The guide led the group through the gallery, from the second level to the third.
She led them toward the highlight exhibit.
Her speech went as follows:
We’ve had only a brief look at all the medieval and Renaissance art on the second floor. Some of it is quite minor, a few nice pieces. But it is all images (models) that have an absolute value (a presumed, external model of the model, a meta-model), prescribed — or assumed — by the Church-God regime. In terms of subjectivity, this absolute metamodel includes a notion of viewing-subject-as-worshipper that is just as prescriptive as any.
But now we have ascended to the third floor, and this is where the gallery’s most prized works are kept — the impressionist paintings that once were seen as so revolutionary but now, perhaps, to our image saturated culture today, seem rather twee and kitsch. Just fuzzy pleasant pictures of 19th century Parisian bourgeois life and dotted pastel landscapes.
Have a look at the landscape by Claude Monet for starters. Why exactly is this work revolutionary?
It’s all blurry and the technique for reproducing the image follows an understanding of (the new science of) photography. What is going on? Images understood by artist as self-aware representations, with their representational status encoded within the mode of production. It is a model that includes an understanding of its metamodel’s situation within its very code: this makes it both ontologically circular and really quite clever!
The point is made again and again within this room.
[The audience moves about and inspects the artwork, reflecting upon the reflection of reflection ... The gallery guide has brought them firmly now to the third level.]
But now we come to the other highlight of the third floor.
You get to do something I guess is difficult for the good Muslims protesting outside [titters from the audience at this remark -- for the protesters against Van De Paddo can still be heard], which is stare at girls. Have a good stare at “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” by Manet:
This painting is, for me, central to the understanding of subjectivity and pictures/images/models and their valuation. The Monet landscapes, while reflecting the nature of their picturing/imagining/modelling, do not refer explicitly to the viewing subject. The Manet barmaid does. She is staring at the customer. But who is the real customer of this exchange? You are the customer. Manet depicts this fact in the painting. Looking at it, we enter a virtual world of the image, and the girl’s represented subjectivity in turn situates our subjectivity-within-her-representation. What it truly means to be viewers of the Painting.
Communication occurs between the viewer and the artist/barmaid, across historical time. The painting is impressionist like the rest, because it understands the non-memetic, non-absolute, fluid, temporal nature of representation/images/models. But the painting goes further because it situates — in fact, literally captivates/captures the you — in the relation between your position and gaze, the girl and the mirror. So there is a “selfhood” of the viewer here, but it is included within the painting.
When the painting was first exhibited, many objected to the inaccurate mirror. The mirror shows that the barmaid is serving the man with the beard, whose view we inhabit from our side of the reflection. But it’s not right: the mirror should reflect the viewer/customer and the barmaid from a different angle, and, furthermore, some of the bottles that should clearly be reflected are not painted in the mirror image.
This is deliberate. For Manet’s mirror is on the initial reflection of the artist developing a meta-model of his perception. This reflection is replicated in the channel of the impression’s communication to us via the medium of the work of art itself, a channel of communication over 100 years long now, but still clear and precise. But the mirror, while replicated, is also differentiated: the angle is not our own. For no communication is an isomorphism: communication is exactly a transformation of meta-models. Differentiation between the bearded customer and myself is understood through this anomalous visual key: but still, somehow, we have managed to grasp his impression of this moment in time, to be placed in his position exactly, to become him, quite literally.
Transformation is an exchange between subjects. And all knowledge takes the form of transformation of meta-models. We each have our own model of our impressions: we each have own own meta-model. It’s the language game we play. No two meta-models are ever exactly alike, and quite radically different across the bounds of historical time.
So how do we communicate, if our languages are different? Through transformations that maps our meta-model to that of the other subject’s meta-model. That’s the rule of this level. And this painting’s metaphorical exposition of differentiation — the difference between the reflection and our perspective — throws this into sharp relief. However it is, again, being represented and situated, is again subject to the very process of communication-as-exchange that we discuss.
In the exchange, a communication across cultural histories, there is the entering into the text. We enter in and become the viewer, together with his/our awareness of being at the beginning/end of the communication act. And this awareness we call Wisdom, if all signs are understood to direct their meaning to the Light.
So look around you. You are in a gallery, captivated by this girl’s gaze. Captivated by the artist’s act. Where does the painting begin and end? Actually, the painting is a communication act that situates both you and the girl: you and the girl are equal players within this image. Thus, we are not passive viewers determining an absolute judgement in the cinema of life. At this moment in the Gallery, the “you” is very much a player in the image. Manet has understood the meaning of selfhood: it is to be situated in negotation with other subjects within modes of representation.
[The Gallery Guide raises her hands in dua. And then concludes her tour on a surprisingly spiritual note.]
And this, for me, is the nature of the sunnah and “becoming Muhammed”. It is an act of communication that goes across historical time between the Prophet and us. Prophecy and our selfhood are situated by a direct communication act of the Quran/hadiths/sunnah. In Sufi parlance, we order a drink of Wisdom at the bar, and it is drunk through this gaze, if we can locate it, within the sunnah of our religion which is exactly an illuminated metamodel transformation, an illuminated exchange of metamodels that is illuminated precisely because it is formed in understanding that all metamodel concepts indicate solely and ultimately the Beloved.