Looking With an Eye to Authenticity

Posted: April 4, 2011 in Uncategorized
Banksy rat wearing 3-D glasses

What do you love to look at? A lover, looking back at thee? Perhaps an achievement you’re thoroughly proud of? I submit that we love to look at that which reflects, in a fundamental way, how we love to be looked at. The lover is a star in our eyes, because we love to think that he/she can perceive the star in us. Life’s great challenge, I believe, is to recognise the star we are, and burnish its light.

You’ll have noticed, doubtless, that others don’t necessarily see one the way one wants to be seen or judges should be seen. Consequently, we feel miscast, unattended to, unloved even: why won’t they look at me? For some, finding a happy home in the representations offered by others is a problem compounded by prevalent prejudicial stereotypes and cultural constrictions. The sociologist Charles Cooley advanced the concept of the Looking Glass Self, widely accepted, explaining that one’s self-image is inextricably bound to how we judge others look at us. We may respond to extrinsic representations by adopting them as social personae, because this secures social acceptance, even adulation; or, we can rebel against them. But representing ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, via non-native identity constructs inevitably establishes dissonance within, impeding our ability to look with a clear focus of vision. The key, I’m certain, to apprehending and becoming the person one really is and desires to be, is the ability to discern and cultivate authenticity of looking.

Jean-Paul Sartre wrote probingly on the subject of the look(i):

I have just glued my ear to the door and looked through a keyhole… This means that behind that door a spectacle is presented as “to be seen”, a conversation as “to be heard”… This situation reflects to me at once both my facticity and my freedom… it refers my freedom to me in the form of tasks to be freely done… But all of a sudden I hear footsteps in the hall. Someone is looking at me! What does this mean?

It means that a bifurcation in consciousness has occurred. As the active agent of looking, he is conscious of his facticity and freedom – of his being present to himself. As the subject of looking, he is conscious of himself as objectified in the Other’s look (the Other is the one who looks at me; this can encompass any suspected or imagined observer) – of his being not present to himself: “I am for myself only as I am a pure reference to the Other.” Responding with a feeling of shame to being caught at the keyhole, as Sartre suggests, indicates how automated and conditioned our behaviour tends to be. Reaffirming our presence – our authenticity – in how we look entails learning how to locate ourselves back behind the metaphoric keyhole, where, from an integral perspective of detachment, we can respond reflexively to the world and our being in it.

There is considerable pressure from without to conform to prescribed models of behaviour. Michel Foucault argued that the Panopticon(ii) – the all-seeing eye of power – has become the disciplinary model for modern societies. We might conceive the Panopticon as a kind of ubiquitous watching Other – or nefarious Big Brother. The gaze of this Other is conspicuous in the proliferation and preponderance of CCTV cameras, surveillance technologies and practices. CCTV footage as evidence accounts for surprisingly few convictions, but from a Foucauldian perspective the principle point of surveillance is to induce an internalisation of the gaze of disciplinary power, thereby inducing conformity to presumptions of its expectations. But what of the effects on our psycho-social being? Aren’t we in danger of entrapping and losing ourselves in a mesh of expected protocol?

“That which oppresses me, is it my soul trying to come out in the open, or the soul of the world knocking at my heart for its entrance?” ~ Rabindranath Tagore

The Art of Looking

Looking exalts the looker and the looked upon when it is alive with authenticity, unencumbered by prejudice. With eyes anew – open canvases, like a child’s – one is able to engage the world in meaningful dialectic. The authentic artist engages the world in meaningful dialectic through the textual properties – meanings, generated by his/her work; reading and appreciating those meanings requires the ability to detach oneself from obfuscating preconceptions and clichéd ways of looking. It is only when we withdraw to our reflexive modality of consciousness, wherein the world and our being in it are ‘as to be observed’ as Sartre might say, that we can engage the beheld in meaningful dialectical communion.

“There can be no work of art if the seer and the seen do not hold one another in an embrace.” ~ Jean-François Lyotard(iii) 

Banksy’s work is appreciated and acclaimed, because it mobilises meaningful dialectics with the lived: it is not arbitrary or gratuitous. One appreciates a work of art by attending to it unsheathed, enabling it to enter into our focus of vision. Similarly, the lived can be construed as an artistic enterprise inasmuch as meaningfulness is revealed in organic dialectical engagement.

© Steven J. Oram

This essay was written for Scopophilia, a quarterly Art and Literature Journal based in Bristol, England. Each edition will focus on varying aspects and perspectives on ‘looking’.

Notes & References

i. Sartre, J-P. (translated by Barnes, H. E.) (1943 [1972]) ‘The Look’ Being and Nothingness (pp. 252-302) London: Methuen & Co Ltd
ii. The Panopticon was an architectural model for prisons which enabled all prisoners to be observed from a central viewing point. 
iii. Benjamin, A. (Ed.) (1989) The Lyotard Reader (p. 224) Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd


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