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illustration by Jessica Del Greco The Panoptic Gaze: Art and Transformation Under the Watcher
by Julie Moser

Art is not created in a vacuum, and there are countless critics that deconstruct creations based on a variety of cultural conditions. Economic circumstances, race differences, gender identity and a number of other cultural categories are commonly examined by critics who explore how they inform and influence artists and their creations. But one condition that often gets overlooked is how the spectator gaze -- the audience itself -- affects creators and creations.

The Panopticon was a prison model created by Utilitarianist philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The design of the panopticon left the prisoner subject to observation at any time by possible viewers. It was assumed that this surveillance would prevent those possibly being watched from doing anything “wrong.” An inmate who feared being watched may abstain, for instance, from behavior s/he might otherwise engage in if no one was around “see.”

But the key to the panopticon was that it didn’t leave anyone out of its “Big Brother” system. The jailers themselves were open to possible monitoring. Everyone was a possible subject of outside observation, and that possibility was supposed to act as an internal paranoid-response mechanism to keep behavior in check.

Nowadays the idea of surveillance is a given. We all accept that cold, mechanical eye when we take money out of our ATM account. We assume that there are cameras in almost every public space -- in malls and grocery stores, mounted on streetlights and in police cars. We know the Internet -- as wonderful as it is -- also serves as a large tracking device to monitor our choices and target us as consumers based upon those choices.

Our entire world has become one giant panopticon. But how does this panoptic world affect us as creators? If our economic circumstances can influence how we produce, why can’t the internalized structure of the panoptic gaze affect us as well?

It’s likely that “Big Brother” isn’t controlled by one cigarette-smoking white male, Oz or Santa Claus. It’s also likely that the invisible camera we think follows us around, taping our lives into a long and dull movie, is simply a construct we haven’t figured out how to destroy. There is, however, the possibility that other fellow beings are or might someday watch us and the creations we make.

Every creation -- no matter how personal the creator would claim it to be -- is affected by the possibility of being seen. Every process of creation is affected by a multiplicity of possible gazes.

Even if a creator intends to be the sole experiencer of the creations s/he makes -- keeping work to her or his self -- perspectives waver and change. No creator is stagnant. The vision and the envisioned changes.

Andy Warhol was only half right. Each person’s 10 minutes of fame -- their moments of transgressive exuberance, their dramatic flare for the unusual -- is often played out for an audience of one: One with an imagined spectator projected out in a paranoid delusion of grandeur.

The artist is never alone -- is never outside the popular and low culture s/he may claim to disdain or be elevated from. Rather, s/he is a product of culture’s most extreme schizophrenia.

In an age that creates rock ‘n roll heroes with the same breath as it debases actual investment in the world, the artist is always a poor performance. S/he gestures in a common code broken easily by ad reps and big business. Because s/he is constructed as a subject of an interior gaze, her/his work is always inauthentic and without a clear, independent origin.

What is odd is that the artist typifies the individual, and as such, shows us our own fractures and inconsistencies in exaggerated proportion. If the creator is a fabrication, an imagined self contrasted against an imagined audience, how ‘authentic’ are our lived and felt experiences?

But should we even be concerned about concepts of authenticity? If artists are actors -- along with presidents, poets, business tycoons, rock stars, murderers and celebrities of every type -- where can the ‘authentic’ self be found? And how much time should we waste looking for it?

Ultimately, how a person’s work coalesces with our own sense of reality is what matters. No work of art is created in a vacuum, and no work of art stands alone. What is important is how we interact with art -- how we internalize and learn from it.

We have a tendency to mistake the creator for the created, for displacing the lesson and deifying the teacher. But maybe we shouldn’t take it all so seriously: It’s not like the world is watching.


Julie A. Moser struggles to live life as a verb. While working toward a PhD in English with a concentration on manifest destiny in American literature, Moser works as a freelance reporter by spinning facts into easily digestible sound bytes and publishes Segue Into Living Arts, a New Hampshire arts tabloid. Moser draws inspiration from the world's playground and admires the playful investment seen in such artists as Gabor Szabo, Marquis DeSade, Nathaniel West, Michele Foucault and ferrets (past and present) Crash, Hendrix, Lucy, Shadow, Happy, Emmet and Wilbur.

Email: juliemoser@yahoo.com


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