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Visual Art and Embodiment in a World of Subjectivity

©Beth Carruthers 2003

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In the enlightenment dream, Man arrives at the centre of the universe. Our eyes, mere tools, assist us in observing, from a safe distance, the mechanics of the world and the heavens – affirming, once again, that vision itself is of the mind. This insistence on distancing ourselves from the world promoted a disembodying, disembodied vision, and linear perspective - a celebration of distance - rose to prominence, becoming the true, the enlightened way of seeing.

But Decartes’ world is a solitary place where the very existence of everything outside of the subject mind is suspect. There is no place in a disembodied world for the agency of the other. When we see only ourselves reflected, separated from the community of others and of the world, we make ourselves alone.

During the 20th century, a critical response to the longtime primacy of a subjective, controlling and objectifying vision developed and rose to dominance. In the latter half of the twentieth century, art and cultural theory were swept by a tsunami of extreme antiocular criticism, including the ideas of Sartre, Lacan, Fouault and Debord. Vision came to represent all that was most tainted and oppressive as, in the words of Martin Jay, “The evil eye emerged from the realm of superstition to become the ruling metaphor of social control and political oppression at its most insidious.” [Jay, 378]

This critique ironically remains located firmly within the ubiquitous authority of dualistic thinking, as a perversely objectifying analytic vision becomes an ever more powerful tool in the critique of the visual.