Seeing is Believing
Seeing comes before words … The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.
John Berger’s timeless intervention in Ways of Seeing describes the dialogical relationship between seeing and subsequently knowing/describing/asserting/writing/reproducing. The visual counterpart to the written word often affects in a way that is able to elicit otherwise potentially unreachable emotions and reactions; we have all seen things, whether within the formalized domain of “art” and otherwise, and know this to be true.
When we ‘see’ a landscape, we situate ourselves in it. If we ‘saw’ the art of the past, we would situate ourselves in it. When we are prevented from seeing it, we are deprived of the history that belongs to us. Who benefits from this deprivation?
To see is to come to know, and with the monopoly on legitimate knowledge—legitimate ways of seeing, and thus knowing—comes the capacity to revise, to claim ownership of the historical record, whether as clarification of what was known before or a re(definition/description) of the world as it presently exists or an assertion of futurity. Berger continues:
In the end, the art of the past is being mystified because a privileged minority is striving to invent a history which can retrospectively justify the role of the ruling classes, and such a justification can no longer make sense in modern terms. And so, inevitably it mystifies.
The false consciousness of this institutional (artistic) mystification refers as much to Marxian descriptions of wider obfuscations of social relations as it does to the elitism and exclusivity of the Art World™, a universe whose boundaries are delineated, most critically, by those methodically refused access to it. Within these mystifications, recurring concurrent processes of hiding and revealing, a consciousness develops: an internalization of meaning—both “true” and “imagined”—attributed to these images, action-generating ideologies bearing implications for new semiotics and image-making and reproducing.
So, then, what is public imagination? Where does it reside? That imagination, one contained and produced within our schools and hospitals and oftentimes our galleries and certainly in our social policy, has been both deflated and sustained by hegemonic processes. Institutional creation and cultural production proceed thusly: methodically so as not to disrupt this arrogant artistic episteme, and delicately so that it may proceed with infallibility under the guise of “art as incontestable social good” (and “art, like all apparently value neutral creativity, escapes critique outside aesthetic value”). Public imagination resides at the intersection of co-opted radicality and well-curated jargon, its entrance gatekept by a body ensuring that only those expertly versed in certain formalized and (oft appropriated) colloquial linguistics and rhetorics should enter and/or ever serve as subsequent gatekeepers within these most sacred (safe) spaces. So what, exactly, does it mean to be selected as an entrant and deemed worthy of participation within these spaces?
In the cities in which we live, all of us see hundreds of publicity images every day of our lives … One may remember or forget these messages but briefly takes them in, and for a moment they stimulate the imagination by way of either memory or expectation. The publicity image belongs to the moment … Publicity images also belong to the moment in the sense that they must be continually renewed and made up-to-date. Yet they never speak of the present. Often they refer to the past and always they speak of the future.
Publicity is not simply a promise of glamour, beauty, pleasure, or the invitation of envy of capitalistic offerings and advertisements of different purchasable things (and embodiable states): it is also the propagation of worldview-making imagery and the promulgation of values, assumptions, invented empirics and beauty/aesthetic standards with which they are all laden. Some labor actively seeks to displace these values, to produce a way of seeing-knowing that counters prevailing public imagining (and also its own positionality as something commodifiable and consumable and reproducible, tolerable, and even celebrateable, but never ever/rarely respectable in its own right and without qualification). Forgoing fear of risking rhetorical and political self-ghettoization (as though the reverse isn’t the nature of “art” itself), Black seeing becomes an act of historical correction as revision: a countering of falsehoods and reasserting of truths as/when it presents a negotiation of public imagination(s) and a construction of gazes in service of a desire for justice.
“Photography is particularly treacherous when it comes to righting wrongs, because it is so good at recording appearances,” writes Teju Cole. “Capturing how things look fools us into thinking that we’ve captured their truth. But appearance is bare fact. Combined with intuition, scrupulous context and moral intelligence, it has the chance to become truth.”
One might read moral intelligence, as articulated by Cole, as pertaining to a politic of ob/subjectification and the ethic itself of “seeing.” It might compel inquiries about one’s relationship to a subject and one’s obligation for “objectively” truthful or generously self-definitive and self-determining portrayals. When your gaze exists in stark and deliberate opposition to hegemonic seeing, are you similarly bound to its ethical code? Am I obliged, as a photographer, to extend the same courtesy, for example, to white subjects as I would to deliberately misrepresented indigenous communities? Where Black seeing undermines violent white imaginaries—where “Because white men can’t police their imaginations, black men are dying,” per Claudia Rankine—in a reparative act of defiant presentation of (unashamedly and deservedly vengeful) othered subjectivity, do and should white subjects still enjoy the privilege of humanity afforded to them without second thought or consideration? Do they deserve that? Are they owed that?
A “morally intelligent” public imagination would not fall victim to the morally directionless liberal ideas of “inclusion” and “equity” and “representation” but never “justice” or legitimized rage or well-reasoned rancor, even in art. And we will finally locate our [just] public imaginations in these spaces where we refuse to shy away from brutal honesties and worldview-annihilating presentations of subordinated truths and realities.