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13.7: Cosmos And Culture
Fri July 11, 2014
The World Looked Better Through Anne Hollander's Eyes
Plato once remarked that it is easy to make a picture. Anyone can do it. You just hold up a mirror to whatever you are interested in and presto! you have its picture.
Plato was mistaken. A reflection is no more a picture than a footprint is a sculpture. We make pictures, for this or that purpose; reflections, in contrast, just happen; we stumble upon them. Moreover, I see the car in the rearview mirror, but I do not, in the same sense, see my grandfather, long since deceased, when I look at his photograph.
In another sense, perhaps not quite intended, though, Plato may have been exactly right.
Mirror images may not be pictures, but we use them, sometimes, as if they were. This is because we think of ourselves, and of others — of how we look — on the model of how we show up, or might show up, in a pictorial representation.
The picture — in the words of art historian Anne Hollander, who died after a short illness this past week, — "is the standard by which the direct view is assessed — including the direct view of the self in the mirror."
When we turn to look at ourselves in the bathroom, vestibule or bedroom mirror, what we take an interest in is a kind of provisional self-portrait. In Hollander's words:
"Far from seeing objectively, the mirror gazer is engaged in creating a studio portrait of himself, not even a candid shot."
This idea of Hollander's is beautiful and profound. Her focus was clothing and the idea that our attitude and responses to clothing reflect standards and conventions from visual art. We measure the dressed people we see, and how we feel about our own visible bodies, by the standards set up in pictures.
Her point, I believe, is not merely that art influences us — sort of in the way ideologies might shape attitudes of all kinds — but rather that our lively and everyday interest in dressing and in the way others are dressed — an interest that is not parochial or contemporary but may very well be one of our defining preoccupations as a species — is in fact also an engagement with art.
If this is right, art isn't a cultural imposition from on high. Our experience is shaped by art from the ground up as we get dressed in the morning.
I suspect that Hollander's beautiful idea — that pictures provide the standards by which the direct view is assessed — might generalize beyond the scope of clothing and the human figure to include our interest in the visible world itself.
Western art aims at representing the visible world with conviction, Hollander writes. Perhaps there is a sense in which we are only convinced that we are getting things right when how things look conforms to what we would expect to see in a picture. Maybe this is why we sometimes feel convinced, of a beautiful landscape, that it is almost as if it was painted. And perhaps this is also why, these days at least, we so often feel driven and compelled to photograph anything of any value whatsoever, as if our depicting it makes it so.