Lacan, Jacques · What is a Picture?

Lacan explores the ways in which we interpret art through the use of mathematical formulas. In essence, he believes that how we read a picture or a person is not just about how it looks visually, but the assumptions we place on it. When gazing at others we also gaze at ourselves. I, in part, am determined by how others see me.

In the act of looking, there is the gaze, the subject of the representation, and that which comes inbetween the two. We can tell ourselves that what we’re looking at is a representation and that there really is a thing beyond that representation, but with our limitations we will never really know that “thing beyond”. As nihilistic as that is, Lacan mentions lightheartedly that that is ok, everything works out for the best because why is it important to see the truth when it is subjective already?

We project our fantasies onto our partners, romantically speaking. It’s all just a bunch of masks and we can’t change how others view us. What is a Picture? has been one of the most interesting reads of this course, as it appeals to the negative side of myself. Or should I say, my nihilistic mask?

In the context of art, Lacan speaks to how when we interpret art we are in part projecting what we want to see instead of seeing the piece as it is. If we were to follow his logic, then the artist would not be entirely responsible to how viewers interpret the work. If we will never be fully understood by one another then how does our art fare?

The projections we place on others and on art reminded me of Dana Schutz’s controversial Open Casket (2016) painting. As much as I despise that she rendered a lynched young Black man as an abstract painting when his disfigured face was meant to be seen as the result of an act of hatred, art is in part what we project onto it. She may be projecting her excuse of empathy onto the painting, but that is definitely not what the majority reads.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, (1926).

O’Keeffe’s large, detailed paintings of flowers are constantly interpreted as vaginas and vulvas and anything to do with female anatomy. Unfortunately, I feel that this conception about her work undercuts her value as one of the most talented painters of the 20th century.

Wendy Red Star’s White Squaw (2014) series pokes fun at indigenous representation in pop culture by inserting herself into old harlequin romance novels. Her art explores the ways in which indigenous people are gazed at, how we gaze at ourselves, and how we continue to exist and thrive.

Wendy Red Star. Grandmothers (I Come as One, I Stand as Ten Thousand), 2017.