Newsletter Issue:
Fall 2023

Spectator or Spectacle?

By Eileen Powers, Cohort ’22

The setting is the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. As one of the world’s most famous art museums, it is also one of the most bustling. I am standing before of The Baptism of Christ, an oil painting circa 1475 attributed to Andrea del Verrocchio and his most studious pupil, Leonardo Da Vinci. It is a work worth recording, so I lift my camera to my eye. As I do this, I hear the stern voice of my first photography teacher: “Photographs of art are not art!” My mind begins to spin. I look at Christ’s face and wonder if it is a self-portrait of Leonardo. I hear a baby cry. Someone behind me smells like verbena. A classmate I can hardly see through tide of bodies waves to me from across the dimly lit gallery. I remember that I need to charge my phone. For a split second I forget where I am: in a museum watching people watching people looking at a painting. In spite of the voice in my head I raise my camera. A lanky man in a disproportionally large cowboy hat jostles my elbow, nearly ruining my focus. He stops about a foot ahead of me. The shutter hardly makes a sound.

Photo by Eileen Powers.

In an instant I am absorbed by the crowd and lose sight of Christ and the cowboy altogether. I move with the waves of spectators. We stop in front of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and crane our necks to peer over a couple taking a selfie. 

Photo by Eileen Powers.

Later that night I pan through the images on the camera. I am struck by the realization that there are no images of paintings or people per se, but images of what Heidegger called gatherings. In his essay “Building Dwelling Thinking”, Heidegger wrote that certain objects convene elements and “gather to itself in its own way the earth, sky, divinities and mortals” (Heidegger 355). Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is not only a masterwork but an agent that collects people and constitutes community. In its own way the painting initiates congregation by making space for the museum to emerge alongside it. The painting, museum, and people together reveal a locale. The painting does not arrive at the locale and situate itself within it, but rather the locale comes into existence only by virtue of the painting (356). And while in Heidegger’s view a locale is a place of harmony and fusion, my experience at the Uffizi is one of disorientation. I am distracted and destabilized by the spectacle revealed by the locale. 

Photo by Eileen Powers.
Photo by Eileen Powers.

This distraction is doubled as it is not only happening to me but to the other visitors. As evidenced by my photographs, I am clearly distracted by the confusion to the point that I’ve chosen to focus on it instead of the art. But my guilt is assuaged when I realize that almost no one is viewing the paintings in a meaningful, contemplative manner. I am reminded of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and suddenly recognize the signs of spectacle all around me. Debord opens his book with the line: “life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles” and “everything that was directly lived has receded into representation” (Debord 1). What is a photograph if not a representation and as the creator of that image, what does that make me? Am I a spectator or part of the spectacle? Naïve or complicit? It is not the art in the gallery that is disorienting but the shifting spectacle and my relationship to it that shakes my equilibrium. As philosopher Gianni Vattimo notes, “to live in this pluralistic world means to experience freedom as a continual oscillation between belonging and disorientation” (Vattimo 10). This post-modern form of seesawing freedom seems to be the complete opposite of Heidegger’s locale where all elements rise into a balanced convergence. 

In our contemporary Insta-era of hasty social media influencers and distracted selfie-seekers there is nary a space in a popular museum like the Uffizi where one can quietly reflect on the art. Perhaps contemplation is an outdated mode for experiencing art. As the culture speeds up and people spend less time pondering the intricacies of masterworks and more time inserting themselves into the artwork in a blitz of content creation, it is quite possible that we need to reframe our view and embrace disorientation and distraction as the state of art. If this proves true, then art is all around us – if we take the time to attune ourselves to the bewilderment.

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