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Looking and the Gaze

Looking is not a neutral activity. Looking is socially constructed. As Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright (Practices of Looking: an Introduction to Visual Culture, p. 10) have written: "Through looking we negotiate social relationships and meanings. Looking is a practice much like speaking, writing, or signing. Looking involves learning to interpret and, like other practices, looking involves relationships of power."


As a demonstration of this point consider these two Hennessy advertisements. The advertiser counts on the audience's ability to employ cultural codes to read and make sense of these images. As a journal assignment, I would like you to write a list of the different cultural codes you use to make sense of this advertisement. We know the social context. We know what the models are looking at. The ad does not make sense if we reverse the gender roles. It would seem "unnatural" to us to have two men looking at themselves in the mirror of a men's room of a swanky night club, just as it would seem inappropriate to have two women actively respond to the arrival of a man. Consider how codes of looking change. This pair of ads would almost be unthinkable in the 1960s or earlier. How do we respond when we imagine that the men are reacting to the arrival of a handsome man in the nightclub? Or take the example of a film still from Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film, Rear Window.

This has been seen in critical discussions as a prime example of gendered looking. Theoretical discussions emphasize how the camera lens is a surrogate of the male gaze. Notice how the image would not make sense if the smiling (leering?) Jimmy Stewart character was replaced by the Grace Kelly character. Or imagine changing the object of Stewart's attention from the female dancer to...

In her influential essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Laura Mulvey has written: "In a world ordered by sexual unbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy unto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be seen to connote to-be-looked-at-ness." Mulvey argues that modern film is constructed assuming a heterosexual male observer. The pleasure in looking (scopophilia) and desire fulfill the sexual needs and pleasures of a heterosexual viewer. Women can find pleasure in watching, but their pleasure is gained by them watching as if they were men. This gives to women the status of being the passive object of the male heterosexual observer while the male is the active subject. In the Rear Window still, the dancer in the camera lens is in a constructed pose that assumes that she is being looked at by the male gaze. Her pose displays her body for the male's visual pleasure. The pose accentuates her long legs, skimpy outfit, her slim but well-endowed figure, her long, blond hair, and her coy expression that acknowledges that she is being looked at. The point of view we see her from calls attention to her physical assets. While the male gets pleasure from looking, the woman is shown to get pleasure from being looked at. The woman does have power, but it is power gained from her ability to attract male attention. Thus her power is not independent but contained within the patriachal system. While our culture authorizes the privilege of the male to look, for most women the daily experience of such aggressive attention by the male gaze is seen to be threatening and intrusive. Girls are trained to not look directly but avert their eyes. This is made explicit in French nineteenth century etiquette books: "Women must avoid looking people in the eye especially men who pass near them. This would be a mark of incivility and impudence." While proper women were trained to avert their eyes, the courtesan looked directly. Emile Zola in his novel Nana, published in 1880 and whose main character was a courtesan, writes: "Nana looked all the ladies in the face, and made a point of staring hard at the Comtesse Sabine." In this context we should see the coy expression of Manet's Nana (1877) who looks out directly at us while one of her gentleman friends, clearly admiring Nana's physical assets, waits for her to prepare herself:

The inclusion of this other man serves to accentuate Nana's promiscuity, and is undoubtedly the reason the painting was rejected for the Salon of 1877. Manet's painting makes an interesting comparison to the eighteenth century painting by François Boucher of Madame de Pompadour at her toilette. As the courtesan to King Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour was one of the most influential women of the period. Like Nana, Madame de Pompadour looks out at us, but in the case of the Boucher painting we are the King of France as suggested by the cameo of the king on her bracelet, and not as in the case of Manet's paintings one of Nana's customers.

[for more on the gaze see the excerpts from Sturken and Cartwright's discussion.]



Into the Looking Glass

The mirror is a frequent symbol in western painting. In some contexts the mirror signifies the mimetic quality of painting. This is apparently the significance of the mirror on the back wall of Velazquez's Las Meninas. The mirror in other contexts takes on the significance of vanitas, or the idea of the fleeting nature of human life and beauty. This is the significance of the mirror held by the woman in Hans Baldung Grien's Three Ages of Woman and Death (or Allegory of Earthly Vanity, 1509-11). But in many other cases the mirror becomes a symbol of female beauty. Consider the following selection of paintings where the mirror plays a prominent role:





Titian, Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555.

Rubens, Venus at a Mirror, c. 1615.

Tintoretto, Susanna and the Elders,c. 1555. The linked image appeared on the Web page that accompanied the Tintoretto show at the Prado. Wikipedia entry for the story. Daniel 13

Velazquez, The Rokeby Venus, 1649-51.

Notice how in the cases of the Titian, Rubens, and Velazquez, the angle of the mirror and its reflections indicates that Venus is looking at herself being looked at. We as the viewer of the painting take on the role of the lover of Venus, and that Venus is taking pleasure at being looked at by us. Like Mulvey's account of the gaze in modern film, it is assumed that the constructed observer of these paintings is a heterosexual male. Imagine that the constructed viewer of the paintings is female. Do the paintings make sense? This illustrates well John Berger's famous formulation in his Ways of Seeing:

One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object -- and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.

Similarly, Linda Nead writes in her Female Nude (p. 11):

Woman looks are herself in the mirror, her identity is framed by the abundance of images that define femininity. She is framed --experiences herself as image or representation-- by the edges of the mirror and then judges the boundaries of her own form and carries out any necessary self-regulation....The formless matter of the female body has to be contained within boundaries, conventions and poses.


As illustrated by the above ad for a vanity in a toy catalog, girls are constructed at a young age to see themselves as something to be looked at. Like the women in the Hennessy ad that introduced this webpage, the girl in the toy ad has been taught to imagine herself being looked at. She is in Berger's terms the "surveyed woman," "a sight." Consider the play of mirrored images in Mary Cassatt's Mother and Child of 1908:

Like the mirrors in the paintings by Titian and Rubens above, what the young girl sees in the mirror is not her own reflected image, but that of the viewer looking at her. She is thus looking at herself being looked at. An interesting detail is the prominent sunflower on the mother's dress. The sunflower was a motif employed by Anthony Van Dyck in a self-portrait. In this context the sunflower signified van Dyck's function as a court painter. Like the sunflower seeks the sun, so does the court painter seek the favor of his patron. In the context of the domestic world of the early twentieth century, the sunflower would follow the patriarch of the family. As the observer of the painting we become the husband/father. Just as Venus seductively smiles back at her assumed lover, the little girl gains pleasure by being seen by her father.


Compare the Mary Cassatt painting to the following illustration from a 1990 article in She magazine. The mother here is constructing for her daughter the interplay of being both looking at oneself at the same time looking at herself being looked at, or as Berger says a "surveyed woman." In looking at herself being looked at she is judging herself against all the standards presented by her culture.

The mirror becomes synonymous with female beauty. It seems "natural" for a woman to be represented looking in a mirror. But in contrast it does not seem "natural" for a man to be shown looking at himself in a mirror. Consider, for example, Caravaggio's painting of Narcissus looking at his reflected image in a pool of water:

This self-absorbed admiration of one's own physical beauty has been identified as a personality disorder, "narcissism."

Albrecht Dürer's Artist Drawing the Nude

The woodcut above was intended as an illustration of a perspective device in Albrecht Dürer's The Painter's Manual, published in 1525. It also documents a radical transformation in how western culture looked at the world. The Middle Ages can be understood to have been theocentric. It was the gaze of the Christ of the Byzantine Pantocrator or the Romanesque Last Judgment that was the determining gaze of the culture. One understood their position in the world as part of a divine hierarchy watched over by the sovereign gaze of God. The Florentine of the thirteenth century looking up at the Last Judgment in the dome of the Baptistry would clearly understand their place in this system:

Your importance was signified by your relative size in this hierarchical system, and nothing could compare to the awesome image of Christ whose all-seeing gaze judges us.

The Dürer illustration documents the shift from the theocentric Middle Ages to the homocentric Renaissance. James Burke in his The Day the Universe Changed (pp. 76-77) succinctly defines this change:

Following the discovery of perspective geometry, the position of man [sic.] in the cosmos altered. The new technique permitted the world to be measured through proportional comparison. With the aid of the new geometry the relative sizes of different objects could be assessed at a distance for the first time. Distant objects could be reproduced with fidelity, or created to exact specifications in any position in space and then manipulated mathematically. The implications were tremendous. Aristotelian thought had endowed all objects with 'essence', an indivisible, incomparable uniqueness. The position of these objects was, therefore, not to be compared with that of other objects, but only with God, who stood at the centre of the universe. Now, at a stroke, the special relationship between God and every separate object was removed, to be replaced by direct human control over objects existing in the same, measurable space.

This control over distance included objects in the sky, where the planets were supposed to roll, intangible and eternal, on their Aristotelian crystal spheres. Now they too might be measured, or even controlled at a distance. Man [sic.], with his new geometrical tool, was the measure of all things. The world was now available to standardisation. Everything could be related to the same scale and described in terms of mathematical function instead of merely its philosophical quality. Its activity could also be measured by a common positional relationship with the rest of nature. There might even be common, standard, measurable laws that governed nature.

Meanwhile, the confidence that the discovery must have raised in the Florentines began to make itself evident. If man [sic.] were the measure of all things, then all things must surely be related to the measure of man [sic]: his experiences, his observations, his points of view.

The development of artificial or linear perspective played a central role in this shift from a theocentric to a homocentric view of the world. As critical discussions have emphasized, linear perspective was not simply a way to rationalize the rendering of space but it also fundamentally redefined how western culture "looks" at the world. As W.J.T. Mitchell (Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, p. 37) has written about the invention of "linear perspective":

The effect of this invention was nothing less than to convince an entire civilization that it possessed an infallible method of representation, a system for the automatic and mechanical production of truths about the material and the mental worlds. The best index to the hegemony of artificial perspective is the way it denies its own artificiality and lays claim to being a 'natural' representation of 'the way things look,' 'the way we see.' or ...'the way things really are.' Aided by the political and economic ascendance of Western Europe, artificial perspective conquered the world of representation under the banner of reason, science, and objectivity. No amount of counter demonstration from artists that there are other ways of picturing what 'we really see' has been able to shake the conviction that these pictures have a kind of identity with natural human vision and objective external space. And the invention of a machine (the camera) built to produce this sort of image has, ironically, only reinforced the conviction that this is the natural mode of representation. What is natural is, evidently, what we can build a machine to do for us.With the invention of linear perspective at the beginning of fifteenth century.

[For more on the gender and perspective see the excerpts from Rebecca Schneider, "Permission to See- Gender in Perspective: Have We Really Gone Beyond?," The Explicit Body in Performance (New York & London: Routledge, 1997).]

The artist looking through his gnomon in the Dürer illustration and the Jimmy Stewart character looking through the camera lens from Rear Window are part of the same episteme or paradigm or way of understanding or exploring the world. This attitude, of course, can be extended to the most recent CNN broadcast whose cameras claim to show us what is really going on in the world. Underlying this paradigm is the assumption that the foundation of this way of looking at the world can be mathematically tested and validated. This gives this system a claim of objectivity that transcends the subjective experience of the individual. The point of view of the observer claims to be universal and not local or particular. The artist giving order to the female body clearly parallels the cartographer mapping the world. Consider how the way the grid divides up the body into discrete units is like the way longitudes and latitudes subdivide the world and how institutions like the modern hospital or university divide up their fields of study into discrete units, departments or specializations.

Critical theory has questioned the assumptions of universality and objective truth claimed by this paradigm. The Dürer illustration like the paradigm is based on a dualistic system of thought that provides a way of ordering the world. As a demonstration of this use the following table of binaries to analyze the Dürer illustration (write your responses in your Journal):

Primary Colors
Local / particular

This system of dualism or binaries which has been been part of western thought since Antiquity can be understood to make "natural" the divisions in gender, class, and race. They have served to justify and make "natural" the power relationships between the dominant gender, class, and race and the subordinate gender, class(es), and race(s). This dualism also articulates the dominant attitude in western thought of the relationship between "Man" (sic) and Nature. Be aware of how this system despite the objections of critical theory still codes how we look at the world. Notice also the inequality of the two sides of the table, and that we "naturally" identify with the left hand column as the more valued side. When we look at western painting we are regularly assumed to take the privileged position of a male observer. Val Plumwood (Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, p. 3) has written: "The concept of reason provides the unifying and defining contrast for the concept of nature, much as the concept of husband does for that of wife, as master for slave. Reason in the western tradition has been constructed as the privileged domain of the master, who has conceived nature as a wife or subordinate other encompassing and representing the sphere of materiality, subsistence and the feminine which the master has split off and constructed as beneath him."

The engraving above entitled America, from about 1580, gives visual form to the European act of "discovery." It shows the figure of Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine merchant, explorer, and cartographer "discovering" America. In your journal record how the dualisms implicit in the Dürer image of the artist drawing the nude serve to justify the power relationships in this image and justify the European conquest of America. Notice how the grid structure used in the Dürer image to plot and rationalize the figure are like the longitudes and latitudes that are imposed by the cartographer onto the physical world. [For more on the Amerigo Vespucci image see the webpage I have constructed on this image that includes excerpts from recent critical discussions of the image.]

Notice how the table of binaries presented above can be applied to a reading of the respective boy's and girl's pages from a toy catalog. Consider how "natural" it is to apply the same codes to a reading of a painting like Jacques Louis David's Oath of the Horatii (1784-85):

As a journal assignment apply the table of binaries above to an analysis of the Oath of the Horatii.


Feminist Responses

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face), 1981.

Feminists and other cultural critics have pointed to the dangerous implications of the dualistic view of the world charted out in the table of binaries above. In their view the world can not be reduced to simple binary divisions. In contrast, conservatives strive to maintain the boundary between the two columns of the table of binaries.

Sylvia Sleigh

In a painting of herself painting the reclining figure of the artist Philip Golub from 1971, Sylvia Sleigh reverses the traditional codes. Consider how the painting calls attention to a number of the works we have considered above: Golub's pose is directly based on that of Venus in Velazquez's Rokeby Venus; Sleigh's pose in the mirror is reminiscent of Velazquez's pose in Las Meninas; the introduction of the mirror calls attention to the frequent use of the mirror in images of women; and of course the representation of Sleigh seated at her easel echoes the Dürer Artist Drawing the Nude. Whereas, as we have seen, paintings are regularly created for the assumed male observer, the positioning of Sleigh in relationship to the mirror defines our position as that of Sleigh, and Golub the object of Sleigh's attention is looking at himself being looked at /painted. Golub's pose as well as his features and expression especially his long hair gives him an androgynous and dreamy character in marked contrast to the erect and alert pose of Sleigh.

Film Still from the 1997 film Artemisia.

Artemisia is based on the life of the seventeenth century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi. From the opening image of a close-up of Artemisia's eye, Agnès Merlet makes looking as a central theme in the film. In this clip Artemisia is introduced to the power of perspective. For a discussion of the film and the theme of looking is Sheila ffolliott, "Learning to be Looket At: A Portrait of (the Artist as ) a Young Woman in Agnès Merlet's Artemisia," reprinted in Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History after Postmodernism, pp. 48-61.

Ilse Bing, Self-Portrait with Leica, 1931

In this clever use of mirrors, the German born Bing (1899-1998) collapses the distinction between subject and object. She is both the active subject as photographer but she is also the object she photographs. In this Bing anticipates the work of Cindy Sherman.

Consider the following photograph from 1979 by Janice Guy:

Cindy Sherman

The photographs of Cindy Sherman present us with a feminist response to [note how the Sherman photographs collapse the traditional dichotomy between the active subject (male) and passive object (female)]

Excerpt from Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: an Introduction to Visual Culture: p. 254: Sherman's photographs can be seen as self-portraits that are not actually about herself, since she is always disguised and playing a role. Hence, viewers are not meant to understand these pictures as images of Sherman or of actual /p. 255: film stills, but as ironic readings, deliberate imitations, and self-conscious interpretations of style, gesture, and stereotypes. Sherman's work is a response to an era of feminist modernist criticism that challenged representations of women, an era whose defining essay was that watershed in feminist film theory, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". In this 1975 essay...., Laura Mulvey argued that in classical Hollywood cinema the males position is the active viewing position, while the female position is that of the passive object of male visual pleasure [see for example the film still from Rear Window]. This argument launched a whole field of feminist theory about structures of identification. Feminist film critics asked some of the following questions throughout the 1980s: How do Hollywood films, as one expression of patriarchal culture, organize our looking practices in ways that render the male viewing position one of authority and pleasure, and the female position that of specular object? How do women, as objects within this gaze, identify within a position of active /p. 256: looking? If woman is image and man the bearer of the look, can women assume a male looking position? If we use Freud's theories of subject formation in relation to language and meaning to assert the masculine nature of image production, where do women stand in relation to the subjective experience of looking and making meaning of images of women?

Sherman's photography indirectly but powerfully engages these theories of looking and sexual difference by giving us visual texts that comment reflexively on women's place on both sides of the camera, as bearer of the look and as image. Indeed, many of Sherman's earliest photographs show her dressed in the garb of the height of the Hollywood studio era (the 1930s and 1940s). Her compositions reflexively pose questions about spectatorship, identification, the female body image, and the appropriation of the gaze by the woman photographer as self-portrait subject. But Sherman, unlike critical writers, actively inserts herself not only into the media she reflexively critiques. Rather than taking a critical stance from outside the image and its mode of production, Sherman inserts herself not only in the image but into the process of its production. She enmeshes herself in the very world being critically interrogated in her work. This is one of the key things that distinguishes her commentary as postmodernist against modernist critical-readings-from-above offered by feminist film criticism of roughly the same period.

Nostalgic references to other historical periods is another hallmark of post-modern art captured in Sherman's photographs. Like much postmodern advertising and media culture of the 1980s and 1990s, Sherman's photographs feed our nostalgia for bygone eras. Her double position as both producer of the scene and object of the gaze, however, introduces an edge of irony and reflexivity that sets her work apart from its more popular counterparts (Madonna, for example....). Irony refers to a deliberate contradiction between the literal meaning of something and its intended meaning (which can be the opposite of the literal meaning). Irony can border on sarcasm --that is, when someone says "nice picture" when they really mean "terrible picture." In a broader sense, irony can be seen as a context where appearance and reality are in conflict. Sherman's photographs comment not only on the conditions of the past, but ironically on the artist-producer's awareness of her enmeshment in the visual culture of nostalgic fantasy she evokes. By situating herself as both artist and subject, Sherman invites us to think reflexively about subjectivity and gendered processes of /p. 257: identification, cultural memory, and fantasy in postmodern visual culture. This makes her photographs ironic images that also instruct us in seeing practices of looking as historical and situated.

In light of the discussion above consider as a Journal Assignment how these two Skyy Blue vodka ads deploy gender, ethnic identity, social context, and the camera.

Additional Webpage:

For an additional discussion of the Gaze and advertising see the website constructed by Thomas Streeter: A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose