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Visual Art and Embodiment in a World of Subjectivity

©Beth Carruthers 2003

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Art, Image and Agency

What is this artwork manifested, born into the world; what is this other, this new presence? Is it a mere document, a record of ideas and theories, a spectacle - or is the artwork an agency unto itself? “It is a spectacle of something only by being “a spectacle of nothing,” by breaking the “skin of things” to show how the things become things, how the world becomes world.” [Merleau-Ponty, 181] Jeanette Winterson says that “A fully realised work has an identity that is not the identity of its characters, or the identity of its author.” [Winterson, 170] It is its own self.

There are, in my experience, two basic ways by which I might approach an artwork. One is as an apparently disembodied, analytic mind and the other is as an embodied being among beings. The first way is the way of objective distancing and deconstructive analysis. Once engaged in this way, I have in a sense tuned myself out. This objective analysis keeps me on the surface of things, away from depth and from the dizzying experience of intimate knowing. What comes to mind is Heidegger’s distinction between wonder and curiosity – wonder being an open allowing of manifestation, and curiosity being an imposition, a kind of forcing of oneself upon the other in order to pry forth secrets.

“Art is odd, and the common method of either taming it, or baiting it, cannot succeed. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?” [Winterson, 5] When I regard the lion, do I experience a spectacle, an object, or another intelligence, strange but familiar, meeting me gaze to gaze?