Friday, 16 January 2009

Staring at an Empty Wall

On August 11, 1911, a young house painter, Vincenzo Peruggia, left the Louvre by a side-entrance, carrying Leonardo’s Mona Lisa under his overcoat. He hid it in the false bottom of a specially made trunk, in his poorly furnished room, for two and a half years. In the mean time, crowds thronged to view the space where the painting originally hung. Thousands of people, many of whom never visited the Louvre before, would gaze, not at other paintings in the museum, but at the blank space where the Mona Lisa once hung. It is this rather puzzling fascination with an absence that is the embarking point of Darian Leader’s Stealing Mona Lisa: What art stops us from seeing.

Leader uses a psychoanalytic lens to examine often paradoxical motivations that underlie human gaze and production and consummation of art. He claims that “If humans and animals are captivated by images, it is humans who can use the image as a sort of defence. It can become a shield or, more precisely, a lure or bait to distract the gaze” (p. 31). What does this work of art defend us against? Leader answers: “It is less the relaxed passtime of the aesthete than a furious defensive manoeuvre to ward off a malevolent Other.” It is meant to keep gaze away from the artist.

This is an interesting idea - that surfaces are manipulated as masks, and that humans are the only species who feel uncomfortable inhabiting their social environments without a social mask. Artists create yet another mask, a piece of art, to deflect the gaze of the Other from himself. We can perhaps add to this observation. Otherness of oneself could be more unsettling than otherness of others. It could be this very familiar, therefore uncanny, otherness, that can be managed, controlled, through a piece of art. One can create a novel that is not autobiographical and yet is a truth about oneself, and through this intermediary object explore and comprehend it without the threat of facing oneself raw.

And what does this all, in the end, have to do with throngs of people that lined up at the Louvre to stare at an empty wall? Leader invokes Lacan: in order “to evoke the empty place of the Thing, the gap between the artwork and the place it occupies.” The place of the Thing stands for the place for everything that is inconceivable, incomprehensible, beyond the human language, beyond human gaze. Yearning for the apparent absence hints at the presence of the inconceivable object of yearning. But this inconceivable absence seems infinitely abundant within our very selves. So perhaps we should not demean the masks, including art, as defence, but as a means of exploring this very abundance.

Darian Leader (2002). Stealing the Mona Lisa: What art stops us from seeing. New York: Counterpoint.


allanmcdougall said...

I'm certainly not up to snuff on Lacanian psychoanalysis. But I do find this idea of social masks facinating. For example, think about social networking websites like facebook--which millions of Canadians use. There must be a variety of tact/subconscious decisions that go into place before individuals choose a "profile picture." In fact, I recently saw a talk by a fellow graduate student on this phenomenon. Males, for example, tend towards group shots; whereas females tend towards solo 'beauty shots.' This profile photo (similar to the avatars that we bloggers use) is carefully selected and is meant to represent some aspect of our personality. Or is this a social mask? Am I missing the poing here?

I must admit, though, I'm confused as to how art relates to the social mask concept.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you Allan for this comment. I think the idea of people appearing on the internet behind different masks, and as different avatars is indeed interesting. Part of the issue is that a mere face tells you rather little about a person. Perhaps a choice of avatar can tell you almost as much as a face. It seems to me that to know someone you have to undertake joint activities with him or her over a longish period. And perhaps a piece of fiction can tell you quite a lot about an author, because reading an author's work is a pretty much a joint activity.

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