Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

The Fluid Gaze: Wittgenstein, Western Dominance, and Cultural Porosity


18th century casta painting, via Wikimedia Commons

What follows is a guest post by Olivier Berggruen.

In recent memory, a number of voices have emerged, questioning the dominance of a primarily Western view of art history. We see this in textbooks, cultural institutions, and museums. Some critics see it as exclusionary; it perpetuates a hegemonic discourse at the expense of historically marginalized voices, especially those of women and the LGBTQI+ and BIPOC communities. There is an assumption that the construction of cultural identity has relied on a Eurocentric way of framing visual and literary culture. In the visual arts, some critics have identified an omniscient ‘White gaze’. This gaze, a way of looking that affirms a Western, European perspective at the expense of others, has increasingly been challenged by a more plural and diverse resistance that exists outside monolithic power structures.

A closer look at how gender, race, or class have affected the construction of cultural identity in the West reveals deeply entrenched power structures within cultural institutions where these points of view have been sidelined. Our cultural biases stem from a belief that our perception of the world is tethered to notions of identity that are inscribed within a particular community. It can lead to common terms such as ‘the male gaze’ and ‘the Black gaze.’ But how could our cognitive faculties be categorized within such distinct groupings? A particular gaze may certainly be shaped by your background, how you relate to an aesthetic object within a specific cultural context. But aren’t there other things that influence the act of seeing? Can we also argue in favor of an aesthetic disposition of sorts, one that cuts across cultures? 

I want to explore first the possibility that judgments of taste can outgrow local practices and cultural frameworks. If we agree that visual perception is influenced by one’s cultural horizon and education, we should also acknowledge that the way we see the world can switch dramatically within these paradigms. This depends in part on our ability to see things in a different light, as in the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sense of aspect-seeing. But it could also be because I choose to reject the circumstances that define me culturally—the culture and aesthetics in which I grew up. Secondly, I will explore notions of cultural fluidity by appealing to the idea that cultural representations are subject to influence and various forms of influence, thereby undermining fixed cultural and national identities.

Holistic Contextualism

First, let’s take a look at the notion of holistic contextualism. Holistic contextualism is the view that how we represent and understand the world around us is defined by our traditions, customs, as well as the discourse that exists within a community. Our appreciation of aesthetics also exists within the contexts of culture and history. In this respect, we may find Wittgenstein’s emphasis on individual cases and examples—at the expense of general or reductive cases—helpful. In his Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, for instance, Wittgenstein defines aesthetic appreciation as the upshot of a set of temporal and social circumstances. Our gaze is inscribed within a cultural and historical framework, which gives rise to various sensory modalities and associated skills. Wittgenstein says, for example, that how one interacts with an African tribal mask will vary depending on one’s traditions, customs, and community. For its creator, the mask may conjure divine or magical powers. In contrast, a European collector ignores those features but is interested in it primarily as an aesthetic object. “You appreciate [each artwork] in an entirely different way; your attitude to it is entirely different to that of a person living at the time it was designed”, says Wittgenstein. “You cannot assess yourself properly if you are not well-versed in the categories.” By categories, Wittgenstein means the broader cultural, political, and social context. So, for him, ideas of beauty become enmeshed in communities, fluctuating in time and place.

(Psychologist Joseph Jastrow’s duck-rabbit, 1899) A Gestalt switch happens when you go from seeing the image as a duck to seeing it as a rabbit (or vice-versa). It is a switch in how we holistically represent the image.

Aspect seeing

Here we may find useful Wittgenstein’s notion of seeing-as. Developed in his late masterpiece, Philosophical Investigations, the idea of seeing-as illustrates how we look at a work of art, how we listen to a piece of music. It is also referred to as aspect seeing, where, just like in Gestalt-theory experiments, the beholder privileges certain aspects of a complex configuration over others. The idea is that we can see, hear, taste different things by focusing on various perceptual aspects. We experience a work of art in a specific manner, against a particular background. In his lectures, comprehension is likened to seizing a global configuration. A piece of music or a painting is understood in a certain manner, like a waltz or a march, like a conversation piece or a romantic landscape. At times, Wittgenstein uses the notion of Aufleuchten (literally ‘lighting up’) to describe the way in which we recognize a face in a painting: all of a sudden, an aspect that illuminates the work we behold comes to the fore.

Aspect seeing moves away from fixed meaning and signification toward the realm of comprehension and various possible readings. What emerges is a notion of the aesthetic not just as a discourse about art, but in more general terms, as a discussion of the relation between the beholder and a work of art: ‘You have to see it like this.’ Visual transitions do more than interpret things or objects we’ve already seen. They also enable us to see something new, from another vantage point. Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) will be seen differently if we look at it from the point of view of the development of Cubism, or if we juxtapose it next to Faith Ringgold’s painting American People Series #20 (1967), in which case they reveal a commonality between images of repression and violence.

The society to which I belong will influence my understanding of the world; my gaze has a certain quality, depending on the circumstances, the context, and how I was educated. For instance, in Victorian England, the writings of John Ruskin and Walter Pater reveal a certain aesthetic that positions itself away from political and social concerns. In other words, the life of forms, in a Platonic sense, was deemed superior to everyday material concerns. We could argue that the value given to the purely aesthetic—the emphasis on visual and spatial qualities—may originate in a kind of sublimation of sexually repressed desires that were embedded in the Victorian era. In this way, we can see Ruskin and Pater’s gazes as compliant with and dictated by their historical circumstances. However, what I deem valuable can also go against the grain of mainstream society. A classic example is the young Pablo Picasso whose gaze (as embodied in his cubist paintings) rose against the prevalent values of the time, or the utopia of Suprematism in Kasimir Malevich’s abstractions during the rise of the Bolshevik regime. Malevich’s abstraction was so countercultural, in fact, that the authorities asked him to switch back to a kind of figuration that could advance the cause of social realism. The main takeaway from this is that artists’ gazes need not comply with historical circumstance; artistic revolutions can occur precisely by debunking previous paradigms as well as deeply entrenched assumptions.

Cultural Influences

The point here is that even though certain things are seen in a different light or through different aspects, others are common and shared by a variety of communities.  Aren’t there some dispositions that are widely, if not universally shared by people, innate aptitudes that go along with our biological play? Igniting a sense of awe within us when we are faced with certain ‘aesthetic’ aspects of the natural world, these form a common substratum before any construction of the aesthetic is shaped. (Scientific data has shown that children exhibit the first signs of taste, of a pure aesthetic awareness at a very young age. A child’s taste may be elementary, yet it indicates a sensitivity to aesthetic types that are uninfluenced by custom and convention.) And whatever changes in aspect-seeing occur from one person to another, from one community to the next, some aspects might be more emphatic, making them more resonant.

Perhaps I am being naive; one might say, with the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, that the socialization of aesthetics is inevitable and that it leads to the fragmentation of the visual space. These fragmented delineations often overlap with identity politics. In the end, the need to affirm pervasive power structures—a legitimate goal—may conceal more fluid situations in which the possibility of cross-cultural encounters are acknowledged.  Competing agendas and hierarchies may reflect how knowledge is produced and might be appropriate in trying to make sense of general patterns, but can also lead to various forms of essentialism against which I would caution.  I am more interested in opening up spaces in which boundaries and hierarchies are allowed to become porous.

When a judgement of taste derives its inspiration from specific localized practices, if those are shared by other cultures, the judgment in question can cross the boundary between them. The positioning of cultural artifacts within an anthropological or historical framework does not preclude them from being viewed across and beyond the cultures from which they originate.

In the midst of these variable elements, there are connections between different forms of the gaze, so to speak. The use of intermediate cases for understanding our aesthetic reactions is related to the notion of ‘family resemblance’, which Wittgenstein introduces in his Philosophical Investigations. It is a comparative method aimed at characterizing relations between entities that do not necessarily have a set of properties in common, but nonetheless, “are related to one another in many different ways” (§67).

In his Lectures on Aesthetics, he puts it this way: “Suppose you meet someone in the street and he tells you that he has lost his greatest friend, in a voice extremely expressive of his emotion. You might say: ‘It was extraordinarily beautiful, the way he expressed himself.’ Suppose you then asked: ‘What similarity has my admiring this person with my eating vanilla ice cream and liking it?’ To compare them almost seems disgusting. But you connect them through intermediate cases” (Part II, Section 4).

If we can connect different ways of seeing by using intermediary cases, we should also recognize that in a broader sense, cultures are too hybrid to yield completely separate ways of making sense of the world. After all, people may be swimming in different cultural waters; the question remains, is it possible to claim these territories as self-contained, instead of describing them as ‘contaminated’? Any notion of distinct cultural communities needs to be tempered, because so-called distinct communities permeate each other constantly, and they cannot be reduced to fully individual, separate identities. Such ideas about the purity and singularity of cultures denies the interplay between various forms of life, which has shaped modern history in particular; cultures influencing one another is unavoidable, except in rare cases. Yinka Shonibare’s work is a good example of this cultural porosity. It references the complex origin of Batik cloth, which is associated with West African culture and can be traced back to Dutch merchants who imported it from Indonesia, where it had originally been rejected.

Similar ideas have been articulated, though from a different perspective, by the French-Martiniquan writer and critic Edouard Glissant. Each and every time different groups encounter one another, even within the context of colonialism in Africa or the Americas, there’s a possibility for new coalitions and absorptions, new relations and entanglements. Needless to say, there is a distinction between appropriation and exploitation, which needs to be addressed. As Glissant wrote in The Poetics of Relation, “Relation contaminates, sweetens, as a principle, or as flower dust.”  It is not a flattening we should arrive at, but a multiplicity, which cannot be essentialized. The African-American artist Kandis Williams, for instance, plays with Western notions of Blackness, only to layer them with images of a hybrid nature, with shards of the past that testify to complex and at times vexed historical circumstances.

At this point I want to make it clear that I am advocating for the idea that the conditions that define our views of the world are indeed culturally determined, albeit without being monolithic. That they need to allow for some measure of porosity especially in the modern era, when economic and cultural exchanges have become more prevalent. Even if such exchanges often remained unequal, they have led to the development of models for cross-cultural exchange.

As we return to the Black, queer, or feminist gaze, let us recognize that these are fundamental modalities of our experience; they make it possible for the gaze to be fluid, shifting and iterative. Our lives are made up of different ways of seeing, be it affective or otherwise. Some ways of seeing are given more weight than others, yet our experience reflects a complexity that can only be accounted for through specific, detailed, and nuanced descriptions. We use common identity labels relating to race, sexual orientation, or gender and its expression as shorthand for canonical expressions of certain dispositions or clusters. This shorthand may be useful and true to the human experience, yet there is room for fuller, more detailed descriptions that reflect the variety and depth of our sensory experience.

We have the ability to switch between different modes of engagement; our view of the world constantly shifts as we are pulled by contradictory forces. These dynamic processes are conducive to a change of perspective—how we look at artifacts, at our environment, at ourselves and other sentient beings. Our cognitive and emotional dispositions are in flux, allowing for shifts of perspective, thus surpassing any strict definition of cultural context and identity. 

This idea that syncretism, porosity, influence, and connections can overcome the initial clash of cultures is not a new one. Seemingly static frameworks can become territories of exchange, with language often serving as a common substratum. Within such territories, the articulation of the gaze is plural: it is subject to change, critique, and various modalities that bend our understanding of the past. If we chart the lines of demarcation and fracture and chart the underlying gaze, if we study a whole range of reactions to the world around us, we have to recognize that these reactions are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Our vision, the manner in which we contemplate a painting (or, for that matter, a natural landscape) is layered. It allows for a host of different factors to exist, for individual variations in feelings, emotions, and familiarity. Once we recognize that our apprehension of the world is neither monolithic nor constant, but always fluid, then we gain a whole new perspective on the many ways in which we can absorb the world around us. 

For their comments and research, I would like to thank Ruth Chang, Alex King, Rémi Labrusse, Ali Van, Michele Welsing, and especially Paul Boghossian and Mebrak Tareke.

Born in Switzerland, Olivier Berggruen studied art history at Brown University and at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London before being appointed Associate Curator at the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt. He currently lives in New York, continuing his work as a curator and writer with an interest in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. See more at

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