“We Don’t Go ‘Gazing’ At Art”

Although Ingrid Rowland’s thoughtfully critical review of Hans Belting’s Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science is not available in full online, it contains a small disquisition on a topic of interest to theorists of and writers on contemporary art. The relevant excerpt:

Belting’s arguments suffer particular damage in English translation because they hinge so directly on the word almost always rendered as “gaze.” In academic English for the past three decades or so, “gaze” has conjured up a whole series of associations that originate with Jacques Lacan and his ideas about the way that sight shapes thought (or “scopic regimes,” which sounds only slightly less outré in French than it does in English). To our collective misfortune, “gaze” and “the gaze” entered the Anglophone vocabulary through a translator’s effort to find the right English word to match Lacan’s “regard.” But “gaze” is not that word. Lacan’s regard meant an incisive look that has nothing whatsoever to do with gazing. “Gaze,” like “berserk,” is one of the marvelous Scandinavian contributions to the English vocabulary for mental derangement. It means an unfocused, mindless kind of looking, the kind of stupefied contemplation that brings to mind operative lovers doting on miniature portraits of the beloved, the rapt stare that Narcissus showered upon his own reflection, and stargazers turned upward obsessively to the heavens in the minds of their unappreciative contemporaries. A gaze is, indeed, the exact opposite of a pointed and precise regard, or an equally pointed and precise German Blick. Translators of Chinese and japanese have usually used the word “view” for this kind of intelligent looking—a much more appropriate description of the activity at hand, as our own English usage proves: we say “point of view” and “viewer,” rather than “point of gaze” and “gazer,” because gazing never focuses on a point, and we don’t go “gazing” at art, or “gazing for” someone, we go “looking.” Tellingly, Belting drops the misleading term for his own discussion of Al-Hazen’s optics and speaks of “seeing” and “glancing.”

By now, however, one translator’s unhappy choice in rending Lacan has become the byword for two generations of English-speaking scholars who would classify themselves as “critical” and “theoretical” while accepting, uncritically and with utter lack of theoretical sophistication, a grossly misleading term for one of their fundamental concepts.

For the rest of Rowland’s review, see the December 29 issue of The New Republic.