Being of the Gaze

6.4 / Free Speech in the Art World

Being of the Gaze

By Colleen Asper May 27, 2015

In a free-market democracy, freedom is the means of maintaining one’s position within a system of structural oppression. Rights are something one has, like noise-cancelling headphones or a phallus. Equality, however, is not something you can have; it subtracts itself from every particularity. There is no freedom without equality.

When the phallus puts on its noise-cancelling headphones, and you realize you are the noise…

At a school where I taught, I attended a meeting about the retirement of one of two women teaching fulltime in the painting department. The president had not committed to hiring a replacement for her, so we strategized about how to best advocate for this. We each voiced our strongest arguments for maintaining this position while one of us took notes. My argument was that it was outrageous to have only one woman teaching fulltime in a department with a student population that was eighty percent women. I gave as an example—though I hardly thought my point was complex enough to need one—a senior who had recently confided in me a case of sexual harassment, ongoing since she was a freshman; she hadn’t previously had a teacher with whom she felt comfortable talking about this. When we received the notes from the meeting, my point appeared as:

  • Academic diversity; Figurative, representational perspective

The need for more women faculty and an example that included sexual abuse had somehow been translated into these five words. Woman, so often called upon to represent the body, had become a figure that in turn slid into figurative painting. Institutions have come to realize that diversity, unlike equality, is compatible with capitalism. Diversity has become a soft blanket used to swaddle the violence of historical and present inequities, to make of them a manageable form in which difference is variously tolerated or celebrated. And thus, as is so often the case in art history, woman has disappeared, only to be replaced by her representation.

Colleen Asper. Man Has the Gaze, 2014; watercolor on paper; 30 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Man not only has a phallus, he also has a gaze.

For Lacan, the gaze is an instrument of the real: “If beyond appearance there is nothing in itself, there is the gaze.”1 The subject enters the symbolic order through understanding itself as an image, something that can be seen and inscribed in language, but this understanding has the quality of a finely woven fabric—its substance is built around many tiny holes. The subject desires to look and be looked at, but the gaze convokes the void. The fabric of the symbolic contains everything but the real, these holes, so the real remains as its radical absence, appearing only to negate the symbolic. The subject is thus split. The gaze becomes a source of anxiety as it carries with it the threat of all (nothing itself) that lies beyond sight.

And yet, the gaze is often described not only as male but also as something the subject has. Man has a gaze, and woman is subjugated to it. In this account, usually traced back to Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the gaze is possessive; what is gazed upon is returned as an object to its owner.2 Here, the symbolic runs the risk of becoming airtight. Certainly this is what it feels like to be embedded within the symbolic, as if being and appearance are one—and for the subject, there is no other bed.

What do you do when the symbolic is suffocating you? Feminist theory has sometimes responded to this conundrum with efforts to either describe or construct a female gaze. Yet the danger of this position is the same as any project of reclamation that tries to appropriate a position of power for the marginalized: women who have a gaze assume a phallic position and subjugate another to it. So what lies on the other side of the phallic position? For Freud, notoriously, it is lack, but, with a characteristic turn of the dialectical screw, Lacan redistributes lack according to the formula: man has the phallus, woman is the phallus. With the realization that ownership can only be proved negatively—one owns something only if one can keep others from having it—lack becomes active: the master needs the slave. Now woman is the gaze.

Having been aligned with the void, woman can either irrupt as negation or disappear as pure passivity. This is certainly where Mulvey places woman in cinema, as castration unleashed or a fetish defanged. But what does it mean to be a gaze rather than to have a gaze? From this perspective, all the hierarchies woven into the symbolic flatten; matter, having nothing left to inscribe it with meaning, becomes pure multiple. Here everything is equal. Can we use this gaze—the anxious gaze behind which quivers the real rather than the comfortable gaze of the phallus—to force equality into the symbolic?

Ted Mineo. Note To Self, 2013; oil on shaped panel; 72 x 12 in. Courtesy of the Artist.  

The phallus dresses up as a pencil (or, when the freedom pencil meets the local pencil).

There is a story, metaphorically rather than historically accurate, about how when NASA discovered ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity, it poured millions of dollars into developing a pen that could be used in space; meanwhile, the Russians simply used pencils. Now that the Cold War is over and we write with our MacBooks, a pencil shop has opened up in New York’s Lower East Side. It’s not unlike how bread was refined for the elite until white bread became cheap and suddenly the bourgeois hastened to return to whole wheat. In a recent interview, the owner of the pencil shop, Caroline Weaver, said of the now-bourgeois objects she carries that have been manufactured in New York and New Jersey, “When people come in and see pencils from there, they get excited about the idea of ‘local’ pencils.”3 She is elsewhere quoted as saying, “It is important to me that everything I sell, [make] or do is genuine.”4 Local products, not unlike diversity, have become a go-to symbol used to assuage liberal guilt and encourage spending. But coupled with a valorization of the genuine, it becomes truly insidious. Who or what belongs in a locale? A citizen whom the law differentiates from the illegal immigrant through violence alongside products that the citizen can afford due to the cheap labor pool the creation of an illegal class provides. Something appears genuine when it naturalizes its position, when it succeeds in erasing a history of violence: the final fascist flourish.

The freedom pencil, or le crayon de la liberté, became a popular symbol of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo after the January 7, 2015, shooting, as did the phrase, “Je suis Charlie.” But what does it mean to be “Charlie Hebdo” and, furthermore, to see in this publication a model of freedom of expression? One doesn’t even have to make the argument that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were racist (though, for the record, I think many of them were) to acknowledge that satirizing Islam is, at the very least, uncomfortably aligned with the perpetuation of Muslims as France’s official domestic enemy and the target not only of jokes but also of violent discrimination. There are holes in the freedom pencil, and they drip blood.

Marika Kandelaki. …the abyss will also gaze into you, 2015; yarn, spray paint, acrylic, epoxy resin, printed paper on panel; 24 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

While it is true that state censorship is alive and well—and also largely unnecessary when most major media outlets are owned by a small number of private firms—I think something is at play in the media’s reproduction of structures of oppression other than a lack of platforms for substantive criticism, whether of the state, commerce, or one of its rarefied forms, contemporary art. Alain Badiou in his essay, “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art,” writes:

Since it is sure of its ability to control the entire domain of the visible and the audible via the laws governing commercial circulation and democratic communication, [globalized capitalism] no longer censures anything.  All art, and all thought, is ruined when we accept this permission to consume, to communicate and to enjoy.  We should become the pitiless censors of ourselves.5

Why, in the absence of censorship, do we use our so-called freedoms largely to reproduce existing structures of oppression? Power makes certain things visible and certain things invisible through means far subtler than prohibition. It teaches us to enjoy our symptom. This being the case, as artists we should not only censor all our impulses to align with what the existing structures of oppression produce, we should work to give form to exceptions to this structure and thus aid in its destruction. In doing so, we must take care never to replace these structures with others that merely maintain another form of inequality, nor should our work make visible to global capital one more identity to name and demographic to which to market. It is not enough to remove the noise-canceling headphones from the phallus only to whisper our name; we must learn to speak among ourselves with disregard for the phallic position altogether. We should create images that picture—whatever paradox this might present—the being of the gaze. 


  1. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978), 103.
  2. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): 6–18.
  3. Susan Cohen, “New Yorker Spotlight: Caroline Weaver Is Making Pencils Cool Again with Her New LES Pencil Shop,” Six Square Feet
  4. Rachel Schwartzmann, “C.W. Pencil Enterprise,” Style Line
  5. Alain Badiou, “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art” (paper presented at the Drawing Center, New York, NY, December 4, 2003),

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