“Eyes are the gateway to the soul” … Assuming I haven’t lost you after this cliché, I would like to attempt to prove its validity in contemporary visual culture, specifically in relationship to The Gaze.
Some of the most revolutionary critical theory in art and visual culture from the last century has surrounded the socialization of vision – or more simply put: the power of the individual as viewer or subject. Two scholars in particular who contribute valuable research to The Gaze include John Berger, in his book and television series Ways of Seeing (1972) and Laura Mulvey, in “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” (1975). Approaching 2013, the importance of progressive theorizing becomes less about reviewing and legitimizing the canon and more about molding this still relevant and potent criticism in our most popular and immediate mode of contemporary visual culture: The Internet. Does The Internet encourage or inhibit the gaze?
To give a brief overview of each theorists approach to the gaze, I have compiled a short summary for each below for those unfamiliar:
J O H N B E R G E R
In 1972, John Berger, published his thoughts on the “Western aesthetic,” most notably reflected in his text and BBC television series, Ways of Seeing. Particularly effective are his writings on visual representations of women in Art History and modern advertising. Berger states, “…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.”
L A U R A M U L V E Y
In 1975 Laura Mulvey published “Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema” which became particularly popular for its coining of the term “Male Gaze” which greatly informed Feminist and Cultural Studies visual scholarship, particularly in relation to Art History and Film Theory. Mulvey’s revolutionary argument incited that viewers gain pleasure from film mainly by identifying and gaining enjoyment out of the male character. "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 said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness," and that women are the "bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning," in cinema.
The work of Berger and Mulvey paved the way for political artwork that would continue to critique marginalization and oppression in the art world and in the very representation of art.
That was then…but what can be said of these theories as we enter 2013? A big difference between now and when Berger and Mulvey’s articles were originally published is rise of The Internet and – more specific to The Gaze – social networking sites such as Facebook. What would Berger and Mulvey have to say about viewer and subject in as they pertain to a profile picture or a collection of personal photos shared with the public in an “album”?
Berger would surely focus on the profile picture and the idea of “gendered profile pictures.” Though he focused his article on The Gaze specifically on female representation, in contemporary social media culture, The Gaze has become is threatening to both genders. Facebook profiles are a carefully curated self portrait where users have a great deal of control over constructing their online “selves.” At this time, Facebook profiles are even our mode of understanding an acquaintance better; a social media profile is the new “first impression.” Moreover, because of this users have become increasingly concerned with their representation – both visually and cognitively – to an audience. In Berger’s terms, Facebook users become the subject of the gaze as soon as they become aware that they have an audience and as soon as they actively begin to edit their profiles (their “selves”) to appease The Gaze.
Similarly, Mulvey would focus more specifically on the tendency of users to develop an inane sensitivity to the aforementioned “selves” of others. Facebook, a solely visual conglomerate of vanity via text and photo, has a different effect for the producer of the “self” vs. the viewer of the “self.” Similar to Mulvey’s description of The Male Gaze in film is an application of The Male Gaze between Facebook users and their followers. As users, our sensitivity and virtual construction of people’s identities and dependency on ourselves to identify and emulate these users is not unlike Mulvey’s argument that the viewers enjoy the film via male characters and depend on the characteristics of the male to be entertained while the female is left to be looked at. This feeling of being out of control – of not knowing how our “selves” seem to others – is an another example of how The Gaze continues to reign visual culture.
Although I am convinced that Berger and Mulvey’s scholarship is continually relevant to visual culture via social media, as with most social standards – like one’s participation in Facebook – it is still hard to resist the The Gaze; the contemporary cure for The Gaze is confidence.