In this paper, I would like to critically reflect and analyze the apparent ocularcentrism, that is, its hierarchical privileging of sight over the other senses, observable in the history of Western culture. To begin with I will attempt to examine the origins of this hegemony of the visual sense. Following which I move on to the critique of this ocularcentrism and discuss its opposition in philosophy, arising from the late 18th century onwards. Then I analyze the reaction of the art world to this school of thought. I then explore the beginning of conceptual art and analyze this movement in context of the denunciation of the ‘retinal eye’. Subsequently, I discuss the rise of ocularcentrism in this age of advanced technology and how it shapes our perspective. Finally, I present the role of art in that regard and attempt to propose a new way to approach the phenomenon through the medium of art.
Seeing and knowing
Of all the human senses, the visual sense has been the most privileged in the known history of Western culture. At the time of the Ancient Greek philosophers, there was already a widespread belief in the value of empiricism, and in particular ocularcentrism. In 500BC Heraclitus wrote“Those things of which there is sight, hearing, knowledge: these are what I honor most” ( Fragment 55) he then clarifies “the eyes are more exact witnesses than the ears” .( Fragment 101a) Aristotle continues this theme, in the first lines of the Metaphysics, (890a, 21-30)“All men naturally desire knowledge. An indication of this is our esteem for the senses; for apart from their use we esteem them for their own sake, and most of all the sense of sight. Not only with a view to action, but even when no action is contemplated, we prefer sight, generally speaking, to all the other senses. The reason of this is that of all the senses sight best helps us to know things”.
However, this knowledge was not just knowledge of temporal, unstable phenomena. It was considered knowledge of unchanging truths and natural laws.
No ancient thinker better captures this complex nexus of ideas about “seeing” and “knowing” than Plato in the fourth century BCE: “I will therefore now proceed to speak of the higher use and purpose for which God has given them to us. The sight in my opinion is the source of the greatest benefit to us, for had we never seen the stars, and the sun, and the heaven, none of the words which we have spoken about the universe would ever have been uttered. But now the sight of day and night, and the months and the revolutions of the years, have created number, and have given us a conception of time, and the power of enquiring about the nature of the universe; and from this source we have derived philosophy, than which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man. This is the greatest boon of sight: and of the lesser benefits why should I speak? Even the ordinary man if he were deprived of them would bewail his loss, but in vain. Thus much let me say however: God invented and gave us sight to the end that we might behold the courses of intelligence in the heaven, and apply them to the courses of our own intelligence which are akin to them, the unperturbed to the perturbed; and that we, learning them and partaking of the natural truth of reason, might imitate the absolutely unerring courses of God and regulate our own vagaries”. According to Plato, eyes are seminally important. That is because not only the clearest knowledge of the natural world proceed from the sense of sight, but, over and above this, the sustaining principles of order and harmony are also most evident through it. By virtue of sight not only knowledge but wisdom may therefore be attained.
The Platonic privileging of sight gains ground by the late fourth century AD, when philosopher Calcidus translated part of Plato’s Timaeus from Greek into Latin. The translation was accompanied by Calcidus’ extensive commentary, in which he also stressed the importance of vision. Calcidus commented (1962, p.44) “Neither navigation nor agriculture nor even the skill of painting and sculpture is able to produce its own work rightly without sight”. This translation played a paramount role in the dispersal of ocularcentrism in the western world. As Anna Somfai describes it( Somfai, 2011) “For about a thousand years Plato meant almost exclusively the Timaeus and the Timaeus meant primarily Calcidius‘ reading and commentary.”
Sight was considered as the model for how knowledge is obtained and incorporated by the mind. The connection between sight and understanding is already embedded in the Greek language’s expressions of “seeing” and “knowing”, sharing as they do a common etymological stem. For Greek “seeing”, the state of knowing (oida, “ I know”) is both linguistically and conceptually inseparable from the experience of seeing for oneself (idesthai “to behold). In ancient Greece the philosophical “ideas” were likewise premised upon theories of sight: what we would label the “brain” was frequently linked to a sort of inner visual organ, viz.“the mind’s eye” of the soul.
Antiquity’s celebration of the eye is also greatly reflected in the art of that time.
Sculptors took their philosophy to stone and they created perfection through symmetry and natural form in each of their works. The most common subject of the ancient art form was the nude, usually presented in an athletic form. The idealized human images were the embodiment of balance and harmony. The access to this perfection was therefore visual-cognitive. It was not about looking at beautiful realistic sculptures but at the idea of things in stone. The idealization of the human body and pursuing the visual perfection was vital. It was not about the fact that these bodies look so perfect, but that they represent a perfect idea that is beheld when the sculpture is looked at. Therefore the idea was the object of knowledge, the sphere of eternal truths, which the sense of smell for instance could not grasp. That means that human vision distinguishes us from the animals, who can see but not ‘see as’, ‘seeing for oneself’, idesthai/aisthanomai.
The notion that seeing is knowing continues in the development of medieval philosophy. Roger Bacon praised sight so strongly he said (1996, p. 65): “a blind man may find out by experience nothing that is worthy in this world”. Bacon considered vision as a practical and authentic tool that is necessary for the intellect. He regarded all that is to be learned is learned through the eyes. David Summer, in The Judgment of Sense: Renaissance Naturalism and the Rise of Aesthetics (1990, p. 35) writes:
“When Roger Bacon set out the justification for his attention to the science of optics (perspectiva), he also argued that we especially delight in our sense of sight, the objects of which, in addition to beauty, utility and necessity also arise, by which he meant that sight is the chief means by which the mechanical arts tend to the need of human life. Citing Aristotle, he writes that ‘only sight shows us the differences of things; by means of it we search out certain knowledge of everything that is in heaven and earth’.
Later in the fifteen century, humanist Leon Battista Alberti described eyes as (1960, pp. 256-7) “more powerful than anything, swifter, more worthy; what more can I say? It is such as to be the first, chief, king, like a god of human parts. Why else did the ancients consider God as something akin to an eye, seeing all things and distinguishing each separate one?”
Likewise, the Neo-Platonic philosopher Marsilio Ficino considered touch as vile and carnal and compared it with the higher, metaphysical experience associated with sight (1982, p.61): “the love of the contemplative man ascends from sight into mind; [while] that of the voluptuous man descends from sight into touch.”
Throughout Renaissance Europe the general opinion was that the eyes provided the most direct knowledge of things, based on the greatest distinctions and the widest range; in functional terms, they were organs of power, liveliness, speed and accuracy.
The birth of modern science saw man trying to get an ever sharper image of the world. The invention of printing reinforced the privileging of the visual, as did such inventions as the telescope and the microscope.
So there was a relation between ocularcentrism and the scientific revolution.
It is hard to miss how deeply embedded the associations between vision and knowledge are in our civilization. From the time of the Greeks to the modern era, culture has created a variety of visual metaphors equating or associating vision, or light/Enlightment, to the truth. This is evident in everyday expressions such as “eye of the mind”, “insight”, “view”, “he’s a great light” (smart). In fact, even the word “theory” comes from Greek word “teorein” (θεωρεῖν) (to see).
In the Renaissance, art and science were closely connected. Both the artist and the scientist strove for the mastery of the physical world, and the art of painting profited by two fields of study that may be called scientific: anatomy, which made possible a more accurate representation of the human body, and mathematical perspective. Perspective in painting is the rendering on a two- dimensional surface of the illusion of three dimensions. Previous painters had achieved this effect by empirical means, but the discovery of a mathematical method of attaining a three-dimensional impression is attributed to Brunelleschi in about 1420. Henceforth, the method could be systematically studied and explained, and it became one of the chief instruments of artists, especially painters, in their pursuit of reality. Some men were both artists and scientists, notably Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca. It is doubtful whether they would have understood our distinction between art and science.
Leonardo da Vinci elaborated his admiration of sight lavishly:
“Whoever loses vision loses the sight and beauty of the universe, and remains like one buried alive in a tomb in which he has only movement and life. Now. Do you not see that the eye embraces the beauty of the whole world? It is master of astronomy. it makes cosmography, counsels and corrects all! The human arts, moves men to different parts of this world, is the prince of mathematics; its sciences are most certain, it has measured the height and size of the stars, generated architecture, perspective and divine painting….The eye is the window of the human body through which it examines its way in the world and enjoys the beauty of the world. Because of this the soul is content in its human prison, and without sight this human prison is its torment; by means of the eye human industry has found fire. So that the eye itself reacquired that which darkness had previously taken away. The eye has ornamented nature with agriculture, and delightful gardens. But what need is there to extend myself in such heights and lengths of discourse? What has not been done by the eye? It moves men from east to west, has found navigation; it surpasses nature because things made by nature are finite, and the works that the eye commands of the hands are infinite, as the painter shows in his feigning of infinite forms of animals, herbs, plants and places. “
The writings of Da Vinci may be regarded as the culmination of ideas I am tracing here, not only because he repeated them so enthusiastically, but because he translated them into a lifetime of pursuit of the “admiratio” engendered by seeing, and to the invention of pictorial schemata that were to be fundamental to painting for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci brings about the double way in which the privileging of the eye and modern science and art art are connected: the eye is what causes us to look around (science) and as a consequence the world comes into focus, and the eye is made to be even sharper (optics) to create an even more truthful image.
The linear perspective and optics emerged as the tool for artists to get to the real imitation of nature as a three-dimensional space which is visually accessible. The highest representation of nature in art was therefore a visual one. When sculptor Ghilberti was asked about his work he said “I strove to imitate nature as closely as I could”. Altogether, perspective in the Renaissance was of several uses for the artist. It allowed the masters to achieve a closer resemblance to their true ideal and allowed for a better depiction of nature in works of art.
Mimesis or visual imitation remained the most important task for art until the 19th century.
Critics of Ocularcentrism
There has been a widespread and increasingly vocal antagonism towards the pre-eminence of the visual among writers and philosophers in France and Germany.
The privileging of vision as neutral, objective and rational and therefore producing pure knowledge inspired a deep distrust among certain writers and philosophers. According to them, vision should rather be conceived as also emotional, manipulated, embodied, partial, and prone to error, just like the other senses.
Talking of vision, as conceived by philosophers of the Platonic tradition, Nietzsche writes of it as (1969, 255)“an eye that no living being can imagine, an eye required to have no direction, to abrogate its active and interpretive powers”. That means, Nietzsche is criticizing the Platonic tradition of thinking of vision in a way that is too perfect to ever exist. He goes even further, and he says (1993, p.4) “ seeing is essentially perspective and so is all knowing. The more emotions we speak on a given matter, the more different eyes we can put on in order to view a given spectacle, the more complete will be our conceptualization of it, and the greater our objectivity”. According to Nietzsche, the eye is doing a lot of active work; vision is constructing an image rather than looking into the face of truth. Eyes are not made to glimpse into the face of truth, but to provide us with information about our chaotic, changing reality. Therefore what you see is selective, partial, incomplete, and fleeting.
Maurice Marleau-Ponty, in his phenomenological work, was mainly concerned with the subject of perception, and vision in particular. In Eye and Mind Marleau-Ponty rejects vision in the Cartesian sense. He contributed to redirecting philosophical inquiry back towards the body. In his book Le visible et l’invisible he writes (1964, pXXI) “Our body is both an object among objects and that which sees and touches them.” The relationship between the self and the world was his main subject of analysis. He praised the power of all the senses. He believed that is it through them that we fully engage, understand and experience the world. He wrote: (1960, p.178) “the world is all around me, not in front of me.” and (1963, p.249) “What is certain is that the perceived is not limited to that which strikes my eyes. When I am sitting at my desk, the space is closed behind me not only in idea but also in reality.” In his book “Sense and Non-sense” Marleau- Ponty writes (1964, p.50) “)“My perception is not sum of visual, tactile, and audible givens: I perceive in a total way with my whole being: I grasp a unique structure of the thing, a unique way of being, which speaks to all my senses at once”. Marleau- Ponty argues that the body is a one big sense organ, therefore, we, as humans, can never get to pure knowledge only by seeing. According to Marleau-Ponty the human body allows us to know things, but we can never have a pure, unshakable knowledge, since our sense organ is also not pure and unshakable. That is because it depends on an emotional human being.
Sartre on the other hand, criticizes ocularcentrism for bringing about the dominance of space over time in human consciousness. He also warned of (1993 p. 149) “the objectifying look of the Other and the ‘meduse glance’ [which] ‘petrifies’ everything that it comes in contact with.” In his view, space has taken over time in human consciousness as a consequence of ocularcentrism. Furthermore, Sartre puts the notion of visual ‘distance’ into question. In his novel Nausea he writes, (1981, p. 15)“Even when I looked at things, I was miles from dreaming that they existed: they looked like scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But all that happened on the surface” and (1993, p.285)“I did not simply see this black; sight is an abstract invention, an idea that has been cleaned up, simplified, one of man’s ideas. That black there, amorphous, weakly presence, overflowed sight, smell and taste.” Here Sartre opposes tactile to visual experience, as exemplified by the following observation about Nausea by Robbe-Grilled 2009 p.30: “The first three perceptions recorded at the beginning of the book are all gained by the sense of touch, not that of sight. The object which provoke revelation are, in effect, respectively, the pebble on the beach, the bolt of a door, the hand of the Self-Taught Man.” Sartre promotes the concept of ‘dirty hands’ against the previously adopted model of non-engagement and contemplative observation.
Satre’s condemnation of the visual sense in his work was such that this resulted in speculation about his apparent ocularphobia. According to Alain Buisine, there were over seven thousand references to “the look” in his work. Indeed, can one meaningfully contest the dominance of the eyes?
For those of us who can see, vision is distinctly dominant among the other senses. This does not seem open to much debate. It is the most compound sense organ. Marin Jay describes (1993, p.6): “[eyes] having some eighteen times more nerve endings than the cochlear nerve of the ear, its nearest competitor, the optic nerve with its 800 000 fibres is able to transform an astonishing amount of information to the brain, and at rate of assimilation far greater than that of any sense organ. In each eye, over 120 million rods take in information on some five hundred levels of lightness and darkness, while more than seven million cones allow us to distinguish among more than million combinations of colour. The eye is also able to accomplish its tasks at a far greater remove than any other sense, hearing and smell being only a distant second and third ” Thus, we are made as viual beings. We are constructed to rely on our eyes, at least when it comes to everyday life.
However, I think it crucial to point out that the idea that the eye has a special status as a knowledge- producing sense organ that allows us to acquire the nature of things is an entirely different claim. Here I would like to go back to the philosophy of Plato, followed by Leonardo da Vinci, who thought of an eye as man’s privileged conduit to knowledge. In the 19th century, western culture underwent seminal transformations that put ocularcentrism into question.
I think it is reasonable to conclude that seeing is not an objective, rational, neutral and pure knowledge producing thing, but it is just like the other senses, always in principle vulnerable to error.
Here is a short video clip which illustrates the illusory nature of what our eyes capture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xr6VawX2nr4.
The impact of this approach is not that the “snap shots” that we live by, which compose our reality, are unimportant. We can’t live and function without this composite snapshot we carry with us each day, a template through which we see the world. But this insight does help us to see that from time to time we can back off a bit with what we “think” we see and be less certain about making pronouncements about it.
Therefore the eye doesn’t always show what is purely true. It may also lie. Sometimes our way of seeing is already colored. On the other hand it is often said that people see what they want to see. Therefore our thoughts and emotions are always going to manipulate how we see the world.
Nietzsche attempted to subvert the authority of ocular thinking in seeming contradiction with the general line of his thought. He believed the idea that the emphasis of seeing is one-sided and its cultural influence one of neglect for the body, and for the other senses. He criticized the ‘eye outside of time and history” presumed by many philosophers. He even accused philosophers of a “treacherous and blind hostility towards the senses”. Max Scheler bluntly calls this attitude the “hatred of the body”. Correspondingly, French philosopher and feminist Lucy Irigaray talks about the impoverishment of the senses: (1985, p.70)“…more than other senses, the eye objectifies and masters. It sets at a distance, maintains the distance. In our culture, the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch, hearing, has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations…the moment dominates the look dominates, the body loses its materiality.”
The hegemony of vision, so well recorded in Western history, is an issue that many writers and philosophers have been emphasizing for a long time. Nevertheless nowadays in the digital age of screens and Internet it seems like the issue has become even more prevalent. The thought and culture of modernity have not only continued the historical privileging of sight, but furthered its negative tendencies. The hegemony of vision has been reinforced in our time by a multitude of technological inventions and the endless multiplication and production of images. In his essay “The age of the world Picture” (1938) Heidegger writes: “The fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of the world as a picture” . The philosopher’s speculation has certainly materialized in our age of the fabricated, mass- produced and manipulated image.
Critics of Ocularcentrism
So why did modern art move away from mimesis? First of all, the ideas about perception, which I have analyzed in previous chapters, changed. Strictly speaking, people no longer believe that if you have a picture of something, than that is what it really is. For instance, in Cubist artwork, objects are analyzed, broken up and reassembled in an abstract form. Instead of depicting an object from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of perspectives to represent the subject in a greater context.
Secondly, photography was simply doing a better job at reproducing images.
Furthermore, during World War One, people realized that the world around them is so cruel and horrid that a realistic representation doesn’t capture it accurately, or that it shouldn’t be captured at all because it is too obscure. Dadaists for instance believed that the war had shown that life was meaningless, so art should be meaningless as well. Dadaists tried to shock their audiences with what they called “anti-art”- works that were entirely nonsensical.
Gradually, audiences became conditioned to feel that representationalism or classicism does not depict modern life accurately. The idea of the wonderful imitations of beautiful nature just didn’t fit anymore in a century of technological advances, urbanization, and industrialization.
Art was criticized as being just pretty. As Will Gompertz puts it (2012, p. 56)“Art was something man-made, typically of aesthetic, technical and intellectual merit, which had been mounted in a frame and hung on a wall, or presented on a plinth to look splendid.”
As a consequence, art gradually moved away from the depiction of nature.
It started not to imitate the world around it, but to be something in itself.
New artists groups emerged to challenge the assumptions of their elders. From Impressionism and Expressionism to Dadaism and Surrealism, a puzzling array of artistic movements followed one after another. Modern painting became increasingly abstract. Artists turned their backs on figurative representation and began to break down form into its constituent parts: lines, shapes and colors. One of the earliest and best known modernist movements was Impressionism, which began in Paris in the 1870s. French artists such as Claude Monet and Edgar Degas who settled in Paris in 1875 tried to portray their sensory impressions in their work. Impressionists looked to the world around them for subject matter and turned their backs on traditional scenes such as battles, religious scenes, and wealthy elites. Monet’s colorful and atmospheric paintings of farmland haystacks and Degas’s many pastel drawings of ballerinas exemplify the way Impressionism moved towards abstraction. Capturing a fleeting moment of color and light, in often blurry and quickly painted images was far more important than portraying a heavily detailed and precise representation of an actual object.
Scientific thought at the time was beginning to recognize what the eye perceived and what the brain understood were to different things. To a certain extant, one could argue, that impressionism was already a step away from ocularcentrism because instead of producing a reproduction of the world it was giving audience an impression. That means artists had already acknowledged that vision, in fact, is not perfect.
Nevertheless, impressionistic painting retained its traditional role of being a window onto the world. Consequently, art has become a very visual business. Impressionism was pretty to look at, but that was just it. As Cezanne said: “Monet is only an eye”. Strictly speaking, he thought Impressionism was just empty art. It looked pretty, but there was nothing behind it. Ocularcentrism had led the surface becoming the most important thing in art. Painting is, to certain extent, love for the surface and love for seeing. However, when there is nothing behind it, as people tend to say, it can come across as superficial. And this is exactly what people thought Impressionism was becoming. And this is why Monet was only an eye. He had a wonderful eye, but still, it was only an eye.
Conceptual art is not only against aestheticism, but it is against visual aestheticism. It is about the fact that when people go to an exhibition, they go to see something and not to think something or feel something. Marcel Duchamp, considered one of the 20th century’s most pioneering artists had a deep contempt for pure opticality.
In 1913, Duchamp installed a bicycle fork with a front wheel upside-down on a wooden stool in his studio. Bicycle Wheel is considered to be the first readymade, and kinetic sculpture. Readymades – the art form which constitutes works made out of manufactured objects- opened a myriad of possibilities of artistic expression in these novel forms. Essentially, this was the birth of ‘conceptual art’. Artist Jasper Johns said about Duchamp: (2004, p.65) “[he] moved his work through retinal boundaries which had been established with Impressionism into a field where language, thought and vision act upon one another.”
It seems that one of the factors that led Duchamp to such an innovative and revolutionary approach was his hostility towards the prior reliance on the visual sense. As Duchamp explained to Pierre Cabanne when questioned on his creative process:(1993, p.162) “In general one had to defend oneself against the ‘look’. It is very difficult to choose an object because after a couple of weeks you come to like it or detest it. You have to achieve something so indifferent to you that you have no aesthetic emotion. The choice of ready-mades is always based on visual indifference as well as on the complete absence of good or bad taste.” He kept himself away from aesthetic judgment, and also rejected the affiliation to futurism, which he considered as no different from impressionism. He went against all the adopted forms at that time as he believed in the idea rather than the aesthetic. As Duchamp explains, (1993, p.164)“futurism was an impression of the mechanical. It was strictly a continuation of the Impressionist movement. I was not interested in that. I wanted to get away from the physical act of painting. I was much more interested in the recreating ideas in painting. For me the tile was very important(…) I was interested in ideas – not merely visual products. I wanted to put painting once again at the service of the mind.”
Many consider that the readymade by Duchamp changed art forever. In his influential text of 1969, Art After Philosophy, Joseph Kosuth states, (1999, p.56) “art changed its focus from the form of the language to what was being said. Which means that it changed the nature of art from a question of morphology to question of function.” Art was no longer restricted to the former mode of expression but instead was challenged to present new possibilities and concepts within the constituent materials. The formerly accepted boundaries within art began to change, and the aesthetic aspect was no longer the artist’s primary concern, as now the idea was paramount. (1999, p.56)“This changed – one from ‘appearance’ to ‘conception’ – was the beginning of ‘modern’ art and the beginning of ‘conceptual’ art. All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually”
The violation of ‘retinal art’ continued as, in 1919, Duchamp presented a sculpture made out of air the 50 cc of Paris Air, a glass ampule that contained over 50 cubic centimeters of air. Duchamp for the first time presented art as something that is not visible to the human eye. He questioned vision in the most literal sense. He included the unseen in the art context. He posited an invisible ‘object’ and called it art. Not only did he express his antagonism towards vision, but he also referred to invisible phenomena that were new to science at the time such as X-rays, radio waves, magnetism and the fourth dimension. His work seemed vital and right and became a great inspiration for the artists of the time. His innovative way of thinking was greatly appreciated among creators.
The need to question vision continued. In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg aimed at drawing without creating images. He began with making drawings and then erasing them. Unsatisfied with the outcome he came to the conclusion that the act of erasing should be made on something that is already considered as a work of art. He ended up convincing
Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing that he could permanently erase.
As a result he created the piece called Erased de Kooning Drawing, an existing work of art that is unseen. Around the same time another artist, John Cage, created his well known piece 4’33, a performance during which the pianist sits at the piano, motionless, without making any sound for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds so that the only ‘music’ the audience could hear were the ‘natural’ sounds created by the environment. This astonishing piece evoked the very nature of sound and drew attention to the most trivial phenomena of hearing that we normally take for granted, to the sound that constantly surrounds us, informs us and often controls us. Here I would like to mention Martin Heidegger as he noted in his book The Turning that together our ability to see and to hear (2010, p. 121) “are perishing through radio and film under the rule of technology”. The technology that plays such a big role in our lives is not indifferent to our capacity to perceive. Our bodies adapt as our environment is changing and we need to not forget about that. As Max Horkheimer noted in Down and Decline (1993, p.3)“As their telescopes and microscopes, their tapes and radios become more sensitive, individuals become blinder, more hard of hearing, less responsive.”
As I described in the first section, the problem of hegemony of vision has been with us for a long time. Sight has been praised, since ancient Greece. One would think that at the time of contemporary philosophy and conceptual art something would change and the primacy of vision would be undermined. Instead we face ocularcentrism like never before. The current industrial mass production of visual imagery tends to alienate vision from emotional involvement and identification, and to turn vision into a mesmerizing flow without focus or participation. Michel de Carteau perceives the expansion of the ocular realm negatively indeed: “From television to newspapers, from advertising to all sorts of mercantile epiphanies, our society is characterized by a cancerous growth of vision, measuring everything by its ability to show or be shown”.
“…the whole of our sensate life together – the business of affections and aversions, of how the world strikes the body on its sensory surface, of what takes to root in the faze and the guts and all the arises from our banal, biological insertion into the world.“
-Terry Eagleton in his book Ideology of the Aesthetics
Ocularcentrism has led to Western visual art being very much about the surface and about looking and not very much about all the other senses.
With the current mass production of visual culture the onlooker became an insensitive spectator that tends to spend less than a few seconds when contemplating the image. The embodied nature of the prime senses of touch, taste and smell seems left behind as we tend to take them for granted. Taste, smell and touch are special in the sense that they required closeness and often intimacy that we neglect so much in today’s times. The simplicity of the smell of the forest or salty sea water which we are all familiar with, seems more powerful than an image shown in a gallery. The sensibility of our skin is also forgotten. Even the touch of warm cup of tea we so often take for granted. We should be able to feel and experience every aspect of our life. It is possible to speak through non-visual senses.
Here I would like to bring up Martynka Wawrzyniak a New York based mixed-media artist. Martynka Wawrzyniak agreed to have an interview and discuss the project “Smell me”.
The project Smell me, 2012 is the one-year project that resulted in a non-visual, olfactory-based self-portrait. Throughout the time of twelve months Martynka collaborated with group of Hunter College Chemistry students under the guidance of Professor Donna McGregory in order to collect aromatic elements from her body. The exhibition took place in Envoy Enterprise gallery in New York. The space of the gallery was completely deprived of images. Martynka agreed to talk to me about her project and she commented (Wawrzyniak, 2015) “even though I had a lot of documentation from the process that was very beautiful, I did not want to show it. I decided to have a completely white exhibition, nothing but the smell, because I did not want people to judge me or the art by what I look like.” The space stayed completely white, filled only with white cubes. On white stands, the visitor could find a glass ampule filled with artist’s extracted hair oils, sweat and tears. In the interview she talks about her experience of the project “I literally had strangers smell my body in a giant gallery for 30 days. It was definitely a very revealing, exposing experience. It was like standing outside naked letting other people smell your armpit, essentially”. The project Smell me is an act of exposing, of inviting the public to the artist’s most intimate space. The space that is normally accessible only by the lover. The sweat, the tears could be felt by the public. To achieve the same sense of exposure would not be possible in the visual medium. Martynka explains that she used to take nude self-portraits but it was nothing compared to exposing the scent of her sweat. She describes the scent of the body as the last layer of clothing, that we barely let anyone smell as we cover it with perfumes. To my question what made her create such a piece, she answers “I wanted to create a completely visceral self-portrait, in fact both the purest self portrait and the essence of woman”
When the exhibition had finished, the artist extended the project and placed an advertisement in the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. The advertisement was professionally made and included a sample of the ‘fragrance’. The reader was not aware of the ongoing project. Martinka explains “The idea was to take the art out of the gallery, out of the white cube context and to deliver both art and my sweat to the masses. Since it was a real advertisement, it was completely believable. The reader was not aware of the fact that he or she experienced art. People were absorbing the sweat without realizing it.” The reader was invited to try the sample and even wear the ‘fragrance’. The notion of handing over the intimate scent of the artist to an unaware spectator was a crucial in this project. As this time the reader was exposed to the visual advert but, unlikely to have been there in the gallery, he or she did not know what the ‘perfume’ was made of. It was a total reversion of the exhibition scenario, where the audience knew what the substance contained but did not get to see the image. In both cases the work was not subjected to the prejudice of expectation.
This work by Martynka Wawrzyniak is one among few that is aiming to address the problem of ocularcentrism in our times. The number of artists that use non-visual senses is constantly rising and the society is slowly becoming more aware of their concerns. We all know this phenomenon exists but do not approach it as a problem. We prefer to happily live with it. Yet everyday vision has taken on pathological forms and we need to act upon it.
All in all, we undoubtly live in an ocularcentric culture, a culture made for the eyes, where sight dominates all other senses, where we experience the world through vision alone rather than an integration of all other senses.
In The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses, philosopher and architect Juhani Pallasmaa mourns our ocularcentric culture. He says : “Sight isolates, whereas sound incorporates; vision is unidirectional, whereas sound is omni-directional… Sight is the sense of the solitary observer, whereas hearing creates a sense of connection and solidarity. (49-50)” Pallasmaa argues that second to vision is hearing. The other three senses are ignored almost entirely.
But why the eyes? We have five fully developed and useful senses. Why vision? As a society, we put more weight on vision, and to a lesser degree hearing, because the other three senses—taste, touch, smell—are clearly sensual, and we’re all scared of closeness and intimacy. But can we imagine a world where we experience things more through touch than sight? Can we imagine distinguishing a person or feeling an emotion more through shape and feel on our skin than by looking at faces? Or their smell or taste?
Accordingly, could ocularcentrism be avoided? I don’t think so.
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