Thursday, October 15, 2015

What is Toggling? Disambiguating Brand’s Story about Disinterestedness and Political Art

In an attempt to get clear about Peggy Brand’s defense of disinterestedness I explore her concept of toggling and suggest a way to clear up problems.  It is not simply that looking at the painting or the performance piece would open the feminist up to more experiences of a formalist sort but that there are other layers of meaning that enhance and enrich the experience of any viewer as we work through the different forms of attention, both interested and disinterested.  The enhancement by what Brand, perhaps misleadingly, calls “toggling” is not just additive but transformative in a progressive way.

This is an attempt to get clear about Peggy Brand's defense of disinterestedness in her paper "Disinterestedness and Political Art" which appears in Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions.  The basic claim is that political art in general and feminist art in particular can be appreciated not only in an interested manner but in a disinterested manner, in fact that it should be appreciated in both ways:  both disinterestedness and interestedness afford, taken together, the "fullest and fairest experience of a work of art."  The initial question to answer is why Brand, a feminist, would want to leave room for disinterested perception, which she herself labels as masculinist.  I think that Brand's approach is mostly correct, but sorting out the actual argument for it is difficult, and there are some ambiguities that need to be resolved.  A clue comes in her discussion of the history of the concept of disinterestedness.  She observes that disinterestedness was "both a moral and an aesthetic ideal" opposed to "private interest" and "serving one's own ends." It was contrasted with the desire to possess the object.  Relating this to the beautiful in women, we find that in Burke's writing the female body is only perceived as beautiful "if the sole interest of the perceiver is in perceiving for its own sake and not in the desire for possession." (156) 

Although Brand does not make this clear (and may not be aware of it herself), the original motive of disinterestedness was in the right direction from the standpoint of feminism. Perceiving a woman for her own sake and not as a possession is perceiving her as having her own ends. That is, disinterested attention, directed by men towards women is actually conducive to feminism both on an ethical and on an aesthetic level.  This establishes that disinterested perception has some value, even in the 18th century version, although during that period it was not always practiced with honesty.  In observing the female nude a "natural" reaction for a heterosexual male is sexually interested (I am not sure why Brand puts "natural" in quotes here.)  A much more problematic reaction is desire to possess and exploit the woman under question.  Disinterested perception breaks or at least brackets these predispositions. 

Brand then discusses this issue in relation to Arnheim's discussion of Ingres' La Source.  Arnheim is concerned that the image is so lifelike and sensuous that it makes "the observer almost forget that he is looking at" a work of art. Brand observes that the male observer has an "automatic response to the sexuality depicted" and it is difficult to be disinterested as a result. So, Arnheim's response is initially "unabashedly interested." Nonetheless Arnheim is subsequently able to focus on formal properties of the painting, i.e. the devices that make it "such a complete representation of life." Brand observes that he is able to isolate and interpret these properties because, as he says in another book, he can "peel off the context" to perceive the object "as though it existed in complete isolation" i.e. by way of "an abstraction" blocking associations with, as Brand puts it, "actual nude girls."  

This attempt to achieve mastery over one's own bodily response is, however, seen by most feminists as masculinist and as wrongful psychological censure.[1]  But Brand sees it as useful for the purposes of feminism.  It is not that she thinks that the observer can become totally neutral and unbiased or that one can become an unflawed mirror (as Stolnitz thought):  her view is that one can be disinterested in a relatively weak way, although, as we shall see, this is a weak way of putting the point.
Brand's main example is the work of Orlan called The Reincarnation of St. Orlan, a performance work in which Orlan seeks to represent "an ideal formulated by male desire" using the medium of her own body to deconstruct such images of women, and she does this by way of submitting herself to surgery.  The goal is to get women to not engage in reconstructive surgery.  

There are a lot of issues here but I want to keep to the question of the value of disinterestedness for the feminist.  One very effective way to discuss this issue is to focus on one image from Orlan's piece:  a scene from "Seventh Plastic Surgical Operation," Nov. 21, 1993.

The issue Brand raises is whether the empathy we naturally feel towards this woman under surgery should be or even can be blocked in order to perceive her disinterestedly, i.e. in such a way as to be fascinated by the "compositions of lights and darks" and by the "indecipherable" nature of the instruments and body parts.

Brand claims that she is taking a position "between the two extremes:  the traditional endorsement of masculinist disinterestedness ...and its feminist antithesis."  She is arguing for reconfiguring the masculinist approach "along revisionist lines." This can be achieved by "toggling" between the interested and disinterested approaches. (We shall see later that “toggling” is not quite the right metaphor for what Brand proposes.)  Now with respect to the image here: "seeing a still photograph out of its original context - a videotape of the surgical process - a viewer of a single image documenting Orlan's 'Omnipresence' scrambles to clarify the ambiguities of what is seen." 
We need to bear in mind (Brand does not mention this) that single shots like this are often considered part of the artwork, or one way of perceiving the artwork, when it comes to performance pieces.  In other words the performance is the event plus the still shots, often framed in galleries, and so forth.  The artwork is a collection of various related items and events. 

Interested attention (IA) occurs when one empathizes with the artist (or with the woman pictured, if one does not know her identity), but "a quick reminder that the image is a work of art and not just a picture of someone's cosmetic surgery might cause another reversal, this time a disengagement with the rapport one has established - a reversal of personal interest - to an intellectual engagement with the content of the work of art" i.e. recognition of Orlan's goal to "deconstruct mythological images of women" --- this would be Disinterested attention (DA) in the revisionist mode: that is, such attention would "engage intellectually and disengage emotionally" with the work.

Things may be a bit confusing here.  So I will hypothesize what I think Brand is getting at.  Let us posit the movement here as one that begins with the interested attention that goes along with the exploitive male gaze (Orlan is seen as properly enhancing her features through plastic surgery in order to better accommodate male desire) followed by disinterested attention of the classic sort in which the image of Orlan is seen in terms of lines and colors in certain relations and in which the initial male gaze is bracketed, followed by a feminist interested perception, in which Orlan is seen with sympathy, followed finally by a feminist disinterested perception which incorporates feminist theory, a kind of move to greater objectivity. The entire sequence is hardly the same as toggling a light switch:  for. although it goes from IA to DA to IA and back to DA, the IAs and DAs are different.

Going back to La Source, one can attend to the work using both DA and IA.  In DA one can focus on the color, texture and balance of the painting, and from IA (of the feminist sort) one can note that it objectifies the male gaze. 

There is much rather confusing talk in Brand's paper about psychologically ambiguous images such as the famous duck/rabbit, old woman, and pronged figures.  Her idea is that we perceive similarities between our mental sets and what we disambiguate (168).  She notes that in the psychological perceptual experiment using pronged figures when we get disambiguating visual cues we will read the pronged figures one way rather than another, and that "unambiguous sexualized predispositions" similarly explain the tendency for males like Arnheim to see La Source originally in a sexualized way.  (Why Brand believes that male sexualized predispositions are unambiguous is beyond me.) DA then allows them to switch and see it in another way, and presumably opens them up (although this is not explained in this article) to a second form of IA which is feminist.  I think the best way to deal with this material on perceptual ambiguity is to skip through it quickly since there is, after all, no cumulative aesthetic value in switching between the different ways of seeing the ambiguous pictures studied by psychologists.

Brand then tells us that "What is taking place [in the first DA] is a deliberate dis-ing of the gazer's tendency to use, take advantage of, desire, or possess the girl that is pictured [in the Ingres painting];  it is an attempt to be open to receiving all the impressions that the work can provide.  It is a shift toward the eighteenth-century concept of disinterestedness, which is clearly a denial of Arnheim's initial and intrusive interests:  an attraction to the work's sensuality..."  As a heterosexual male I take offense at the idea that my way of looking at women I find sexually desirable is always associated with the desire to exploit and dominate, that I am incapable of a sexualized look that is also caring or respectful, and therefore that in order to appreciate The Nude I have to set aside these naturally exploitative desires.  I do not have to be masculinist to be masculine, although I recognize that we all may have unconscious masculinist prejudices.  But let’s set that aside for more interesting issues. 
I think I can clear up one point here.  Brand sees those habituated to the male gaze as having to "sort through the confusion of interpretations" of the image of the Ingres nude and the image of the bruised Orlan.  The interpretations in question of the nude are simply those of masculinist IA vs. classical DA.  The Orlan case is a bit more complicated as she does not present herself on the operating table as an attractive object for the masculinist IA, or rather, she does only ironically presents herself as such, since for example she is “made up” even though on the operating table, whereas in fact, under the male gaze she can only be seen as sexually unattractive unlike the nude in The Source.   So the confusion here is significantly different in type in each case. 

In her essay Brand sets up Arnheim as a kind of hero, for unlike such disinterestedness theorists as Alison and Stolnitz, he saw that the work does not simply "yield" an impression but rather that a process of abstraction/subtraction is needed to attain DA.  This process, she argues, actually adds to his experience of the painting thus making him "more open to all the impressions that the work might provide." Brand will use this idea to construct a new level of DA for the feminist, one that comes after the feminist IA.  

However, as Brand correctly observes, the initial DA, even that of Arnheim, does not provide a full experience of the work, since it blocks significance that can only be regained by "imaginative exercise of IA" i.e. a switch not only away from conditioned viewing of the image formed by the male gaze but to viewing the girl, in the case of The Source, as "embarrassed by her nakedness." Such a switch, Brand thinks, opens one to "more impressions than ever before."

What I had not realized on my first reading of Brand but which is now apparent, is that the second, feminist, IA is a matter of adding a context, of telling a story, one that may or may not be literally doesn't really matter.  It doesn't matter whether Ingres’ model actually had the feelings of being embarrassed by her nakedness. What matters is that she can easily be seen under this story since this story is true to a common or general experience of women who suffer under the exploitative male gaze.  That is why Brand refers to it as "the imaginative exercise of IA."  So, rather than subtracting context, which Arnheim recommended for IA, this is a matter of adding context, of "building" interest, one that opens the viewer to more impressions. 

So the process Brand envisions is from IA to DA and then to IA (the feminist IA that adds context), and then, but Brand neglects to make this entirely clear, back to DA again by way of a bracketing of the emotional level of response in order to attain the feminist intellectual level.  This comes out, rather vaguely, when she says, "The feminist viewer of Ingre's nude or Orlan's surgeries - whose tendency is to adopt a more physically and bodily based interested stance (IA) like Arnheim's - may also benefit from the lesson of undergoing an intellectualizing and abstracting process" i.e. of moving to the second, feminist DA.  The is confused by the fact that Orlan does not adapt an IA like Arnheim's since she explicitly offers her performance pieces as representing an ideal formulated by male desire and as having the goal of discouraging women from reconstructive surgery.  So, the images from Orlan's performance can now be seen in terms of the feminist theories of Mulvey and the feminist intentions of Orlan herself.  For Brand, the benefit of DA for the feminist observer is the "intellectualizing and abstracting process" not made available through the IA of feminist empathy.  Where Brand goes wrong, and against her own intentions, is to think of the feminist as somehow benefiting from the classical IA in a direct way, saying that "the feminist who looks upon Ingres' nude formalistically is self-consciously and deliberately shedding her feminist lens to view the work as disinterestedly as possible."  The problem here is with the notion of "shedding her feminist lens."
Brand mistakes her own theory when she says that, for the feminist, "[v]iewing La Source in terms of geometry and color adds to the variety of experiences she [the feminist] gains from the piece."  (168)  That is confusing the feminist IA with the original IA.   Brand just thinks her own "revised" DA may be more difficult when it comes to political art since, in the case of Orlan, one needs to "shift toward viewing bloody facial features as combinations of reds and purples, darks and lights..."  This is coupled in Brand's mind with a "shift to reflection on the concept of women and of art exploited by the performance series."  Yet just seeing the facial features in formalist terms is not the goal at all.  The goal is to see them in terms of the feminist IA and DA.  Brand is just confusing the traditional formalist perception advocated by Clive Bell and the intellectualist perception informed by feminist theory.

There is a deep reason for this and it has to do with Brand's misconception of her own idea of toggling.  Briefly, the move from IA to DA to feminist IA and then to feminist DA is not a matter of just switching perspectives.  The previous perceptions are carried into the later ones in a way very unlike the ambiguous figures which had so misled Brand, and very much like what John Dewey refers to when he speaks of the flow of art experience being one that carries the past into the present and projects into the future.  When, in looking at the photograph of Orlan's performance, one is "looking at bloody facial features as combinations of red and purples" this is not a matter of replacing the one form of perception with the other but rather of being very aware that these are bloody facial features as we attend to them formalistically:  you can't stop thinking of the fact that they are bloody facial features. There is no purely formalist way to look at this photograph, nor do I think we should even try.  The reds and purples take on a different look, a different intensity, when we know they are reds and purples of rendered human flesh, just as the initial awareness that this is human flesh is intensified when we focus on the formalist aspect of the work.  These reds and purples take on a different meaning again (and, let me suggest, increase in intensity) when we understand the entire performance under the feminist intentions of Orlan.  The process is not just one of opening up to new experiences, but cumulative.

Brand’s conclusion is not as powerful as it should be.  It is not simply that looking at the painting or the performance piece would open the feminist up to more experiences of a formalist sort but that there are other layers of meaning that enhance and enrich the experience as we work through them.   Further, some aspect of this is even to be found in the original construction of DA in the 18th century as we look at it now under contemporary lenses, insofar as it was directed against seeing things in terms of ego and possession and moved ethically towards treating the object portrayed as a thing in itself. My conclusion is that the "toggling" (perhaps mislabeled because of its association with a mere on/off switch) Brand describes is a way to deepen our understanding of a work and that the enhancement by toggling is not just additive but transformative in a progressive way.  This has implications that go far beyond debates over feminist interpretation since Brand's concept of toggling between DA and IA contributes to resolving the great debate between formalism and contextualism.

[1] lt seems peculiar that feminists would have a problem with men censoring feelings that have negative implications for women.  I wonder whether Brand has these other feminists right here.  

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