METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART | PERMANENT COLLECTION
A blind man might write an interesting treatise on visual aesthetics: he could explain that painters depict still-life objects, historical events, landscapes and whatever else may be seen. He could tell us that some 20th-century artists created paintings with no depicted subject. This man might explain why figurative subjects are expressive and how abstract pictures may also be. He could present the lives of the artists and the story of art. He might, for example, explain how the development of photography led to the birth of abstract painting.
There are, however, some topics that it would be difficult for this blind aesthetician to discuss. It would be hard, I believe, for him to explain illuminatingly pictorial composition and the role of color in painting (except, of course, insofar as he could cite and critique the commentaries of his sighted colleagues). Our blind aesthetician could explain what is in a painting, but he could not learn that via the traditional means of sight. Painting, by definition, is a visual art. And so, a man who could not see would have an incomplete knowledge of this art form. A blind theoretician devoted to music or poetry would share no similar handicaps.
Whatever the artist sees, he can depict. And so, paintings may depict blind people. But a painting cannot depict the experience of blindness. Were the artist to present a black monochrome, sighted viewers could look beyond the frame. A completely blind man can see no part of the world—and no painting can present that experience to sighted people.
“Do you see what I mean?”
“She loves you—are you blind?”
“He was blind to the consequences of his actions.”
Such familiar visual metaphors show the deep links between sight and knowledge. Because what I see is at a distance, it is possible to doubt that my vision is veridical. Doubting Thomas had to touch Christ to confirm what was visually obvious.
I see a gigantic blind man with four men and a woman who have normal sight. But I don’t just see a blind man—I see what his blindness must be like. I see, to use an obviously paradoxical phrase, the experience of blindness. Understandably, that sounds puzzling. But look more closely. Two of the men are guiding this giant as he walks leftward. In a day-lit landscape his head is in dark clouds. And so, he cannot see. Above him stands a woman in the clouds. She sees him but he cannot view her. Sight involves the possibility of reciprocity: I see you knowing that you, in turn, can see me. From where I stand, I see that this blind man’s left hand is in the line of sight in front of the sea on the distant shore. Where is he going? I can see only a portion of his pathway, but if it continues towards the horizon, he will arrive at the distant beach. That, I reasonably infer, is where he is being guided. But why would he be going there, why is he blind, and why is the woman watching him? That I cannot tell. I cannot entirely “see” the meaning of this scene.
Nicolas Poussin’s “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun” (1660 – 64), the painting that inspired this discussion, is a commentary on the rivalry of the arts. What is the relationship between the texts illustrating this visual image and the painting? “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun” offers a complex, much discussed answer to that question. Erudite commentary has shown that Poussin responded to classical texts from antiquity. For the art writer, the most challenging art is that which challenges our powers of description. But that, of course, is not to say that the most challenging paintings are the greatest ones. “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun” does not quite “come off.” Perhaps that is the point: seeing blindness is not possible. The task of art writing is typically to describe what we see in a painting. This picture resists the art writer.
Although on permanent display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun” is not particularly well known. Nor was it much imitated. It would be interesting to see how well someone who has never viewed the painting could imagine it just from my description. In modernist painting, it has very often been said, everything that matters can be seen directly. You cannot fully understand Poussin’s picture without knowing that it is a kind of hieroglyph. But although he is not a modernist, mere looking does reveal at least part of the artist’s enigmatic visual conception. Our inability to fully comprehend “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun,”without reference to its textual stories, creates an experience of blindness. Perhaps that was his goal. We have become blind to some part of Poussin’s achievement.
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David Carrier is writing a book about the historic center of Naples.