Caravaggio’s Gaze

by Arthur C. Danto

Caravaggio’s Secrets • by Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit • The MIT Press • 118 pp • $25 • October

Literary criticism seems greatly to have been in advance of art criticism in ancient times. There may here or there be an effort to address painting or sculpture critically, but I recall nothing as sharp as Socrates on Simonides or Euripides. Socrates seems bent on redesigning the universe in such a way as to assign the lowest grade of reality to pictures, which he holds in no higher ontological esteem than mirror images or shadows. Nor is there a theory of painting parallel to Aristotle on tragedy. In classical literature, on the other hand, there were arresting descriptions of works of art, like Helen’s working "the numerous struggles of Trojans" into a red robe, and, of course, Homer’s virtuoso description of Achilles’s shield, which came to serve as a model for the rhetorical practice of ekphrasis–creating a vivid image of a picture through words.

For all the appeal of ekphrasis, however, there is an ill-understood limitation on its success, given that the same ekphrasis can be true of two pictures that do not resemble each other at all. Botticelli sought to visualize The Calumny of Apelles from its ekphrasis by Lucian, and though Apelles’s masterpiece is lost, we can be reasonably certain that it would not have resembled Botticelli’s. There have been heroic efforts to construct drawings of the great shield, even though Homer’s description is pictorially so unrealizable as to constitute evidence of his blindness. It might follow that words are no substitute for images and that a good reproduction of a painting exceeds what words can possibly achieve, so that with the increasing accessibility of reproductions the value of ekphrasis declines. This, however, is to construe ekphrasis as if it were merely the equivalent of an image. In fact, the problems it responds to are unresolved by the existence even of exact visual copies, which show us how a picture looks without explaining what it means. Ekphrasis is not merely poetic rapture in the presence of paintings. It is also a close phenomenological reading that brings to consciousness relationships in the work that call for explanatory inferences.

Ekphrasis, in any case, eventually went the way of elocution as a rhetorical skill. "Rhetoric began to give way to criticism," states the article on ekphrasis in the 1996 Dictionary of Art, "and the significance of the work lay less in what it represented than in its place in the history of art." What a loss! Imagine a two-projector art history lecture in which the instructor shows indistinguishable slides of the same painting. The students reflexively look from one to the other in pursuit of the most minute stylistic differences. That is what art history has taught them to do: Instead of addressing Caravaggio’s paintings in terms of what they represent, historians can talk about "caravaggism" as their significance, inviting students to compare Caravaggio’s style with that of other artists. Thus the 1985 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Age of Caravaggio, situated the great paintings in the context of the artist’s contemporaries and the later caravaggisti. Small wonder that art historians prefer to present Caravaggio in tacitly formalist terms: Caravaggism is a radicalized chiaroscuro, readily recognized. I cannot think of a more vivifying change in the academic study of art than switching off one of the projectors and eliciting ekphrastic responses from the class.

The authors of Caravaggio’s Secrets are not specialists in the art of Caravaggio, nor are they art historians. But they are accomplished practitioners of ekphrasis. Ulysse Dutoit teaches film at the University of California at Berkeley. Leo Bersani, a professor of French at the same institution, is a Proust scholar who has in recent years turned his attention to homoerotic and queer themes. This interest explains the restrained but unmistakably erotic emphasis of their approach to Caravaggio’s work–an approach perhaps licensed by the fact that the artist is sometimes believed to have been gay, and certain of his paintings, especially the early pictures of provocatively carnal youths, might be taken as direct evidence of that predilection. Whatever one may say about the authors’ perspective, it illuminates certain "landing sites" in the paintings that have escaped previous attention. Their ekphrases seem to have been arrived at collaboratively–the book feels almost like a polished transcript of a discussion between the authors. Whatever disagreements I may have with the analyses in this slender book, I salute its authors for having reinstated ekphrasis as a way of disclosing the meaning of the art and especially for practicing it as a joint activity. Nothing is more valuable in addressing a work of Caravaggio’s–or of any great artist, for that matter–than producing a collaborative description that is sensitive to how meaning and pictorial detail are connected. I found myself balking at many of the book’s explanatory inferences, but the problems the authors raise so structure the paintings they discuss that one is obliged to perform inferences of one’s own if one rejects theirs. The book addresses us as members of an ekphrastic community.

Getting the description of a painting right is a necessary step in getting the

art criticism right. Consider Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus of 1606, in which Christ reveals himself to his disciples on the day of his Resurrection. Bersani and Dutoit note that "even when Christ appears to have successfully drawn nearly everyone’s look to himself, gazes can be peculiarly off, not quite centered on the object of their apparent attention." It is important to have noticed that Christ "nearly fails to be the place where all gazes converge, either because the gaze just misses him or inexplicably becomes self-reflexive as it takes him in." The characters in Caravaggio’s paintings are often connected through gazes and pointing fingers, but if these are often "ambiguously focused," as Bersani and Dutoit suggest, the question arises as to whether the artist was technically "unable" to show the gaze as striking its target or simply "unwilling." And if the latter, how are we to explain the meaning of the object decentered from the gaze?

I found, by serendipity, a possible explanation in an unlikely source–the comic novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, in which the diarist tries on a dress in a room where others are doing the same thing. "I hate communal changing rooms," she writes. "Everyone stares sneakily at each other’s bodies, but no one ever meets anyone’s eye." The central truth of Supper at Emmaus is that the body is reanimated after death. Bodily survival is one of the mysteries of Christian revelation. The metaphysical and optical uneasiness of Christ’s disciples is perfectly shown in glancing at his body without looking him in the eye. "Slipping glimpses," to use de Kooning’s expression, have a moral dimension, discussed by the ancients under the topic of weakness of will: A citizen in The Republic cannot resist staring at decaying bodies he also knows he is forbidden to see. Caravaggio probably no more read Plato than Bridget Jones’s Diary, but might he not have been using a psychology accessible to both authors to depict the cognitive incertitudes of Christ’s tablemates?

Bersani and Dutoit have a different account: "A certain awkwardness of–or indifference to–techniques of foregrounding and distancing is only one sign of...a profound uncertainty about relational priorities." I gather that a political ideal is meant–no one is more important than anyone else, so no one is by right the focus of a painting. Since Caravaggio "principally painted religious subjects in which relational primacy [the sacred hierarchy governing relationships] could not by definition be questioned," they find it "immensely moving" that the figures in the paintings "simply don’t know where to look." Whether or not this qualifies Caravaggio as "an outlaw, outside all the relational laws given to him," as Bersani and Dutoit propose, the phenomenology adds a certain depth to the fact that the designated figure often gives no sure sign of understanding that he is being designated.

I would hesitate to infer that Caravaggio’s depiction of deflected gazes is the expression of someone outside the laws of Christian faith. Part of what makes Caravaggio so mysterious is that the works simultaneously point to and point away from the mind of the artist. Bersani and Dutoit are not unfamiliar with this ambiguity. In their opening chapter, "Sexy Secrets," they attempt to dispose of the easy inference that Caravaggio is expressing his own homosexuality in his early depictions of young males holding bunches of grapes or baskets of fruit that their own flesh immediately sexualizes. Bersani and Dutoit point out that the figures seem at once to approach and to withdraw–an ambiguity of gesture that parallels the ambiguity of looking and not looking. Caravaggio, they claim, seeks to present a "somewhat enigmatic body"–a body that implies a secret. "Is this secret homosexuality?" they ask. For some time, that has been supposed, but usually on the basis of what they implicitly dismiss as biased phenomenology–seeking evidence of effeminacy in the youths’ postures or expressions, for example. Rightly, they state that "nothing really justifies our believing in an exact correspondence between Caravaggio’s interest in such subjects and a particular (homosexual) identity." That would ignore "the greatest originality of these paintings: their intractably enigmatic quality. Caravaggio’s enigmas are not meant to be read."

Collaborative ekphrasis invites disagreement, whether at the level of phenomenology or explanation, and is rarely definitive. When we have sensed a secret, for example, is this as far as we can go, or is it a sign that we must press further? The naive gay attitude is to regard homosexuality as a hidden but knowable secret. Bersani and Dutoit, however, write that Caravaggio’s Secrets "can[not] be broken down–on the way to knowledge." With the "provocative unreadability" of the youths, "the secret is inherent in their erotic appeal, although there may be nothing to know about them." That may be true of the boys, but in the case of paintings like Supper at Emmaus, some piece of knowledge is withheld that deepens our understanding once we think we have found it. Perhaps the difference is between secrets and mysteries. Whether the fleshly boy is flirting is a secret that may or may not be uncovered. Resurrection is a religious mystery that implies transformations so deep in the way we see the world that we cannot understand it without reference to a higher plane.

The distinction between secrets and mysteries has special relevance in the way Caravaggio handled light in the appropriately dark world–ours–in which his religious enactments transpire. Bersani and Dutoit observe that in The Betrayal of Christ there is no naturalistic explanation of why Christ’s face and hands are illuminated–no torch, no candle, no sunbeam. A traditional art historian would suggest a hidden source of light outside the picture. But Bersani and Dutoit understand Caravaggio’s non-naturalistic lighting through a passage in Proust on a field of buttercups: "The flowers shine in their own being as a result of Marcel’s pleasure being lent to them." For them, Caravaggio’s light seems in some way to parallel religious mystery, though its source is the observer’s pleasure rather than God. But the light in Caravaggio has nothing to do with pleasure, least of all in The Betrayal of Christ. It is a luminous intervention from another plane of being and the mark of some higher meaning. The tremendous scenes narrate the intersection of two planes of being, which is after all the revelation of Christianity. It is not the kind of light for which a literary explanation is possible.

In a revision of the curriculum that pivots the study of painting on ekphrasis, Caravaggio’s Secrets might serve as a model. Bersani and Dutoit’s book is admirable for focusing our attention on the paintings themselves without lapsing into formalism. Still, Caravaggio belongs fully to the Roman Baroque and the atmosphere specified by the Council of Trent. Religion, which permeated Caravaggio’s world, seems a deeper source for explaining his work than flashes of ambiguous eroticism. A beach boy Caravaggio lacks something the Roman Caravaggio possesses. •

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