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Visual Art and Embodiment in a World of Subjectivity

©Beth Carruthers 2003

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Although the current critique of the visual insists that Western culture has been firmly ocularcentric, the reality is more complicated than that. We continue to believe that we have, in a sense, two visions – the embodied vision of the senses and the disembodied and objectifying vision of the mind. The boundaries of these are vast, shifting and blurred, making any critique of vision a bit unstable in itself.

Current thinking on the visual continues to follow a pattern set back at the beginning of Western philosophy. Plato asserted that “surveying through the eyes is full of deceit, and so is perception through the ears and the other senses”.[Mazis, 51] At the same time, he recognized the value and necessity of visual perception, and so he designated a kind of rarified, or true, vision to the realm of the intellect, or soul, maintaining that “We see through the eyes, not with them.” [Jay, 27] This splitting of vision persisted through most of the Middle Ages, when ecstatic visions as sublime gifts from God were valued, while at the same time, vision, along with the other senses and the pleasure they gave, would lead one into sin. Inner vision brought one closer to God and immortality, while engaging through the embodied senses enforced one’s mortality, leading to death.

Descartes and the enlightenment brought us so called Cartesian dualism, establishing the supremacy of the observer over the things observed. From this perspective the world becomes less of a threat, being mere matter and mechanics - something absolutely different to what we are as humans, so completely devoid of soul, mind, or agency, that we may legitimately seek to control it absolutely.