The Picture In Between
By Lauren Jacobs, copyright 2007
My work blurs the line between the realms of portrait and landscape. What does this mean? Is it simply about (re)presenting place as conscious? Discussing a relationship between emotion and place, between anatomy and space as body extension? What are the implications of portrait and landscape?
I want to go beyond the traditional analysis of the gaze, subject/ object relationship and narrative versus aesthetic or sensuously expressive composition. Though I will be touching on these, I will also draw parallels between the dualistic division of portrait versus landscape and others: those of perceptive versus receptive, of focused vision versus wide-angle vision, of division versus connection, of societal views of self versus cultural landscape, and of linear, single platform politicking versus big picture, holistic, societal adaptation. I do not seek to promote the narrow view, or the big picture; I seek to present the picture in between.
The gaze: subject/ object
Many are familiar with the concept of the subject/ object relationship when it comes to art. The subject is that which perceives, the object is that which is perceived. This creates the subject as active, controlling, conscious, and the object as passive, controlled, and unconscious. In the feminist view of art history, this is the problem with the popularity of the female model as content. In this scenario, the subject is the male artist who “captures” the female model, who becomes the object, in his art.
The Definition of “Portrait”, according to Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English, Third Edition:
1 an artistic representation of a person, especially one depicting only the face or head and shoulders.
2 a written or filmed description.
3 a format of printed matter which is higher than it is wide. Compare with LANDSCAPE.
— DERIVATIVES portraitist noun portraiture noun.
ORIGIN French, from Old French portraire ‘portray’.”
Portrait historically stands on the compositional properties of the object. Your gaze is focused and directed towards an object or series of objects. This makes portrait suited to narrative-based composition over aestheticism or sensory expressiveness. Stressing narrative over aestheticism and sensory expressiveness relates portrait to the history of drawing.
The objective view implies that we are using logic and seeking a way to quantify information. This inherently puts us into linear, hierarchical thinking. We are disregarding subjective systems of attributing value; we are detaching from our emotions and becoming impersonal. Though this may seem contradictory when we consider the portrait, we must consider that narrative, despite its emotional loading, is more concrete than concepts of aestheticism and sensory expressiveness, and therefore less subjective. Narrative is also linked to societal context, whose inherent structure objectifies its abstract and emotionally loaded elements, such as morality, success and tragedy.
The Definition of “Landscape”, according to Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English, Third Edition:
1 all the visible features of an area of land.
2 a picture representing an area of countryside.
3 the distinctive features of a sphere of intellectual activity: the political landscape.
4 before another noun (of a format of printed matter) wider than it is high. Compare with PORTRAIT.”
Landscape historically stands on the compositional properties of the subject. Because landscape is more about space than object, it can be about pattern as diffused over a field, like static on a television screen. Because the gaze is diffused over a field, without specific focal points or dependency on narrative, we consider the viewer, (the artist or subject). What we witness in the landscape is context, which brings about notions of how it feels to be the perceiver, or subject. I do not imagine myself located inside an object; it is much closer to say that I exist as a context, or that my point of perception is a context. Though we may interpret perception through narrative, it is certainly abstract. The absence of narrative in landscape brings forward the abstracted sensory qualities or aestheticism of what is depicted: texture, form, color, shape, pattern. Stressing aestheticism and sensory expressiveness over narrative relates landscape to the history of textile.
When we consider the subjective view, we seek to escape linear hierarchical thinking; we reject systems of strict quantification and embrace the mysteries of the unquantifiable. Here there is more allowance for intuition and emotion. Though this again may seem displaced when we consider the landscape, it isn’t when we consider the subjective qualities of aesthetic or sensory principles. No one would ask you to logically quantify why you may prefer blue to red, or triangles over circles. These are matters of taste.
The sight: focused/wide-angle vision and division/connection
Focused vision is achieved by focusing on an object. It’s what most people in American culture walk around using all the time, which is why many people have trouble walking in the woods; we don’t know how to keep an eye out for things we might stumble over in the path without looking at the ground. It’s also why we get so tired staring at a computer all day; this level of focus strains our eyes. In fact, focused vision of any kind strains our eyes. Focused vision’s biological function is to follow a single moving object, and once upon a time it was primarily used while hunting, enabling the viewer to watch a fast moving prey.
In this way focused vision becomes related to empathy; it is used when we wish to actively perceive. We think about the relationship between hunter and prey, and that the hunter seeks to make the prey part of themselves. There are many traditional rituals dating back to the caveperson where the hunter makes offerings to the prey, asks the prey’s permission, or seeks to communicate with the spirit of the prey. The hunter in this way is almost seeking symbiosis with their prey; they are looking to make an almost psychic connection, connecting to their prey’s spirit by taking their life, connecting with their body (here we read body as context) that they will consume and literally make a part of themselves.
I have a friend who goes hunting with his family; he has a story about his first and only kill. He went up to Cochran, Ontario with his grandfather hunting for bear. He was four days into the hunt; and had been in a tree stand for the past 6 hours, since dawn. When you are hunting, one of the most important things is stillness. He was beginning to get tired, wondering if he was not going to catch anything, when he heard a rustling sound behind him. In his excitement, he turned his head to look. A bear was coming through the brush. The bear looked up at him and their eyes met. My friend says when their eyes met he was sure that the bear knew that he was there to kill him, and that the bear would run, and that my friend wouldn’t have time to bring his rifle around to shoot him. But instead the bear stopped, and they held each other’s gaze for a moment, and the bear kept walking. He walked out into the clearing. When the bear did that, my friend says he felt that the bear had seen my friend’s intention in his eyes, and that the bear was giving him permission. With that assurance, he aimed his rifle, and when the bear reached the center of the clearing, my friend fired. The bear fell immediately, crying out twice before he died. My friend climbed down, and looked at the bear. Looking into the bear’s eyes and finding them empty, he thanked the bear. My friend still has a lot of the meat from the bear left, from almost 3 years ago now. Though not religious, he feels the meat sacred. He also kept the fur and scull, which he considers his most prized possessions. These do not constitute trophies for him; he treats them as one would objects on an altar. He is connected to the bear now, and the bear has become part of his spirit as much as it has part of his body.
Focused vision is parallel to the compositional elements of portrait; we focus in on our prey and empathize with them, seeking to make them part of us. This is what I consider to be portrait’s great strength: the specificity of it allows us to empathize. We imagine a narrative because we empathize. This may seem contradictory in the face of considering portrait and objectivity earlier, but then we consider that though empathy does imply that we relate to something, and that is inherently emotional, the way we relate to a person is still more concrete then how we relate to a color.
“Wide-angle vision” is achieved by un-focusing your eyes, softening your gaze and widening your peripheral vision, from all sides, top and bottom as well. An exercise that helps people get into using wide-angle vision is putting you hands in front of you and wiggling your fingers, then separating and moving your hands far to each side, top and bottom, trying to keep track of the movement of your wiggling fingers without moving your eyes or head, and in this way broadening your perceived horizons. Wide-angle vision is thought by some spiritualists to be healing for the eyes; where as focused vision strains them. Its biological function is to more easily notice movement (or pattern disruption) in peripheral vision, and is most commonly used while tracking or searching for something, enabling the person to keep an eye on their path (so as not to trip over roots or stones in a woody path), to notice disturbances in the patterns of their surroundings (broken branches, tracks, scat, bits of fur) and also keep an eye out for animals moving in the underbrush.
It is also said to promote theta waves in the brain, which some spiritualists claim promote a higher level of consciousness. It is used when we wish to passively receive, to become part of a place; it is the vision of the receptive. Wide-angle vision connects us to space (instead of focusing on objects we are observing the pattern of the ways objects connect in space: connecting us to space, movement, and relationships). It is also promoted by certain places historically considered sacred or inspirational, such as cathedrals, old growth forests, the Grand Canyon, or the sky, by directing our gaze to the full panoramic and also by broadening our gaze upwards and downwards. This same idea of un-focusing is parallel to many meditation techniques where the meditator is encouraged to un-focus their perception and become receptive. The philosopher/sociologist Durkheim, who was an atheist, studied the sense of sacred. One of his premises was that sacred experiences were those that reminded us of our dependency on the whole, or on society. Could place (ecosystem) be a psychological parallel to the whole or to society? Our society holds us accountable for our actions, which sets forth laws and structure of behavior. The ecosystem is self-governed as a whole (in this way it may seem anarchistic); but we are accountable for our actions and their effect on the ecosystem, and just because we have not learned or bothered to obey the laws or structures of behavior does not mean that they are not there.
Wide-angle vision is also parallel to the compositional properties of the landscape, where you read the whole piece without favoring a focal point. You are looking for the disruption in the pattern: you read it as static on a television screen, or images in a scrying surface.
Focused versus Wide-Angle vision are categories related to the sensory collection of information, but what of its understanding and interpretation? Drawing on the insights of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel claims in his book, The Fine Line, that there are two methods of understanding: splitting and lumping.
The mind that splits makes separate things that aren’t necessarily separate. For example, a youth feels different on her 21st birthday, now having the legal ability to drink, and in some sense being seen as more adult. In actuality, becoming 21 is one moment in a stream of very similar moments, and not that separate from being 20 years old, 364 days, 59 minutes and 58 seconds. It is only different because as a culture we have imagined it so.
Portrait stresses the division; it isolates the object or objects in focused view. This is an understanding of the one who splits.
The mind that lumps puts things that may not be similar together. For example, when seeking to go south on Woodward Avenue, it may seem shorter to leave campus out the Woodward exit, instead of out the lone pine exit and out to Woodward, because a lumping mind imagines that campus is one place, instead of a field that contains distance within itself.
Landscape stresses connection, by diffusing focus using wide-angle vision. This is an understanding of one who lumps.
According to Zerubavel, the person too inclined towards splitting is rigid-minded, whereas the person too inclined towards lumping is fuzzy-minded. The ideal is to be a flexible-minded person, and use both. A rigid-minded person lacks innovation, and a fuzzy-minded person lacks practical understanding.
The picture: stay with me
I believe that this portrait/landscape division extends past the realm of art, as I have already applied its relationship to perception I will now apply its relationship to politics.
“Objectivity is among other things a political affair: it is a matter of there being ways of refuting those who insist all is well as long as we are feeling fine.” Terry Eagleton, After Theory, Pg 131
We have put forth portrait as being objective rather than subjective, perceptive rather than receptive, concrete rather than abstract, dividing rather than connecting, and using focused vision rather than wide-angle vision. This describes not only art, but also capitalism as it applies to the way we learn and live as a culture. Capitalism puts forth a dangerous premise: that everything’s value can be translated into currency, and in effect, that the value of a skill, thought, knowledge, experience or action can be quantified so concretely that it can be assigned a numerical value. This is symptomatic of rigid-minded, linear thinking.
This quantification not only promotes the class system, but also promotes hierarchical, linear thinking to the point where our children in schools don’t know how to think out side the Scantron form. Children are still bonded to the biological function of their senses, which is to learn. We put children, who learn through sensuous awareness, in a white box, under abrasive and unhealthy lighting, and tell them to stay quiet and still while we instruct them using only visual and auditory symbols they are made to translate. In art we would call this illustrating as opposed to demonstrating, and it’s a big taboo. It is symptom of valuing narrative over sensuous expressiveness. Is there any question why children stare out windows? As far as their senses are concerned, there is much more to learn from the window than from their teacher. We teach them that there is a right and a wrong answer to everything, they are completely lacking the training to critically think on subjective topics.
We have become so accustomed to this mode that we approach social reform in the same way. We use Single Platform Politicking, which is where you pick one cause to promote and invest all your energy into it. There are a lot of reasons why this is successful: it allows a person to set themselves attainable goals that can gain momentum, and it allows them to become an expert in the history and consequence of what they’re promoting. Unfortunately, another major aspect of the quantification that capitalism incites is competitiveness. For this reason people view social activism as inherently aggressive; they believe on some level that the activist is putting forth that their cause is the most important one, which is the only reason we would consider it important in capitalistic thinking. ‘Buy this product, because it is the best: Support this cause, because it is the best’. To which the obvious response is ‘Why is your cause the most important? Why should I care about your recycling program when the homeless of Detroit are starving?’
We relate portrait to capitalism again through relating it to societal views of self rather than cultural landscape. In capitalism, we worry about our quantified value to society, but this is inward looking rather than outward looking. We focus only on what has been explicitly assigned as our responsibility (the focused view on the object), and outside of self (explicit personal responsibility) exists only void. We focus on the divisions rather than the connections.
While shirking responsibilities as individuals, we turn a blind eye to the connection between us and whole groups of people we envision are living ‘separate’ lives. Our society is a caste system in denial, and every time society adapts to accept a new group of people, we create a new division to exclude others. The system sets up whole communities of excluded people that are meant to perpetuate the economic niche that has to be filled so that the upper classes can stand on top of them.
I volunteered in Baltimore inner city public schools for a couple years during my undergraduate program. The program I spent the most time in was one that was set up by the police department, for children who lived in neighborhoods so dangerous that it was illegal for them to go home alone. The program ran from 2pm-10pm weekdays, and if no one could pick them up with in that time, the police would escort them home. In their public schools, these children were only offered the four core subjects of Math, Science, English and History, and were not even offered a foreign language in high school. Their textbooks were 50 years old. This meant that the students were not studying their own history, their books being pre-civil rights. Their science books were barely space age: Einstein’s theories were considered ‘a new school of thought’. Their English books used the old diagramming method of teaching language, which (although I value it), for children already speaking heavy dialects only made ‘proper’ English more alien, and separated the education they got in school further from something they would need in life. The system in was designed for children to drop out and perpetuate an underclass. An hour away in Virginia public schools, children received microscopes with their shiny new text books at the beginning of the year, and began foreign language immersion programs in the first grade.
Another repercussion of our rigid-minded dividing nature is that we are no longer self-sufficient as communities. We have divided up where we grow food, where we build machines and where we live. Residents make long commutes to where they work. People commute to their schools, jobs, and friends. This isolates them from landscape. People feel anonymous where ever they are. In a neighborhood where every body knows each other, there are immediate social repercussions to crime. In a neighborhood where the criminals are anonymous, and the numbers of crimes unsure, people are more likely to dismiss acting out against crime because the crime becomes part of the space: they do not live next to a criminal, they live in a “bad area”.
Compounding this disconnection from landscape is the issue that we separate manufacturing facilities from material supplying facilities and sellers, so that things don’t come from people; they come from stores. Before they get to a store they are manufactured in a factory. The assembly line may be “efficient” in terms of speed, but it isolates the maker from the product to the point that you can spend 60 years working at a computer factory and not know how computers are made. This division ensures dependency in that no one learns a whole skill.
Because we do not manufacture using local resources, we are robbed of understanding on deep conscious levels that things come from our spaces, and that spaces suffer from over consumption.
If we only took from our perceived landscape, we would understand the cost of a wooden chair every time we looked at the place the tree once was. But our homes, neighborhoods and gardens do not become sparser the more we consume and accrue; instead they appear lusher as we fill them with luxury. In this way consumption is linked to a false sense of fertile surroundings. When we go through things quickly, our space and gardens are also not affected by the decay (or lack of decay) or the afterlife of these objects. We live surrounded by scenery that is like a mythological garden, frozen in time. Here things are always green; our resources are always replenished, our leavings simply disappear. Most of what we consume in our day-to-day lives comes to us from anonymous origins, so it is no wonder that when we are through with them we also do not consider where they go back to.
"Our modern society is engaged in polishing and decorating the cage in which man is kept imprisoned."-Swami Nirmalananda
We have put forth landscape as subjective, receptive, abstract, and using wide-angle vision. It is concerned with cultural landscape. The presence of the rigid-minded portrait mindset in our culture has been so strong that landscape has become its polarized opposition. But the political implications of landscape have their equal share of problems.
The Wide-Angle view may allow us to see the changes that can be made in the way things connect, having a ripple effect on the pattern, but this view lacks empathy. This problem is compounded because landscape is still integrated with sensuous expressiveness; we want to be living and feeling the changes, in the present tense, which is difficult to do while thinking Big-Picture. It is more immediately satisfying to give a hungry man a sandwich than to go about battling the bureaucracy of the educational system that put him on the street, which will not help him, but will hypothetically help the next generation.
The Wide-Angle view lacks depth, and becomes shallow. The Landscape view stops being about individual people; it wants big changes that can alter the pattern. With such a view it is easy to become overwhelmed, and feel helpless.
Fuzzy Mindedness places blame on the system itself: lumping the structure of government with those inhabiting it, which makes our arguments unspecific and illegitimate.
What I view as the biggest problem with this approach to social reform is that, through this same integration of people with the system, the solutions give more power to the system, which takes freedom and choice away from individuals. Communism may have worked for our high school cliques when pitching in money for pizza after school, but did not work so well for many of our world’s governments. In our high school cliques there was no way to loose track of the individual, but in a massive population where the system has so much power, it is easy for invisible individuals to be corrupt and remain overlooked.
Where the objective quality of portrait only provides statements, the subjective quality of landscape provides questions. Though less resolved, this is a strength, because to become resolved without questioning is to stagnate. Without the linear restriction of sorting ideas into ‘best’ and ‘worst’ (or ‘best’ and ‘other’), or ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ two people working on different social reform issues don’t have to feel like they are competing with each other, they can figure out a connection to help further both their goals. Creativity isn’t stifled and ideas can be worked on collectively without being dismissed.
The Cherokee have a belief, that once our souls were torn into two parts, the heart and the shadow. We still bear the wound from this tearing, and though we may not be able to see it, we can feel it, at the center of our torso. Some people try to fill their wound with alcohol, drugs, career, romantic relationships or whatever they have convinced themselves they need in order to feel complete, but wounds cannot be filled, they can only be healed. The only way to heal this wound is by knitting our two halves back together. The Cherokee call this becoming human.