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The Left/Right Problem in Art (on looking at painting and finding the gaze of the statue).




Hidden within the depths of the Image, illuminating those places deemed most sacred, we find haughty eye of Sculpture staring back at us.


The trail of the left/right opposition and its various, often contradictory, manifestations in art, begins with the 'face to face' relation of watchers to statues, where it is the left/right of the object that is dominant (where it is the statue's right arm –left and right as seen from the point of view of the statue- that is exposed and muscular). This is the left/right of those who are thought of as superior not only in combat but also in the moral sense (might is right). The trail next leads to a 'that which is observed' relationship in the image, where it the left/right of the observing subject which takes priority (giving our version of the arrow of time, the 'normal' direction of narrative across the image). Left/right relations may henceforth be doubled, as both 'subjective' and 'objective' points of view coexist, respectively, as Left/Right (Narrative) the left right of the subject and Left/Right (Moral )the Left/Right of the object, in the further development of the image. Together these two indeses not only explain most of the key placings and directions in the image (what is felt to be their 'correct' position, or implied direction) but also a number of apparent deviations from the rule.


Sculpture is the prehistory of the image insofar as the visual codes or expectations derived from sculpture, especially the statues of gods and kings, heros and immortals, are passed onto the image. The Left/Right (Moral) coding appears to be the survival of the second person relation of sculpture into the third person relations of the image. The three dimensions of plastic arts/sculpture allow an ‘in front of/behind’ relation or axis such as founds the direct I/Thou (second person) relation. This relation is found in the image as the valourisation of the left of the picture (our left: the picture's right). This position is surprising given the normative negative coding of the left in most cultures (the solution is to posit the viewing subject's left as the object's right). This positive coding of the left (the objects's right) is not found, however, in the long history of Egyptian art. Even the depiction of the full-on face is avoided (looking, like a statue, out at us, in the I/Thou relation). This aspect of the face is normally elided and is present only as a rare exception, having the effect of a self-referential rule-break, often comic in impact (the second person relation looks anomalous in a technique governed by an I/They, third person code).  In many cases even kings are to be found on the right of a depicted process (Naram Sin, many Pharaohs), depending on wall space and type of story; the product of the strict demarcation of sculpture and image in Egyptian art. In later European art it is the use of the grounds for temporalisation (past, present, future) that shifts the axis of action and movement from Left/Right (Narrative) to a front/back relation. Left/Right (Narrrative) is the narrative direction preferred by the image as a two dimensional form, the third person action moves left or (usually) right, but not out (towards us) or back behind the picture plane. Hence directions across the image are the first form of narrativity and dominate until illusionism has developed sufficienty to suggest grounds (back, middle, fore) as a way of showing movement over time, from the back to the front (to the foreground from the background). The grounds of the image then become an alternative form of narrativity - in many instances the two directions are combined (Sint Jans, Cranach). The illusionistic grounds, however, are perceived as from a subjective, third person point of view. The place of God and Heaven in the image, on the other hand, is a reminder of another, objective, point of view. The latter is a point of view within the art work whose moral sense valourises its right, and damns its left - precisely the opposite to our left and our right (which we otherwise intuitively and historically mark as preferring, respectively, evil and good). God may even gaze to the right (from his right - his position in the image) in this sense he guides the narrative movement from left to right and the two directionalities are combined.  Left/Right (Moral) the object’s point of view may now be found to augment, and not just haunt, Left/Right (Narrative) the perceiving subject’s (our) point of view - at times inverting it completely (as in Cranach's 'Paradise').


It is a considerable historical irony then, that the I/Thou (second person) face to face relation in statues, especially in its hierarchical aspect of dominance, in the portrayal of rulers, is the origin of an evolution that leads to the coding of Left/Right (Moral) giving us the position of God in the image (top/left - as in Romano's 'Annunciation' and Cranach's 'Paradise') and the dispositions of Heaven (left) and Hell (right) in the Last Judgement as a genre (as well as in Anglo-Saxon and much other medieval art). In this way the Left/Right (Moral) coding in visual representation (the representation of morality as moral directionality in the image) carries the trace of brute force, a reminder of its origin as the representation of power, the history of (the representation of history’s) muscle men, Gudea, Naram Sin, depicted with a uncovered and often over-developed right arm (as are many others from the early history of civilisation in the fertile cresent). The sacred spaces of the image owe their potency to a pre-history replete with barbarism. Might is right: and is depicted as such - as the right of the strong man. It is this borrowed light that shines forth in the places of the holy. The practice of power underwrites the phenomenology of the sacred in the evolution of the image.



                                                                Copyright 2002 Peter Nesteruk.