Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze by Norman Bryson; Yale University Press; New Haven, CT.

Western painting—at least that which was produced before the advent, or onslaught, of photography in the 19th century—shares a characteristic with a trinket that could once be found in cereal boxes and gum ball machines: the flicker ring. The surface of this ring always shows an image; precisely what it is depends on the way that light impinges on it.There are three possibilities: two clear pictures and a blur. For the most part, the realist tradition has long held sway in the West: Norman Bryson commences his discussion with Pliny’s story about Zeuxis, wherein Zeuxis paints grapes that are so lifelike that birds try to eat them. In effect, the Western painter has had to act as a sort of sterilized or neutral conduit that per ceives and two-dimensionally recreates the objects of perception. Bryson notes that style, which many now consider to be one of the key traits that makes an artist more than a painter, was long considered by the cognoscenti to be a “personal deviation.” Imagine what a man from the quattrocento would do when faced with a Braque or a De Kooning. The flicker-ring nature of realist painting is this: at one angle it is a counterfeit of the actual object(s), at the other it is a pigment-covered piece of cloth. Bryson attempts to hold up the tradition at a third angle so that there is a blur, a more indistinct image. In doing so, he becomes rather iconoclastic, stating from the start that as far as he’s concerned, Sir Ernst Gombrich’s answer to the question “What is a painting?”, “The record of a perception,” is “fundamentally wrong.” He bases his belief on his insistence that a painting is more, that the artist is a social being who doesn’t merely render what he sees in a purely optic sense because he has been conditioned to perceive various objects in the light of the culture in which he exists. Bryson then moves on to the sacred cows of semiotics—Barthes, in particular—and maintains that their formalist grids, which try to limit the boundaries of a painting to the square inches of paint, are simply deficient because “the conditions of material life” that exist outside the frame are generally ignored: “painting is embedded in social discourse which formalism is hardly able to see.”

Bryson cites Chinese painting as being, in a sense, superior to Western productions in that they are more self. reflexive: “Painting in China is predicated on the acknowledgment and indeed the cultivation of deitic markers.” That is, whereas Western
painting tends to try to efface its materiality (i.e., real grapes, not paint), the Chinese brush strokes effectively call attention to themselves as brush strokes while simultaneously portraying a mountain or a bamboo grove. Bryson insists “that painting as sign must be the fundamental assumption of a materialist art history; that the place where the sign arises is the interindividual territory of recognition; that the concept of the sign’s meaning cannot be divorced from its embodiment in context.” As program notes for a critical practice, these pointers are not wholly incorrect: a painted image certainly signifies more than that which it portrays, assuming that it is meant to have social currency and is not merely a creation for the sake of itself; the perceptions of the viewers must be taken into account (e.g., whereas a Byzantine painter knew that his audience would automatically know the chapter and verse of his image, a contemporary viewer of the same thing requires a highly annotated field guide to Christianity ). Too great a concern with the painting as image can lead to a sterile aestheticism; too great a concern with the social milieu can lead to Socialist Realism. A fine line must be drawn with a steady hand. But Bryson’s ring finger is gesticulating wildly and the consequent blur isn’t particularly illuminating.