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.