Fetishising the object of your eye

The psychology and philosophy of looking

Post number four for my OCA visual studies course, this has been a really challenging assignment. Although I have studied the ideas of voyeurism and fetishism as relating to film and images in the past, for some reason I just couldn’t seem to understand what I was reading about. I think it was a general blockage in my brain at that time though, as my life has been a bit mad from the beginning of September. I’ve moved into a new studio space, and my daughter started going to nursery. This mutual separation, after being together almost constantly for over a year, caused us both quite a lot of anxiety. Although I was desperate for some freedom from being mum all the time, I have found my re-entry into the non-mothering world a little distressing. But that is my way; all change is distressing to me. So, all in all, my brain decided that it was not going to comprehend the information I was throwing at it. Luckily there was a four day national holiday last week and some moments were found for rest and recuperation. So I’m here feeling a little more in command of my brain.

Let me also admit at this point that my first reactions on reading these articles (The scoptophilic instinct and identification by Otto Fenichel and Fetishism by Freud) were “ick” and “ooh am I traumatized for enjoying art and TV?” I found some alarming comparisons between what I was reading and my own behaviour. I think psychoanalysis is alarming and traumatizing in itself, I had some psychotherapy last year and I found that uncovering my childhood traumas only caused me more trauma and didn’t give me any tools for dealing with the problem. On reading the Freud article I felt horrified at the idea that my enjoyment of books, films and art could all stem from some trauma or something lacking in my life, that I could be fetishising these pursuits to fill some emotional void inside me.

But on reflection, this makes me realize that yes I do and have, for most of my life, lived in some fantasy world or another, never content with what I have, always imagining some other life full of excitement or peace or whatever I feel I need at that particular time. I’m interested and glad to realize that I do this; it makes me start to take stock and appreciate what I have here and now instead of taking the easy route out of a difficult situation and escaping into my overactive imagination. I realized too that knowing that I do this kind of thing helps me to understand why I paint the way I do, and why I like the artists I like. I’m extremely self-critical, pathologically so, I have a nagging voice in my head that berates me a lot of the time; it is very subtle though and seems normal to me somehow. I believe that my desire to be immersed in books, films, my own imagination and beautiful paintings is my escape from this side of myself. I think my loose expressive painterly style is a reaction against this controlling inner voice, I think I act out against myself. I rebel. This is undoubtedly a very difficult way to be and a very unsustainable way of working. Every piece of work requires me to fight against myself, I have to fight through the nagging doubts and disparaging comments.

So despite initial misgivings and incomprehension I feel like these two articles have caused me to reflect profoundly on my life and my work, what more can you ask from one assignment.

Now to the assignment:

How does what you’ve read help your understanding of how we look at things in a ritualized way – for instance going to an art gallery?

Artistic objects or religious objects become fetishised because of the importance we place on them. Unlike other objects that may be fetishised by individuals based on their own histories,   artistic objects are fetishised en mass, and there is often a general consensus about their quality. An art gallery is a place where these objects of desire can be seen by many.

Artistic objects are bestowed with great cultural and economic status; they are often thought to be the work of genius. They are examples of human excellence. We go to the art gallery to marvel at these objects that represent something like magic. Is it possible that we want to identify ourselves with this excellence because on some level we feel that this is what we are lacking? We want to be close to genius so that we can share in the experience of it. We empathise with what we are seeing and through our gaze we capture or devour it and it becomes part of us.

The art postcard is an accessible way for you and I to literally take the desired object home with us. The explosion of merchandising for important exhibitions at the Royal Academy and the Tate is significant. You can cover every part of your home with reproductions of these desired images from tea towels to t-shirts.

Last year at the David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy the place was packed out with aging middle class Brits who were fawning over Hockney’s colourful landscapes, I was among them, fawning away. The same exhibition then went to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, my sister happened to be there and went to visit it and apparently it was empty. This shows how little David Hockney is valued here in Spain. As a world famous British artist painting scenes in his particular style from the British countryside he represents the ultimate in British genius so it’s no wonder that we should want to go and rub up against him and bask in his glow. The Spanish understandably do not share our enthusiasm.

Do the articles suggest to you reasons for staring at someone being at best bad manners and at worst threatening?

According to the articles the gaze can be a very powerful thing, it can be intrusive, violating, devouring, it has some magical power that can cause negative reactions in the subject. The human gaze or stare when directed at another person always implies some form of interaction. When the gaze is welcomed it is positive and when it is not the gaze becomes intrusive and threatening. An uninvited gaze that is rebuked but then continues is very bad manners. This often occurs in social situations like when travelling on the train for example.

When I first came to live in this rural part of Spain/Catalonia (at this time in history the lines are blurring), I found that a lot of people would shamelessly stare at me in the street and I found this very uncomfortable. Now when this happens I just say “Good day” and it seems to break the spell.

Can you make any suggestions as to the reasons for some people’s need to avidly watch television?

I am an avid TV watcher, I think it’s to do with escapism, television is mesmerising and you can lose yourself in it and experience another reality. You identify with what you are watching and therefore share in the experience. The same thing happens to me with books, when I start to read I can’t stop, I can spend hours and hours in that other world. I am a very sensitive person and feel things very strongly; maybe this is why it is so easy for me to identify with these fictional worlds. Moreover, I would say that I actively seek feel good TV and books, I don’t want to be confronted with the harsh realities of life, I find daily life to be quite traumatic enough. As I said above, I am highly self-critical and I live with a constant feeling of failure or fear of failure, but in TV and books I can escape this critical voice for a while. As well as escaping from an uncomfortable reality I am also replenishing myself with positive experiences.

What visual fetishes have you noted in everyday life – your own or others?

I think fashion is a visual fetish; clothes are fetishised because of what they say about us, it is important to communicate your personality and or social status through your sense of style. Beautiful shoes for example are fetishised by many, many people. Their beauty and meaning can be transferred to the wearer.

Home decoration is another example of a visual fetish, having a beautiful home can transfer meaning and status to the owner. Moreover, surrounding yourself with beautiful desirable objects is a way of participating in the beauty, of experiencing it.

Why are people so keen to display wedding photos or family portraits?

Through the display of wedding and family portrait photos people are showing an idealised image of their family or of their lives, capturing forever this perfect family moment, this blissful perfect time of love and happiness. Going back to what I said before about the merchandising for exhibitions; people wish to own the idealised image so they can return to it time and again and identify with what they see. Family photos hold an image of you and your loved ones, people who are so precious to you that you don’t want to lose them, so you capture them forever in an image. A painted portrait seems to hold even more power. It seems to be a more subjective portrayal of the subject, the other day the mother of one of my English students told me how she cried when someone made her a present of painting of her daughter, and curiously it was a painting made using a photograph. Painted images may combine the magic of capturing an image and the magic of creativity and human excellence. You see your loved one rendered through the magic of human excellence and you can then identify and share in the brilliance.


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