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In How to See the World, visual culture expert Nicholas Mirzoeff offers a sweeping look at history’s most famous images — from Velezquez’s Las Meninas to the iconic “Blue Marble” — to contextualize and make sense of today’s visual world. Drawing on art history, sociology, semiotics, and everyday experience, he teaches us how to close read everything from astronaut selfies to Impressionist self-portraits, from Hitchcock films to videos taken by drones. Mirzoeff takes us on a journey through visual revolutions in the arts and sciences, from new mapping techniques in the seventeenth century to new painting styles in the eighteenth and the creation of film, photography, and x-rays in the nineteenth century. In today’s networked world, mobile technology and social media enable us to exercise “visual activism” — the practice of producing and circulating images to drive political and social change. Whether we are looking at pictures showing the effects of climate change on natural and urban landscapes or an fMRI scan demonstrating neurological addiction, Mirzoeff helps us to find meaning in what we see.
A powerful and accessible introduction to this new visual culture, How to See the World reveals how images shape our lives, how we can harness their power for good, and why they matter to us all.
HOW TO SEE YOURSELF
In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary announced that its word of the year was selfie, which it defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” Apparently, the word was used 17,000 percent more often between October 2012 and October 2013 than during the previous year, due in part to the popularity of the mobile photo-sharing site Instagram. In 2013, 184 million pictures were tagged as selfies on Instagram alone. The selfie is a striking example of how once elite pursuits have become a global visual culture. At one time, self-portraits were the preserve of a highly skilled few. Now anyone with a camera phone can make one.
The selfie resonates not because it is new, but because it expresses, develops, expands, and intensifies the long history of the self-portrait. The self-portrait showed to others the status of the person depicted. In this sense, what we have come to call our own “image”—the interface of the way we think we look and the way others see us—is the first and fundamental object of global visual culture. The selfie depicts the drama of our own daily performance of ourselves in tension with our inner emotions that may or may not be expressed as we wish. At each stage of the self-portrait’s expansion, more and more people have been able to depict themselves. Today’s young, urban, networked majority has reworked the history of the self-portrait to make the selfie into the first visual signature of the new era.
For most of the modern era, the possibility of seeing an image of oneself was limited to the wealthy and the powerful. The invention of photography in 1839 soon led to the development of cheap photographic formats that placed the portrait and the self-portrait in the reach of most working people in industrialized nations. In 2013, these two histories converged. At the funeral of Nelson Mandela on December 10 that year, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt took a selfie that included US president Barack Obama and UK prime minister David Cameron.
While some commentators questioned the propriety of the moment, it marked a departure from the lifeless posed official photograph and a new investment in a popular format. The photograph of the selfie being taken was reprinted worldwide, although the selfie itself was not released to the media. Only a few weeks later, the world’s best-known actors converged around Ellen DeGeneres at the 2014 Academy Awards to be in a selfie taken by Bradley Cooper that became the most popular tweet to date (also cited as the most popular of all time). The selfie is a fusion of the self-image, the self-portrait of the artist as a hero, and the machine image of modern art that works as a digital performance. It has created a new way to think of the history of visual culture as that of the self-portrait.
THE IMPERIAL SELF
These intersections—of the self-portrait, the machine image, and the digital—have their sources in the history of art, which we can follow. The Spanish painter Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas (1656) linked the aura of majesty to that of the self-portrait. The painting is a set of visual puns, plays, and performances that revolve around the self-portrait of the artist.
As we look at the painting, Velázquez stands to our left-hand side, holding his brushes. The canvas he is working on blocks our view. In the foreground we see the Maids of the title, the curtseying women, who are the attendants of the little girl in white. She is a princess, known as the Infanta, daughter of Philip IV of Spain. At once we notice that almost everyone in the painting is looking at someone or something, which appears to be located at the viewer’s vantage point. As we look back into the painting, we see two figures in a frame on the wall behind the main group. The frame is much brighter than the other gloomy paintings hanging on the wall, and we conclude that it must be a mirror. In fact, is it not reflecting the people everyone is looking at? And these are no ordinary people. They are the king and queen, which is why everyone seems frozen to the spot.
In a famous analysis of the painting in his book The Order of Things, French philosopher Michel Foucault described it as depicting not just what could be seen within it but the very means of ordering and representing a society ( 1970). The subject of the portrait is the ways in which it is possible to depict living things in a hierarchy depending on the presence of the king, ranging from the dog at the front, to the dwarf who was a court jester, the ladies-in-waiting and other nobility, the painter, and the royal presence. Foucault’s approach in turn helped inspire what was called the “new art history,” and later, the concept of visual culture. Foucault showed that the place that everyone is looking at is the center because the king is there, noting:
the triple function it fulfils in relation to the picture. For in it there occurs an exact superimposition of the model’s gaze as it is being painted, of the spectator’s as he contemplates the painting, and of the painter’s as he is composing his picture.1
The mirror reflects the models that the painted painter is working on. It also makes visible by implication the place from which the real Velázquez worked. And it is the same place where we now stand to look at the finished painting. Foucault observes:
That space where the king and his wife hold sway belongs equally well to the artist and to the spectator: in the depths of the mirror there could also appear—there ought to appear—the anonymous face of the passerby and that of Velázquez.2
So, the “mirror” does not obey the laws of optics so much as it does the laws of majesty, like the painting itself. The seventeenth century was a period in which monarchs around Europe claimed the power of absolutism. That is to say, they were more than just people. Kings were God’s representatives on Earth, symbolized by their being anointed like a priest during the coronation ceremony. Combining secular and spiritual power, the absolutist monarchs claimed overwhelming power that was centered in their very person.
How, then, should the king be shown to convey a sense of this power? Not every individual person that happened to become a king or queen was impressive. Even the most powerful have their moments of weakness, illness, and decline. Against the fallible individual person of the king, European royalty devised the concept known as the body of the king, which we can call majesty. Majesty does not sleep, get ill, or become old. It is visualized, not seen. Any action that diminished majesty was a crime called lèsemajesté, violating majesty, which could be severely punished. It even became a criminal offence to take a piece of paper with the king’s name on it and crumple it up. Physical attacks on the monarch were met with truly spectacular punishments because it was a double attack on the person of the king or queen and the institution of majesty.
Las Meninas is invested throughout with this power, making the image of the king at least the equal, and in some ways the superior, of the king himself. It also makes a set of claims for the power of the artist by association. As we have seen, the “mirror” is not optically accurate. Art historians like Joel Snyder have shown that the arrangement of perspective in the painting does not in fact converge on the mirror, but on the arm of the man standing in the open doorway to its right as we look at it (1985). Although the scene appears to show a mirror reflecting the king, it actually shows the mirror reflecting Velázquez’s painting of King Philip. It is possible that Velázquez’s perspective was not so precise or that he wanted to create a visual trap for his audience. Whatever you believe, the “mirror” shows something that the spectator would not usually be able to see—either the painting that the artist is working on, as Snyder has it, or the king and queen standing in front of it, as Foucault had it.
So, the mirror misrepresents, but it also shows a world of possibility. Las Meninas makes a tremendous claim for the power of the artist, both literally and metaphorically. The remarkable skill of the piece makes it clear that the painter is capable of accomplishments others are not. Only twenty years earlier, Velázquez had to pay the same kind of tax on his art that shoemakers did on their shoes. Here Velázquez claims the power of majesty for art by association and by depiction. He also put a red cross on his costume, indicating his claim to the status of nobility, before he could actually claim to be a noble in real life. Today, when it is common to see paintings sell for millions, even hundreds of millions, the elite status of the artist is taken for granted. It is, in fact, a relatively new and unusual idea that arose first in the imperial nations of the modern world.
Las Meninas plays with what we can see and what we cannot. It keeps out of sight the source of the Spanish monarchy’s power and authority, namely its empire in the Americas. Louis XIV (1638–1715), the absolutist king of France who married the older half-sister of the Infanta seen in Las Meninas, had an obsidian mirror in his Cabinet of Wonders, said to have been plundered from Moctezuma II himself, the last Aztec emperor (ruled 1502–20). Obsidian is a material formed by cooled lava that is both black and reflective. Mexican artist Pedro Lasch, who has worked with the black mirror, emphasizes that “in pre-Columbian America, as in many other cultures, black mirrors were commonly used for divination. . . . The Aztecs directly associated obsidian with Tezcatlipoca, the deadly god of war, sorcery, and sexual transgression.”3 If the European mirror image was a place of power, its American equivalent added violence, sexual ambivalence, and storytelling to the imperial mix.
In both the pre-encounter Americas and in medieval Europe, the mirror was a place of divination, where fortunes were told and where contact could be made with the dead and other spirits. In short, the mirror is a visual bridge between past, present, and future.
The imperial portrait in the absolutist era (1600–1800) was, then, never just one image. The portrait of the individual who happened to be king also depicted the majesty of the king, or the power of representation itself. The self-portrait of the artist claimed that art was the work of nobility, not artisans. The mirror reflects either the real king and queen or the painted portrait of the king. Or, in some not quite mathematical but nonetheless perfectly intelligible sense, both. The black mirror and the optically incorrect painted mirror show us how things are now, but are also a place to access the past and the future. These reflections and images were a combination of theater, magic, self-fashioning, and propaganda that were key to sustaining royal power.
THE PORTRAIT AND THE HERO
When the old monarchies collapsed during what can be seen as the long age of revolution (1776–1917), a new “frenzy of the visible” accompanied and was part of the social transformation (Comolli 1980). Across this era, dramatic inventions of new media like lithography, and especially the various processes we call photography, portraits, and self-portraits, seemed to revolutionize the visible. Visual media were democratized. Until this time, the ordinary person might have seen visual images in church, on coins, at parades, or in carnivals. By the mid-nineteenth century, there were new museums of art; illustrated newspapers and magazines were being published; and visiting-card photographs could be bought cheaply. New ways of being came to be imagined and visually represented, including the modern artistic “genius,” nearly always male, but also the woman artist. The heroic artist took some of the aura of the king (or queen) and transferred it to him- or herself. Brought down to Earth, the self-portrait became the picture of a hero.
In the last years of absolutism, the new order was already emerging. Royal artist Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun painted portraits of the French queen Marie Antoinette. She also painted a number of self-portraits. To borrow a cue from John Berger, can you see which is which? (See figures 10–11.)
Both women look out at the viewer directly from the painting, against a scumbled background of loosely handled nonrepresentational paint. Both are dressed as fashionable, modern women in the loose style of the period, with their finely handled sashes showing the skill of the artist. Perhaps the informality of the pose with her child allows us to see Vigée-Lebrun in her self-portrait Madame Vigée-Lebrun and Her Daughter Julie (1789). The portrait of Marie Antoinette (1783) became the subject of a scandal precisely because of its informality. At the same time, by so blurring the difference between the queen and the artist, Vigée-Lebrun claimed a new level of equivalence between the two.
In their classic study Old Mistresses—the title is a pun on the phrase “Old Masters,” used to mean distinguished artists of the past with the implication that such artists would be men—Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock studied the history of women artists (1981). The self-portrait with her daughter raised particular issues because women were not even supposed to be artists, according to the received prejudice, so a painting by a woman showing a woman artist was doubly defiant. Parker and Pollock described how in Vigée-Lebrun’s Self-Portrait:
The novelty [of the painting] lies in the secular and familial emphasis, the Madonna and Child of traditional iconography replaced by mother and female child locked in an affectionate embrace. This portrait of the artist and her daughter elaborates that notion of woman, emphasizing that she is a mother.4
Vigée-Lebrun had taken the Christian image of the Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus and given it a secular and contemporary spin. Notably, both the artist and her daughter look out at us confidently, unlike the traditional downcast glance of the Madonna in paintings by artists like Raphael. Still, as Parker and Pollock pointed out, there was a Catch-22 here. In celebrating her role as a mother, unusual in the period when women would often leave their children with wet nurses, Vigée-Lebrun’s picture seems from our perspective like a cliché. The restrictive doctrine of the woman as the domestic angel by the hearth, caring for children but not active professionally, was actually a creation of the nineteenth century. For modern feminists, trying to escape what Betty Friedan famously called “the feminine mystique” (1963), Vigée-Lebrun at first looked like more of the same. It took Parker and Pollock’s close attention to context and detail to see her work differently.
If the nineteenth century visualized women as domestic helpmates, their counterpart was the idealized great man, or Hero, as imagined by the historian Thomas Carlyle. For Carlyle, writing in 1840, “great men make history” (1840). Artists also conceived of themselves as heroes in different ways. What did the modern artist hero look like? In 1839, Louis Daguerre in France and William Henry Fox Talbot in Great Britain finally produced photographs that “fixed,” meaning that the light-sensitive surface stayed as a visible image, rather than blacking out. Another French practitioner, Hippolyte Bayard, also invented a photographic process at this time. Doomed to the margins of photographic history because his colleague Daguerre was credited with the invention, Bayard nonetheless might be credited with inventing the selfie in his Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man (1839–40). He also invented the photographic fake because he was not, of course, actually dead.
Like many a Romantic hero before him, following the example of the poet Werther who committed suicide in Goethe’s enormously successful 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, Bayard pretended to prefer death over dishonor. His photograph is what the writer Ariella Azoulay has called an “event” (2008). It presupposes that the community watching it can imagine the heroic narrative of the author’s suicide and understand his disappointment. Some people even thought that Bayard really was dead and discussed how the dark skin on his hands and face was the consequence of drowning, rather than of exposure to the sun.
The painter Gustave Courbet appropriated the idea of the artist’s suicide for his own self-portrait The Wounded Man (1845–54). As he, too, was living in Paris at the time, it is quite possible that he saw or heard about Bayard’s photograph.
Here the artist has apparently stabbed himself but found time to put the sword back up against the tree behind him. Of course, we are no more supposed to think of this painting in this realistic way than we are the photograph. Marshall McLuhan later suggested that new media take the content of old media, such as television adapting theatrical plays to create TV drama (1964). Here, though, the new medium seems to have influenced the old. Courbet had moved from rural France to Paris just in time for the multiple revolutions of 1848, which he supported. By 1855, the revolution had failed and suicide was perhaps the only option left to the true revolutionary. Courbet issued a manifesto at his one-man exhibition that year, declaring: “To know in order to be able to do, that was my idea.” In this view, painting, like photography, depicts knowledge and leads to action, or the event. For Bayard and Courbet alike, the artist was the hero, the person capable of creating an event, even at the (fictional) cost of their own life.
It’s a seductive idea. Writing in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1968, the art historian T. J. Clark used Courbet as his example of “a time when political art and popular art seemed feasible.” He stressed both Courbet’s involvement with politics and the influence of popular media on his painting, arguing that popular art shows “the essentials of a social situation.” As with Parker and Pollock’s work, his ideas are so accepted now that it is hard to appreciate how innovative the approach was in 1973 when his book The Image of the People was first published. Art historians began to look at popular prints, photographs, and other mass-produced visual material alongside painting and sculpture, a means of research known as social art history. For two decades afterward, social art history and visual culture studies worked closely together before visual culture became a separate area of study around 1990, largely due to the rise of digital media.
Another reason that division occurred was the increasing difficulty of deciding what was essential, to use Clark’s term, in a given moment. The transformation of the arts and humanities since 1968 has been the result of a succession of groups pointing out that they have been overlooked and that their interests need to be taken into account. And then people look back into the historical record and discover that this group was there all along. One example is a self-portrait by the French Impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, usually remembered for his depictions of Paris nightlife. Another way to understand his work would be as an artist with disabilities. His Self-Portrait Before a Mirror (1882) challenges the conventions of the genre and its interpretation.
Toulouse-Lautrec deliberately painted his reflection in a mirror, rather than just using a mirror to make a self-portrait as was traditional. The reflected candlestick removes any doubt as to whether the frame indicates a mirror or a window, as in the Velázquez, for Toulouse-Lautrec clearly wanted us to recognize it as such.
At the same time, the painting both conceals and reveals the artist. By using a mirror standing on a mantelpiece, he shows us only his head and shoulders. He might have used this device to conceal his disability. For, either as a result of childhood accidents or a congenital condition, Toulouse-Lautrec had an adult upper body but the legs of a child. He depicted himself in the Self-Portrait as just protruding into the mirror, leaving the top half of the mirror empty, indicating to the observant viewer that he was very short. He might have chosen to adjust what he saw, so as to fill the “screen,” like a present-day actor or politician standing on a riser to seem taller. Whereas for dominant groups the mirror is often a site (and sight) of affirmation, for people who look or feel different, the mirror can be a site of trauma. Toulouse-Lautrec’s self-portrait confronts that sight without making himself the object of a freak show. I use the term deliberately because in the period people with disabilities were literally exhibited as “freaks” to paying audiences (Adams 2001). Toulouse-Lautrec refuses to cater to this voyeuristic desire to see, but does not distort the reality of his difference. It’s a different kind of heroism and one that is not immediately recognizable as such to others.
THE MANY SELVES OF POSTMODERNISM
In the late 1970s, a new idea began to circulate in European and North American intellectual and artistic circles. The modern period, defined by its heroic artists, radical political divides and the dramatic expansion of the industrial economy, seemed to be over. Beginning with thinkers like the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, artists and writers started to think about a “postmodern condition” (1979). At the time, there were two ways of understanding postmodernism. One view saw it as a break with the modern that could be given a specific date. Another more widespread view held that there had always been a postmodern side to modernism, which questioned its certainties. The prime example of a postmodern modern artist was Marcel Duchamp. He took manufactured objects like a bicycle wheel or a urinal, installed them in an art gallery or exhibition, and declared the result to be art. In other words, art was whatever someone who wanted to be an artist called art. Whether it was the product of individual skill or talent was beside the point. Duchamp called the results “readymades,” perhaps the best known of which is Fountain (1917). It was made from a urinal, stood on its end and signed “R. Mutt.” The artist was no longer a hero.
When Duchamp made Fountain, the First World War had devastated Europe, with millions dead. The Russian Empire had collapsed into the Revolution that would create the Soviet Union. No wonder Duchamp and other artists thought things had changed. The war had even created a new set of mental illnesses, for which the term shell shock was coined, in which sufferers seemed to experience a traumatic moment over and over again, or became blind despite there being no injury to their eyes, and so on. The “self” no longer seemed so secure. Perhaps there was more than one self in each person. In 1917, Duchamp developed this idea to create a new readymade self-portrait at a store on Broadway in New York City. Using a hinged mirror, the photo booth created a five-way portrait in three copies.
It was a perfect outlet for him. It was visually amusing but had a serious point—Duchamp did not see himself as one but as many selves. Whereas heroic modern artists simply depicted their own image, postmodern artists made themselves their primary project. Nor is this a once-and-for-all remake but it can be done over and over. It is not an event but a performance.
Duchamp continued to experiment with his self-image. He collaborated with his friend Man Ray to create a self-portrait as his alter ego Rrose Sélavy. In order to get the pun, you need to read this name with a French accent, when it will become “Eros, c’est la vie” meaning “Love is life.”
As if intent on making the point that Rrose Sélavy was not his “real” identity, Duchamp made several notably different versions of this self-portrait. The one shown here is perhaps the most feminized, in the style of a society portrait or fashion illustration. The implication of the portrait, like all drag, is that gender is a performance. Like seeing, it is something we do, rather than something that is inherent and unchangeable. Rrose Sélavy seems feminine because of her clothes, makeup, and jewelry, as well as the way she holds her body. In her classic study The Second Sex (1947), French writer Simone de Beauvoir put it pithily: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”5
A lucid and accessible introduction to how images shape our lives and effect change, political and social
[How to See the World] offers numerous insights into reading' the significance of images in the world today and is filled with intriguing, insightful nuggets. A challenging and provocative inquiry into how we see the world.”
In a wide-ranging exploration of our new visual landscapes, Nick Mirzoeff shows us how to think about what we see, from selfies to self-documenting social movements.”
Clay Shirky, Associate Professor, NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and author of Here Comes Everybody
"A vivid demonstration of the power of visual studies to clarify and comprehend a wide variety of cultural and technical phenomena, from selfies to drone warfare. Magisterial in scope and perspicuous in style, this book is full of revelations for both specialists and general readers about the way we live now, and the new ways that we look at things. A worthy sequel to Mirzoeff's many notable contributions to visual studies, it is essential reading for anyone interested in media, technology, and the everyday practices of seeing.”
W. J. T. Mitchell, Professor of English and Art History, University of Chicago and author of What Do Pictures Want?
Nicholas Mirzoeff's new book solidifies his reputation as a rangy, innovative theorist of visual culture. Paying careful attention to the history of the image alongside engaging accounts of technology, embodiment, neuroscience, war and space, Mirzoeff narrates multiple shifts and changes in how we see the world. Traveling to the moon and back, across continents and between eras, Mirzoeff nimbly and effectively narrates the visual regimes that regulate what we see, how we see, and what remains completely hidden from view. How To See the World is indispensable reading for the twenty-first century.”
Jack Halberstam, Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Gender Studies, and Comparative Literature, University of Southern California and author of The Queer Art of Failure and Gaga Feminism
Nicholas Mirzoeff's wonderful new book traces the ways that sightand seeingtransform the ways we understand and help change the world. Beautifully written, with a broad sweep of examples that speak to the power of images and encourage us to see and think in new ways, this is the go-to book for scholars and students in fields ranging from political science and anthropology to art history.”
Suzanne Blier, Allen Whitehill Clowes Chair of Fine Arts and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University
This book will transform the way you see the worldand how you want to change it. Eloquently written, it offers new insights on everything from selfies as a new global art form to impressionist art as evidence of global climate change. It is simply brilliant.”
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Professor and Chair, Modern Culture and Media, Brown University
This book is a gemclear, astute, and astonishingly insightful. Mirzoeff demonstrates virtuoso skills in making connections between images and visuality across global and social contexts, charting the histories of the self in art history to the selfie, showing us the meanings of sight itself, looking at how war is visualized and visually perpetrated, analyzing the visual domain of cities and climate, and making a powerful case for visual activism. Read this book and the field of visual culture will be yours.”
Marita Sturken, Co-author of Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture
PRAISE FOR HOW TO SEE THE WORLD
In our fluid world, we need reminding how strange our visual culture has become. Artist John Berger did that job for the 1970s with his classic book Ways of Seeing; now Nicholas Mirzoeff teaches us how to read' an astronaut's 2012 space-walk selfie and how to decode military photos smothered with labels that claim to show weapons we cannot in fact see... Tracing the political, social and environmental implications of our visual culture, in words and black and white images, is a job of work. Mirzoeff succeeds: this is a dizzying and delightful book.”
New Scientist, Best Reads from 2015
Deploying a blend of semiotics, sociology, and art history, Mirzoeff shows us how to interpret everything from old masters to selfies, from Rashomon to a map of the Mississippi.... He also persuasively makes the case that visual culture is changing rapidly, thanks to the advent of the internet. Mirzoeff draws on theorists such as Benjamin, Foucault, and Deleuze, but thankfully is much clearer and easier to read than any of those writers.
The Independent (UK)
- On Sale
- Apr 12, 2016
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Basic Books