Mediation of the active gaze

The Artist in His Museum (detail)

Charles Wilson Peale, detail of The Artist in His Museum (1822, Wikimedia Commons)

In “Civic Seeing,” Bennett quotes McClellan’s Inventing the Louvre: “Theoretically one, the museum public was divided by degrees of visual competence.”

I found this interesting not simply because of the impact of the Enlightenment, French Revolution, class, and nineteenth century paternalism on the construction of art and education, but because it pinged on the writings of early Church Fathers discussed by Bloch in Medieval Misogyny. There is no such thing as a passive gaze; to be seen alters the object seen, as well as the viewer. Bennett’s specific examples are Modern, but underpinned by ancient bones.

Small wonder that mediation was considered a requirement: that would serve the good of the collection (exposed to the gaze of the unwashed masses) as well as the unwashed masses (as yet untutored in the proper appreciation of art). And yet, I am torn in my emotional reaction. I see (and disapprove of) many of the forces behind this decision…and yet I have a healthy respect for expert knowledge (whatever the subject happens to be).

I am reminded of one of my parents’ stories about their honeymoon. In Italy, they happened to meet a vacationing teacher of art history who provided background and anecdotes about the artwork they viewed one afternoon. This museum experience, too, was mediated…but not by the institution. It was a crowd-sourced value-add, the offspring of the pre-Enlightenment old-boys-club and the post-Enlightenment educational program: one member of a reasonably well-educated middle class discussing his area of expertise with two other members of the middle class. Institutional mediation will occur, to one degree or another, and that is not necessarily a bad thing; nor does it mean that museum-goers should feel obligated to pre-educate themselves before daring to gaze upon artwork. But I am pleased that opportunities for spontaneous interaction exist among a diverse museum-going public and that (per Witcomb) digital tools are making it technically easier and generating excitement and acceptance (albeit not without their own problematic aspects, particularly the digital divide).

On passivity (or not)

In their Introduction to The Presence of the Past, Rosenzweig and Thelen talked about the phrase “popular historymaking”: “Many of us [conference attendees] liked its implication that Americans take an active role in using and understanding the past—that they’re not just passive consumers of histories constructed by others.” That observation sent my brain off on a little tangent about the construction of “active” versus “passive” as it relates to consumerism.

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Heisenberg and virgins

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle

This week I was reading Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love on pubtrans and rehousing the last couple feet of the Scientists Collection (meaning that, so far as generalizations are possible in a collection of this nature, the conchologists largely gave way to physicists). Though Heisenberg is not, in fact, represented in the collection, my thoughts nonetheless turned to him. I have a soft spot in my heart for the uncertainty principle, not merely because it is a neat example of the convergence of physics and philosophy, but because it puts me in mind of a Russian science fiction anthology I read when I was a kid…and thanks to its title,* the uncertainty principle became one of the first aspects of theoretical physics I encountered.


Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullian (Wikimedia)

Heisenberg came to mind during Bloch’s discussion of the construction of virginity, particularly when he quoted early Church Fathers, e.g. Tertullian:

For that other, as soon as he has felt concupisence after your beauty, and has mentally already committed (the deed) which his concupiscence pointed to, perishes.

For a virgin ceases to be a virgin from the time it becomes possible for her not to be one.

Discerning parallels between theologians and physicists is hardly an original thought, but I have found it a rather sticky one during the past few days. I suppose the freelance project, involving the rhetoric of humanists, is pinging adjacent neurons as well. The gaze—whether it be directed at a woman by a lecher or an electron by a research scientist—matters. Objectivity is an utter illusion.

* The title story itself is a fairly standard time travel piece, owing more to the Grandfather Paradox and Butterfly Effect than Heisenberg.

And rather less crazy-making than the natural emotional reaction to quotes from Tertullian et al., e.g. “Argh…stupid stupid…hate people…argh!” It’s nice to cultivate distance, despite the fact that in many ways, now that I have a daughter I am much more sensitive to misogyny in contemporary society.