Ways of Seeing Art – through Critical Theory

In the following post I will use other sources of Critical Theory (from Marx to Ranciere, among others) to construct more dimensions into our project, and it will be useful for our three case-studies. Specifically, to follow our thesis that perception of sexuality in artistic representation is inherently fragmented due to the subjective reception of spectatorsI deal with the ideas of spectatorship, authorial intent, commodity fetishism, and democratic praxis. My peers can continue from this research to develop their own case-studies, although I recommend expanding this reading list. 


In his 1967 well-known treatise The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord introduced the critical theory of Spectacle, in which people living in modern consumer societies had an automatically passive approach to life. Completely alienated from our work production and turned into machines to watch and consume, ‘the more [we] contemplate, the less [we] live’ (Debord, 23). As mentioned in my previous post, Berger’s Ways of Seeing was a way to break with this passive engagement, this passive interpretation of viewing, specifically in art. In other works, Ways of Seeing is a method to avoid The Society of the Spectacle (much as Debord’s movement of the Situationist International, which were in favour of active approaches to every day living).

In The Emancipated Spectator (2008), Jacques Ranciere comes back to this idea in a direct and goal-oriented way. His book seeks to be a final call for the emancipation of the spectator, to the awakening of a passive audience. He calls it emancipation, because it’s an active movement towards freedom, specifically ‘intellectual’ freedom. Ranciere points out that a passive spectatorship automatically generates a dichotomy of knowledge: the ones that create and are active are the ones that know about the work of art; and the ones that are passive are the ones that don’t know, and so they are alienated. But he emphasises that viewing can also be active, if we ‘if we interpret, compare, link what we see to other things we have seen, experienced, dreamed in other places. There are distant spectators and active interpreters (Ranciere, 13). If the audience is active, that dichotomy of knowledge mentioned before radically changes because ‘a work is not transmission of the artist’s knowledge or inspiration to the spectator. It is a third thing whose meaning is not owned by no one. […]’ (Ranciere, 15) and, therefore, interpreting spectators can apply their own knowledge into the work, just as Berger implies in Ways of Seeing. In other words, the separation between viewer and art work needs to be trascended because the idea of interpretation is more important for active engagement than authorial intent (we will go back to this idea in the next section).

However, perception, as we argue, is inherently fragmented because it depends on subjective reception from each spectator. So, interpretations depend on the individual. Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy which deals with this idea of personal perception. Famous thinkers of this current are Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others. ‘Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience.’ (Stanford Education, web). Therefore, Ways of Seeing could be interpreted under this scope, as Berger undoubtedly shares this idea that art interpretation depends on the way we experience it. This is also related to the concept of qualia, defined to be individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. The term qualia derives from the Latin meaning “of what sort” or “of what kind” in a specific instance like “what it is like to taste a specific apple, this particular apple now”. 

Furthermore, psychology has also explored the subjectivity in perception. The subjective character of experience is a term in psychology and the philosophy of mind denoting that all subjective phenomena are associated with a single point of view (the individual). The term was coined by Thomas Nagel in his paper “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” Subjective character of experience implies that the perception of all things, concepts, and “truths” in the universe differs between individuals: we all live in different worlds, each of which may have things in common, because of our unique perspectives on our worlds. The only thing to which one can hold oneself is something one has experienced or perceived. The paper basically explains that bats have their own way of perceiving and therefore their own way of experience that humans would have a hard time comprehending, and this is obviously due to their physical characteristics and their environments. ‘Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited’ (Nagel, 439) so even though we might have all the information about a certain thing (for example, how bats perceive) we can’t experience what they do. Same even if we have all the information about something past, we can’t experience it again and so our perception of their material culture is necessarily different than theirs. 

There is also scientific research that supports this inherent fragmentation of perception depending on experience. In Cultural Effects on Visual Perception, Masuda summarises the scientific empirical work done in the recent decades that shows that culture and human psychological processes are considered to mutually influence one another. He argues that ‘mainstream psychology has generally assumed that psychological processes are universal and that the main role of psychology is to investigate these universal aspects of human beings. Visual perception, attention, and even visual illusion have, therefore, been understood mainly in terms of the underlying optical mechanisms and characteristics of visual information hardwired in the human brain and shared by human beings in general’ (1); however, this is proven wrong by the inter-cultural work cited by Masuda. For example, he explains the experiments on visual perception given to people of different cultures and they responded differently (despite of race and gender).  

As mentioned in my previous post, this is one of the main theses (if not the main) of Ways of Seeing, and my case-study is a clear example of this, especially the main panel. Depending on how we see it, we can interpret even opposite meanings. I will develop this further in a final post about my particular case-study.


While thinking about the project and the argument that perception of art is inherently fragmented because it depends on the subjective interpretation of the viewer, an obvious question was, what is the role of authorial intent then? To what extent is meaning decided upon a piece of art? If only the perception of the spectator matters and it’s value for the present, worrying about the context of the piece necessarily generates a negative mystification?

A theory that is in favour of disregarding the authorial intent when engaging with a work of art is the famous Death of the Author, first developed by Roland Barthes is his 1967 essay of that title. The essay focused on literary analysis and criticism, and he famously argued that the ‘text belongs to its audience, not the author’. Traditionally, criticism focused (in all the arts) in authorial intent until the critical theory of the 1960s, of which Barthes’ is representative. From Barthes on, however, critical theorists shifts the focus to the work in itself, and especially the relationship between the piece and the audience – not, as it was before, the author and the audience. According to Barthes, focusing on the author has no value because the ‘the author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person” […] the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions’ (Barthes, 2). In other words, the author was a construction and imposed by the elite to set a fixed meaning to their works of art.

As he summarises, ‘once the Author is gone, the claim to “decipher” a text becomes quite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing’ (Barthes, 5). In pages 28 and 29 of Ways of Seeing, Berger specifically explains how the elite has monopolised art and its meanings until the era of mechanical reproduction and concludes that ‘art, with its unique undiminished authority, justifies most other forms of authority, that art makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling’ (29); therefore, allowing authority to control art is dangerous not only because it causes passive spectators, but also because it creates a complacent and controlled society.  Barthes also thinks that the author has been treated as a God, and the meaning it gave to his/her work was treated as final and fixed because it was surrounded of an aura of secrecy and the only active relation the audience could have with the work is to unpack this secret (even though it was implicit that they would never been able, because it was a divine creation). This is also what Berger calls “mystification” in Ways of Seeing. Furthermore, as Berger (and Debord and Ranciere), Barthes believes that a free audience that engages actively with the works of art is the audience necessary to create a better society and individuals: ‘the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author’ (Barthes, 6). 

Foucault famously expanded Barthes work outside Literature to other types of production. He focuses again on the role that the work in itself has, outside of the context of its creation, ‘the work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be the author’s murderer’ (Foucault, 1).  He explains that, contrary to historical believe since the Renaissance, ‘the author is not an indefinite source of significations that fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction’ (Foucault,14). According to him, hence, the author is an ideological figure and people assign meaning to a work for who made it instead of what is really present in that work.  

But, if we kill the author, should we kill the historical context of the work as well? After all, we have established that for Berger and the critical theorists of the 1960s, the most important thing of a work of art was the value it had for the public in the present moment. I think that this is important to highlight: the value of context depends entirely on the reason of approaching the piece. For example, it is very different if we aim to engage with art as audience than if we want to approach a piece of material culture to understand a specific period, and both of these are compatible. For instance, Berger obviously emphasises on the Ways of Seeing that are useful for our personal and social development in the present, but he also understands the value the pieces had in its time and why they were made like that. This is noticeable when he talks about oil paintings in the third essay of Ways of Seeing (83-112). So, if we approach a work as an starting point to talk about a period, then it’s important to know about the context and even the author but if we just want to experience art and live it now, with its value for the present then it is really not necessary.  

In conclusion, I think that the idea of death of the author can help us break with imposed meanings from historical authorities, and make us engaged freely with art while finding use for it in our present moment for us as individuals and as society. Furthermore, for the art historian or the person that seeks to analyse a work of art for its value as proof of material culture, understanding that meaning changes depending on the material conditions of the audience’s time period can help them understand that they also have to deal with the ways that the audience of that specific period engaged with their culture (Who had access to this art? What did they perceive? What was their value? How does it compare to the value now?).


So far I have explored spectatorship and how it challenges authorial intent when engaging with art works. In addition to this, in order to understand the shift in the interpretation of art, we must address (at least briefly) commodity fetishism. After all, art works nowadays (and since, as Berger shows in Ways of Seeing, the advent of capitalism and the invention oil painting) are seen as high-level commodities rather than public objects. Before, following Berger’s ideas and the cited critical theories, I argued that art works should be analysed according to the value it has for the individual and society. I realise that the term value is quite ambivalent, especially when dealing with art, because it can be read as monetary value – even though I meant more pragmatic and intellectual value. This is exactly what commodity fetishism is: the perception that what it is involved in the production of an object are not social relationships, but economic relationships of market exchange.

Karl Marx was critical of this view of objects as mere inter-exchange because each work (artistic or not) was the result of social relations and the active production of a human being. For Marx, seeing objects created by humans as mere commodities was alienating, because it was against our social nature as producers. Indeed, seeing art as mere objects that represent monetary value is completely alienating for us, because we can fail in seeing a real connection with our society. For this reason, commodity fetishism is very much connected with the wider debate of artistic perception. Art works are not commodities (the belief that they are is also why originals are mystified according to Berger), but part of humanity’s heritage and a language to connect people throughout time and space.

In his essay, Revolutionary Undoing, Berger explains that ‘art historians with a social or Marxist formation have interpreted the art of the past in terms of class ideology. […] It now appears that in the later stages of capitalism this has ceased to be generally true. Art is treated as a commodity whose meaning lies only in its rarity value and in its functional value as a stimulant of sensations’. So, commodity fetishism can also occupy the functional value of stimulation. Precisely for this reason, it is important to engage actively with art and see it as a public right which’s value is that it stimulates our intellect as individuals in a society. 


In the end, we can conclude that Berger’s thesis in Ways of Seeing and these works of critical theories is that art should be more accessible for common people. If perception of art is fragmented because it depends on subjectivity, and any imposition of a true and unique meaning is just authoritarian and aims to create a passive audience (and society), then freedom of interpretation and engagement is the productive intellectual value that can create better individuals and societies. This is what I refer to as democratic praxis. 

In his essay, The Author as Producer, Walter Benjamin (one of the references for Berger in Ways of Seeing) proposes that ‘when it examined a work of art, materialist criticism was accustomed to ask how that work stood in relation to the social relationships of production of its time. [But what if instead of asking] how does a literary work stand in relation to the relationships of production of a period, [we ask] how does it stand in them?’. By this, he meant to explore the technique of the work rather than the context around it, sort of a first step of what Barthes and Foucault would propose later on about the Death of the Author. However, I think that the question should be: how does the work stand today? So, we should examine how our perceptions can create value for that piece of art nowadays. This way, we will democratise art in its final stance and we will de-mystify the works and finally separate their meaning to the elites and authority. We will stop seeing art as commodities that don’t belong to us, and start seeing it as part of our personal and social heritage.  

Berger, along with the critical theorists mentioned, had the ultimate goal to fight against alienation and create a more active public. As Marx first stated in his Theses on Feuerbach, the most important political turn of modern time is a democratic (from below) praxis, a stop to contemplation and a start of active practice. Of course, this must come both from the individual but also from society, because ‘human nature is not inherent in its individual, in reality it is the ensemble of the social relations’. In fact, just by having social relations and engaging in this kind of activities as a group we are being active, because ‘all social life is essentially practical’. The conclusion, then, is still the same: we have for too long only interpreted the world, and the point is to change it. Engaging with our cultural heritage active is one of the first steps to do this.


Barthes, Roland. Death of the Author, 1967. <http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf>.

Benjamin, Walter. The Author as Producer, Verso, 1966. <https://yaleunion.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Walter_Benjamin_-_The_Author_as_Producer.pdf>.

Berger, John. ‘Revolutionary Undoing’ from 1969, in Landscapes, Verso, 2016.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, 1973.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York Zone Books, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. What is an Author?, 1969. <http://seas3.elte.hu/coursematerial/HarasztosAgnes/Foucault_WhatIsAnAuthor.pdf>

Marx, Karl. Theses on Feuerbach, 1845. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm>.

Masuda, Takahiko. Cultural Effects on Visual Perception, 2009. <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299611215_Cultural_Effects_on_Visual_Perception>.

Nagel, Thomas. ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ The Philosophical Review, vol. 83, no. 4, 1974, pp. 435-450.

Ranciere, Jacques. ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, in The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliott. Verso, 2009, pp. 1-23.

Stanford Education. Phenomenology. <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/>.

The Value of Ways of Seeing as Our Theoretical Framework

Before my next post (which seeks to develop our research through other ideas in critical theory) I would like to make a clarification about the value of Ways of Seeing as the main theoretical framework for our study. Berger affirmed in Ways of Seeing that ‘we see these paintings as nobody saw them before’, he meant our specific material conditions of our time period allow us to experience (to “see” in the widest sense) art in a unique way, as these conditions are different to all historical periods before. Nowadays, art has the most democratic diffusion in history: mechanical reproduction, free galleries and museums, public education and, of course, the internet, create this condition. Before, probably only the elite could access paintings, and even when they were accessible to a wider public (for example, it was originally set in a public space) the fact that elite commissioned and paid for this art meant it was accompanied to a meaning imposed from these elites. In Ways of Seeing, Berger argues that we now have the conditions to break with historically imposed meanings from the elite, to stop with art mystification and start seeing art as humanity’s heritage and enjoyable and useful for every single individual, and society as a whole. 

Furthermore, Berger encourages everyone to experience art through their own perspective and individual way of seeing. In this sense, he implies that experience of a work of art (or of art in general) is related to other experiences of life. This is why our historical material conditions are so important, but also our personal experiences and knowledge. As he points out, ‘the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. In the Middle Ages when people believed in the physical existence of Hell, the sight of fire must have meant something very different of what it means today. Nevertheless their idea of Hell owed a lot to the sight of fire consuming and ashes remaining – as well as to their experience of the pain of burns’ (8). I can’t help to relate this sentence to my case-study. Indeed, the third panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights is a lively and disturbing representation of Hell. How different that representation could have been interpreted in a period were Hell was a physical possibility to now, when we often think of it as a philosophical idea rather than a place. 

Imagine believing THIS is exactly what awaits in the after-life.

Experience of art according to Berger is so subjective that even ‘the meaning of a painting can be changed according to what you see beside it or what comes after it’. Again, in my case-study, interpretation of the main panel changes completely if you see it alone, or beside the Hell panel. In addition, if you use it as an illustration for a text about sex-positivity, it would have a very different meaning than if you use it as an illustration for a text about lust as sin. 

‘Lust allows a soul unable to confront the reality of life with a brief escape. Indulge in lust, and all of life’s troubles and worries disappear for a moment – only to reappear again unchanged, and with one’s soul in a state of peril. Indulging in lust of any kind has a kind of hollowing-out effect on the soul – it sells the person out for all they are worth, simply in order to feel good for a little while.’ (Source: https://www.catholicgentleman.net)


‘If everything goes well and sex is natural and flowing it is a beautiful experience because you can have a glimpse of the second through it. If sex goes really very deep, so that you forget yourself completely in it, you can even have a glimpse of the third through it. And if sex becomes a total orgasmic experience, there are rare moments when you can even have a glimpse of the fourth, the turiya, the beyond, through it.’ (Source: Osho, Talking Tao)

Indeed, this can be related to Berger’s claim that ‘reproduction makes works of art ambiguous’, since this separation of the panels is only possible due to modern forms of reproduction of the images, since the triptych itself always presented three consecutive and inseparable panels. Nevertheless, the most interesting idea I take from this is that ‘we never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active’ (9), we are continually participating in art just by viewing and interpreting.  And, certainly, this connects to our central argument that the perception of sexuality in art is inherently fragmented because it depend’s on the viewer subjective experience. 

In my following post, I will expand on spectatorship and the role of authorial intent in our ways of seeing by looking at critical theories about the topic. Furthermore, I will deal with the perception of sexuality in my particular case-study by referring to critical scholarship as well, and always inside the theoretical framework of Ways of Seeing

‘Strategic Consultation’ Concept – Streamlining Our Project

06 March 2019 / 09:00 AM / 2.06 Bush House

  • With Rosa.

Strategic Consultation Idea

Following on from our previous meeting where we honed in on our aims for the presentation and decided to situate our utopic ideas within previous explorations of Utopia in London, we decided to construct our ‘strategic consultation’ in a deliberately problematic way, which can be pulled apart and interrogated afterwards. It will perhaps be overly bias or too optimistic; we will need to think about the specifics of this in the next meeting and in our document works.

This not only engages with the methodological and theoretical issues underpinning  ideas of Utopia but also allows us to explore the topic without committing to a single vision of Utopia, which we were finding difficult to achieve. We found there were problems in coming up with answers to huge utopian questions such as ‘How should people live and work in the city? The scope was too broad to explore in this project and we would only be able to produce surface-level ideas. This lead us onto thinking about exploring utopian thinking by asking questions as a consultancy for the council to those who work, live and interact with ‘The City’, as a way of developing an interactive concept. Furthermore, thinking of the questions to ask for the purpose of city development allows us to engage with Utopian ideas in an imaginative and broad manner.

In a consultation we would raise all the issues we currently see with work and life in ‘The City’ and ask participants what they find is problematic. Then we would ask questions relating to how we can reform the situations and imagine a future alternative that engages is utopian in nature. We imagine that this would draw fragmented visions from the various different people involved, who may be residents, tourists or city workers.

Where would the Strategic Consultation take place?

Vinya suggested that our ‘strategic consultation’ could be staged in the park St Dunstan in the East Chuch Garden, near to Monument and in the centre of ‘The City’.

The idea would be that we would ask questions to people passing through the park about their work, and/or life in The City. This would help us understand life and work in ‘The City’ in the 21st Century (this is theoretical in the role play setting of the council, not something we will actually carry out).

However, we then decided to focus on specific groups because we realised that different  people inhabit different parts of the ‘The City’ and for different reasons. There would perhaps be an unequal distribution of a certain kind of people in the garden, which would not provide our ‘council’ with a comprehensive understanding of people’s desires and visions. Furthermore, by talking to people, for instance, who live in The Barbican area and then to those who work in The Gherkin, we will address how the ‘The City’ is inherently fragmented in demographics, architecture and lifestyle. Indeed, creating solutions to current issues which were ‘utopic’ to these different actors was one of the reasons we decided not to come up with the solutions ourselves but rather interrogate the people who would be affected by city changes. This employs democratic agency in the space, which is our aim as a ‘council’, to represent and serve the people of ‘The City’.

Looking To Current Council Planning and Strategies

We then started to think how a council would actually frame a new plan or strategy to london and how the word ‘Utopia’ would be an unlikely term to use. Instead, we could think about ‘ideals’, ‘visions’ or even specific ‘London 2050’ futures. We could ask things like ‘What is your vision for a future London?’. In line with this, we will also identify in our role play as a council that we have a broad range of issues we want to address but we only have x time and x money so we will focus on x issues’. The exact issues to focus on will need to be decided by us next week.

Using Case Studies

Last session we came to the conclusion that utopias are informed by the past and present.  This is why we would like to provide ‘case studies’ such as The Barbican to consultation participants.

Below is Vinya’ post to our Facebook group regarding The Barbican:

‘The city was depopulated by the bombings and destruction of ww2. There were plans to reconstruct with a bit emphasis on commerce shops businesses etc but concern that they would lose their political status without inhabitants: ‘historically a unique administrative entity’

They weren’t sure if they wanted ‘all those people’ living there but that evolved. The barbican was radical as a neighbourhood concept with residences schools a church shops and the arts centre. Radical also because it was inspired by utopian thinking like from the architect le corbusier.

‘The City wanted to make a statement about bringing back life into the boundaries of the financial City’.

Link to our skyscraper interest: barbican was the tallest residential building in the country for decades.

Link: http://www.barbicanlifeonline.com/hist…/our-concrete-utopia/

Sunday as a Focus

Vinya suggested focusing on Sundays in particular as a day where, commercially, things aren’t going on and there is an absence of city workers. The square mile becomes a site for tourists to explore both the history and modern dimensions of ‘The City’. We need to confirm if we wish to centre the vision for the city on Sundays or more generally.

City skyline

Tasks Going Forward

Moving forward we have decided to look at current pubic council documents to model our own agenda and creative approach. We will look at the language employed to help construct our own council documents and agenda.

We will need to come up with endings to the following sentence starters (or similar) as discussed in the meeting:

Through our creative exploration we are hoping to achieve …

We want to raise questions and illustrate…

This supports our general argument that…


Some further questions we interrogated in the session are:

  • What is the difference between positive thinking and Utopic thinking?
  • Is Utopic thinking a danger to mindfulness?
  • Does Utopia allows one to re-contextualise and lead to something new?

A Current Model for Presentation


  1. – Theory etc – 5 minutes – there is a history of… – what are the benefits of utopia as method – holistic – applicable to integrating physical/design & literary utopia.
  2. We have different audiences with different needs.
  3. Through the creative process we will show…


  • Give past Utopia as a reference point and say this was the vision, how does it correspond to your current ideal for this place?
  • Identify current issues & pose questions regarding this.
  • Create an ‘agenda’ to give out to our ‘funders’ / ‘council’ etc
  • Create a ‘big vision’ mission statement.


  • Interrogate analytically the issues with the consultation.

Action Items

  1. Write an introduction together engaging in methodology and theory.
  2. Write an agenda and vision – looking to current council documents for inspiration.
  3. Pick case studies to talk about in the consultation – The Barbican and The Gherkin?
  4. Identify current issues in the city and create questions around them.
  5. Critically analyse our consultation & address the ‘fragmentation’ of the project.

Next Meeting Agenda

We should work out our action plan for dividing the work above between us.

We should make it clear who we are pitching to – council or funders (are we a consultancy agency?).


Basic outline of Québec contribution

My section would come after Emmanuelle’s study on Two-Spirit people in Canada. It deals with transgender/transsexual activism and linguistic imperialism. More precisely, it addresses the influence and impact, an imposed language can have on the recognition and representation of a certain group.

My case study focuses on Canadian transgender activists and their attempts to protect transexual/transgender people before the law. I will examine these political interventions in light of Canada’s linguistic specificity: Canada has two official languages, English and French – especially spoken in Québec-. To do so, I will rely on:

  1. The testimony of Canadian transexual artist, sex worker, and activist Mirha-Soleil Ross (who grew up in Montreal, Québec), in which she expresses her disillusion after having joined an English-speaking activist group: ‘now I see how circular, how narrow-minded, and how skewed anglo activism can be. I see how dangerously imperialistic it can be in terms of requiring that activism around the world adopt its analysis and political strategies’.
  2. Viviane Namaste’s Sex Change, Social Change: Reflection on Identity, Institutions and Imperialism (2005, 2011). In her work, the Canadian feminist scholar shows how the adding of “gender identity” to human rights codes, throughout the 21st century, has been made without taking into account Québec’s cultural and linguistic specificity. She then analyses the impact of such linguistic imperialism.

A Summary of Last Discussion

After our last meeting with Rosa, we decided our topic would be ‘The Ways of Seeing Sexuality in Art from Antiquity to Modernity,’ and our thesis would be that the perception of sexuality in artistic representation is inherently fragmented due to the subjective reception of spectators.

Our approach is object-based, and our content is divided into three single case studies ranging from classical sculpture to medieval Spanish panel painting to renaissance Japanese art. Each case study selects the most dominant and representative genre and artwork at the time. We will incorporate John Berger’s book The Ways of Seeing as our framework to examine each individual case. We aim to analyze the motif of nudity in accordance with cultural aesthetics and spectatorship.

A Bergerian analysis of Utamakura

In Berger’s view, artworks can only truly be understood and interpreted through their socio-historical context, which implies that to analyse a work of art one has to put himself in the shoes of the spectator at the time and place. What is needed is thus primordially a historical contextualization, even if drawing more universal ideas about artistic representation is as much important. 

Three Bergerian ideas can be interesting in analyzing the Shunga work of Utamakura: spectatorship bias, devaluation of copy and the female nude.

In John Berger’s view, ‘what we see is always influenced by a multitude of assumptions we hold about such things as beauty, form, class, taste, and gender’. In the same way, spectatorship of Kitagawa Utamaro’s Utamakura was influenced by a certain aesthetic of beauty – that of explicit nudity, sexual idealization, and, most interestingly, mutual pleasure; both man an woman enjoying their sexual intercourse as can be seen with their smiles and the fact that the woman character bits the cheek of her partner. Despite a strictly patriarchal society, this can be explained by an absence of judo-christian moral on female corruption (no equivalent shinto or buddhist myth of the original sin), but maybe also more simply, I would say, due to a stronger erotic effect of representation woman sexual pleasure – erotic arousal was at the basis of Shunga art and one of its objective.

Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s essay 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, John Berger argues that the aura of a work of art is devalued by mechanical reproduction. This applies well to Utamakura, or “Poem of the pillow”, which was part of a 12-pages printed illustrated book. Published in 1788, this book was thus copied multiple times and became, as for the book, a rather elitist object, and as one sole drawing itself, a more popular and democratized art work. This necessarily de-sacralized the initial drawing and transformed it to mere “copies”, even if in Japan there might have not been such a fetishism for the pure, “initial”, and original object. In Berger’s view, ‘ways of looking at art have been utterly changed by the development of mechanical means of producing and reproducing images’; this is the case for post-industrial and capitalistic Europe, but also certainly the case for Edo period Japan, in which ukiyo-e and shunga woodblock painting flourished in massively copying the initial woodblock inscription, becoming ‘commercial products’. 

Finally, however, the idea Bergerian idea of the passive female nude is questioned and challenged by Utamakura and shunga art in general, as the woman is most often portrayed as an active agent of her sexuality – in Utamakura as in others, the woman is portrayed as independent and assertive more than as an ‘object to please their male-oriented audience’. Pleasing the audience was for sure a goal of the painting, but this was not done so by the objectification of woman and its subordination of man – in fact, it sometimes appear to be that the man itself is submitted to giving pleasure to woman, as in famous Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s shunga painting of a woman having a sexual relation and seemingly deep pleasure with an octopus. Woman and her sexual pleasure may have been seen at the centre of sexual intercourse by spectators at the time.

In this way, John Berger’s analytical limit comes out through the study of Japanese Shunga art: he did not pay attention to extra-European and non-western artworks for his observations. In Japanese artworks, and eventually in various non-European ones, nakedness never seem ‘supine’ in a European way. While Berger’s achievement was to start a process of deeply questioning art works, I myself will attempt to question his spatio-temporal limitations and eventually marxist assumptions (as to mechanistic copying, which isn’t necessarily de-valutating). 

Perspective on sexuality is inherently fragmented, and what is important is to always keep in mind the different, sometimes contrary perceptions that a certain public and spectator may have had at the time of the work in regards to us – an outlook which ultimately transforms the piece as it is the spectator, not the author, who truly makes its meaning. 

Cited: Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books (1973).

Independent Group Meeting Summary (04/03/19 – rescheduled from 27/02/19)

Following a recap of our previous week’s discussions and research, we decided to focus our meeting of Monday 4th March upon clarifying our specific project aims, research question, methodology, and presentation structure (particularly the degree of ‘performance’ we would include.)

Prior to the creative, ‘performative’, main body of our presentation, we intend to briefly explore the scholarly history and current prevailing applications of the methodology of utopia, particularly concerning urban planning, development, and management. We shall thus provide necessary context within which to situate and justify our own interpretation and application of this still emerging academic methodology, alongside the research questions and core aims of our project. Following this brief theoretical introduction, we shall begin our role-play, enacting deliberation between various members of the City of London local authority concerning a utopic vision for future development.

Regarding the structure of the creative element, we discussed a number of possible approaches:

  • Each member representing a different utopic vision for the City of London founded in a thematic interest e.g. financial, holistic, environmental, cultural. These different viewpoints would enable conversation between different utopic visions, viewpoints which might conflict or cooperate, and their underpinning motivations.
  • The group cooperatively pursuing a single utopic vision for the City of London. This framework would enable us to explore the various components of our utopia in a more comprehensive, detailed way. Within this structure, we considered focusing upon a single building which encapsulates our ideas or a ‘day-in-the-life’ model focused upon a single individual’s experience.

Within either of these structures, our approach may involve: outlining a previous utopic vision e.g. the Barbican, relating this to particular contemporary issues e.g. homelessness, creating a novel utopic vision on the basis of these components. This method would highlight both that “any utopia is informed by the past and present” and that all any utopia is a critique of the past. Since, the methodology of the utopia might be applied to a vast range of fields/issues, we feel it would be necessary to limit any appraisal of modern-day issues to prevalent few, perhaps 1 per member.

Alternatively, we could begin with a hypothetical utopic design, adapt this according to present-day issues and previous utopic visions.

We intend to highlight and attempt to reconcile the largely distinct branches of current utopia methodology, namely, design utopia (altered artifacts and organisation of space) and literary utopia (social organisations and institutions). We might also consider the internal fragmentation of single utopic visions e.g. different motivations culminating in a singular concept.

Furthermore, we discussed the possibility of reflexive ‘asides’, wherein the role-play is frozen and the group member concerned breaks character in order to provide objective commentary upon our methodological approach, ethical concerns, and/or case studies of previous utopic visions within the City of London e.g. 30 St. Mary Axe, the Barbican etc. These objective ‘asides’ would be styled in an academic manner but might incorporate appraisal of inherent bias through anecdote etc.

Contributing towards a unique, preservationist, approach to the utopia methodology, these case studies would enable conversation between our own utopic vision(s) and those which have previously been enacted in the City, emphasising the area’s composition as a patchwork of different utopic fragments.

As a development constructed in the wake of WWII bombing, the Barbican represents a particularly interesting case of holistic utopic planning, directed by necessity in certain senses and exerting a lasting influence upon urban design.

In relation to a possible argument or research question, we considered the following:

  • ‘Any utopia is informed by the past and present’/’To what extent are utopias informed by the past and present?’
  • Utopic visions need not eliminate all others, but could be preservationist in certain senses/’How might a future utopia incorporate past utopic visions?’
  • ‘How effective is the methodology of utopia in effective urban planning/design/maintenance?’

Prior to our upcoming session with Rosa on Wednesday 6th March, we shall each read the introduction to Ruth Levitas’s Utopia as Method: the Imaginary Reconstitution of Society (2013) (https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/kcl/detail.action?docID=1330923) and Martin Meyerson’s journal article Utopian Traditions and the Planning of Cities (1961) (https://www.jstor.org/stable/20026647?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents). These readings shall inform our understanding of the methodology of utopia and guide our ideas, further informing our presentation structure and approach.

Basic Outline of Philosophical Contribution

In today’s meeting, we have been doing individual research and putting our ideas together when necessary.

We have initially discussed the order of our presentation, where I will start by discussing the philosophical issues raised from the identity of the transgender. Such issues will involve the dilemma of the justification of the belief in one’s gender after being transitioned. I might also discuss the strength of one’s desire for becoming transitioned overcomes one’s religious belief.

I will use the case study of the Chinese transsexual dancer and host Jin Xing, who has successfully completed her identity transformation to a woman and meanwhile being recognized as a woman by the public, to argue against the dilemma of the transsexual.

Next, Victoria will stretch the argument towards the vagueness of the transgender and issues in the imperialism of the German colony.

Emmanuelle and Augustin will continue to discuss the topic from the film/media perspective.

Still, we think it would be a good idea to make the philosophical approach as a ‘thread’ throughout the presentation: to react with the philosophical puzzle I presented based on their case studies.

Basic outline of Two-Spirit contribution

1990 Indigenous lesbian and gay international gathering: adoption of the umbrella term Two-Spirit (Driskill 72)
–> Defined as having both a male and female gender

Historically served as mediators between women, men and spirit, and often adopted roles of “healers, people of medicine, […] storytellers, seers and visionaries, artists and artisans” (41).
Main argument: studying Two-Spirit people leads to a wider issue: the absence of object to represent their identities vs the presence of objects from non-Two Spirit people to judge or criticise them.
–>Look at performance studies specifically as a way to seize back control of one’s identity.
1) Kent Monkman’s art.: widely-recognized, interdisciplinary Two-Spirit Swampy Cree contemporary artist, who plays with sexuality and gender to reinsert queer Indigenous narratives into colonial history. June Scudeler argues that “if he sees sexuality in many Indigenous cultures as a fluid concept, Monkman also sees history as a fluid concept” (111). Indeed, Monkman’s alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle is a Two-Spirit time traveler             featured heavily in his work, who reverses colonial power relationships by putting “the Indian on top” in “acts of erotic sovereignty” (Scudeler 110). –> OUT OF TIME (Conference notes)
Monkman’s installation draws upon historical and colonial representations of queer Indigenous people and rituals, to metaphorically reclaim their eroticized bodies as well as their historical and territorial presence. The work echoes a painting by George Catlin, American painter and author who sought to document the ‘vanishing Indian’ during his travels. His painting ​Dance to the Berdashe  (figure 5) depicts a “dance common among the Sauk and Fox nations, of warriors dancing around Berdashe” (Monkman), which the painter later described in highly derogatory terms, as an “unaccountable and disgusting custom ”that he wished could “be extinguished” (Catlin 214-215). 

2) In ​A Journey In Gender (Aiyyana Maracle): queerphobia in Indigenous communities has been a result of colonisation and has had influence for many generations now, leading some elders to impose Christian or Eurocentric values in their communities. Presence of the Church “​have been the determinants of the moment when the genders beyond male and female went underground” (42).

3) More generally, Disconnect between academic studies about Two-Spirit people and the lived experiences of members of the community; the latter are often unable to meet and connect with each other

Basic outline of Germany contribution

As a group, we decided that it would be helpful to post simple bullet points outlining how we think our research should be used in the presentation on the blog, so that we can look at each other’s ideas easily and respond if need be.

At the moment, it seems to make sense that my section would come after Syukie’s philosophical/theoretical introduction. I currently plan to cover:

  • Justify looking at the history of the ‘trans’ term – back to early 20th century Germany*
  • Outline Hirschfeld’s research
  • Transvestite pass: significance of existence, specific close reading of wording and how what it implies about identity is different from rhetoric today.
  • Highlight Hirschfeld’s ambivalent relationship to colonialism to think about how gender identity terms have always had a complex relationship to international issues.

*I think it could also be useful to establish exactly when terminology went from ‘transvestite’*, to just ‘trans’.