstracción geométrica : Arte Latinoamericano En

     La colección Patricia Phelps De Cisneros.  Cambridge: Harvard University Art

Museums, 2001.

Columpar, Corinn.  “The Gaze as Theoretical Touchstone: The Intersection of Film

Studies, Feminist Theory, and Postcolonial Theory.” Women’s Studies Quarterly

     30.1/2 (2002): 25-44.

Crary, Jonathon.  Techniques of the Observer.  Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 1990.

Eileraas, Katrina. “Reframing the Colonial Gaze: Photography, Ownership, and Feminist

Resistance.” MLN 118, no.4 (2003): 807-840.

Mahon, Maureen.  “The Visible Evidence of Cultural Producers.”  Annual Review of

     Anthropology 29 (2000): 467-492.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “What Do Pictures ‘Really’ Want?” October 77 (1996): 71-82.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “What Is an Image?”  New Literary History 15.3 (1984): 503-537.

Ramirez, Mari Carmen.  “Beyond ‘The Fantastic’: Framing Identity in U.S Exhibitions of

Latin American Art.”  Art Journal 51.4 (1992): 60-68.

Redclift, Nanneke.  “Re-Reading Gender: Comparative Questions, Situated Meanings,

Latin American Paradoxes.”  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

66.3 (2003): 486-500.

Vall, Renée van de.  At the Edges of Vision: A Phenomenological Aesthetics of

     Contemporary Spectatorship.  Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2008.

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