The Unprotected Eye

magrittes-eye0933

n

In the spring, my 6th graders and I study surrealism.  Nothing could be more logical for eleven-year-olds to study surrealism, whose credo is bringing objects together that normally don’t go together, a concept derived from the famous line The Chants de Maldadorthe chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella, for theirs is a surreal world too, a world where a the girl is five foot seven, the boy is four foot ten, and they are on a dance floor in an awkward embrace, a world where moms empty lunch pails and find half-eaten sandwiches, incomplete, crumpled homework assignments, and

n

Every year we begin our unit by watching the beginning scene of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic An Andulusian Dog. The chain of associative events starts with a man sharpening a razor (the same kind of blade they later learn Van Gogh used to slice off part of his ear; decidedly the study of French art is not for sissies).  The camera then cuts (no pun intended) to a woman’s head, her eye being held open by the man’s hand, then to a perfectly gobular moon past which a thin, linear cloud passes, and finally back to the eye which is sliced open transversally by the razor (Buñuel used a cow’s eye).   You would think that given all the violent movies and videogames parents and educators constantly rail about that it would be hard to gross them out.  Wrong.  They are sickened to their core and a minute later experience a collective adrenaline at which point they decide that surrealism is the coolest art movement ever.  I must admit,  I’ve seen the scene at least thirty times and, despite the obvious fakery, despite being filmed in 1926,  it still makes me feel queasy too.

n

What provokes this unbearable uneasiness?  I think that it has to do with the eye.  If the wrist had been slit, if the finger had been chopped off, our reaction would not not have been the same.  Our innate urge to protect our eyes, what I call the protective eye syndrome, is as ancient as Greek mythology when our Western ancestors squirmed in the amphitheater watching Oedipus gouging his eyes out after learning that he killed his father and slept with his mother (way worse than not finishing your sandwich or your homework).

n

Fast forward to the 19th century, the beginning for all practical purposes of the modern era. In the Arcades Project Walter Benjamin reports the observation of a sociologist who writes the following in 1911:

n

“Interpersonal relationships in big cities are distinguished by a marked preponderance of visual activity over aural activity. The main reason for this is the public means of transportation. Before the development of buses, railroads, and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in situations where they had to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another.”

n

This comment led Benjamin to posit that the eye of the city dweller had developed “protective functions.” In other words:  we have learned how not to see, all the while keeping our eyes open.  Of course, this is an indispensable skill: it keeps us from appearing impolite, perverted, or even psychopathic.  Last year an Italian man was fined forty euros for staring too long at a women across from him in a train. However, does “protective eye syndrome” sometimes leak its fluid into purposeful viewing?   Does it increase the likelihood that we spend some (even a lot) of our time looking but not really seeing?

n

I sometimes wonder about this when I watch people walking past paintings as if they were walking down a grocery aisle.    Would it not be marvelous (a favorite surrealist word*) to have a procedure done at the entrance of museums to unprotect the eyes?  A gloved employee peels away an outer layer of the cornea, drops it into a petri dish with some formaldehyde, and gives the visitor a claim ticket (to be stored in a very safe place).  Then, Eureka!  The visitor has a freshness of vision hitherto inexperienced, just like Monet claims to have undergone after cataract surgery when he was able to see certain colors for the first time in years.  Painting after painting stuns the unprotected eye, the visitor apprenhends truths, harmonies, discord, and beauty at an almost delirious level.  After two hours of intense viewing, the soul being elated, the visitor turns in the claim check, gets the protective film reapplied onto his eyeball, and walks out of the museum, stepping onto a big dog turd.  Whoops.  I guess he wasn’t looking!

n

Well, it’s a great fantasy, but it does not help us with protective eye syndrome.  Aside from peyote and other vision-transfiguring drugs, what can we do (that is legal) to help us unprotect our eyes?  In his book The Open Image, Georges Didi-Humberman speaks of the desire to see and I think that this is a good place to start.  One of the examples he gives is of pilgrams looking at the Shroud of Turin, where the following process of vision is time and again reported:  at first one sees nothing, then almost nothing, then little by little the eyes fall on the outline of something.  The catalyst for this movement from nothing to almost nothing to something is, in Didi-Humberman’s opinion, about the desire to see.  He goes on:  “for, the desire to see is an incredibly refined modality.  The “little by little” of this “discovery” (refering to the Shroud of Turin) is a vertiginous and spiraling movement:  precise, like a dialectic; blinding like a baptismal of the eyes.”  …but appreciating a painting by Mark Rothko, for example, does demand the same desire, effort, and ultimately, belief.

n

*Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful. anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.  – André Breton, 1924, The Surrealist Manifesto

n

A less invasive method: stop in front of a painting that speaks to you and stay there for at least five minutes staring, really staring. Let your unprotected eyes scrutinize the surface and the depth of the painting, follow the brush strokes (the physical traces of the artist present in the painting – think about it!), and allow yourself to be taken in by it, disarmed by it.

n

Museums offer us memorable, deep encounters with painting. Don’t try to see everything! But do try and really see something.

n

“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 4.

n

“One observes in order to see what one would not see if one did not observe.” – Wittenstein, Remarks on Coulour, •326.

n


Posted

in

,

by

Tags:

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *