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City Sights and Civil Society

This photograph took up almost a full half-page above the fold for a recent report in the Weekend Arts section of the New York Times:


The caption says, “The New Museum of Contemporary Art Onlookers inspect the lobby and the facade of this seven-story structure on the Lower East Side, which opens tomorrow.”

And so they do. But why are we being shown the onlookers and not the building that they find so interesting? The photograph itself would not seem to be the reason as it is hardly a study in dramatic intensity. The viewer’s gaze is directed every which way, whether cued by the many different sight lines of the onlookers or by the way the view expands unevenly but consistently outward across the rear of the frame. The division of the horizontal axis by the posts into uneven thirds further breaks up the scene. The image becomes a triptych, but one that doesn’t tell a story and has only accidental coherence.

It is a remarkable picture, nonetheless, one that could hang on the wall of the museum. The photographer has captured what usually is only a blur in the background of our consciousness but now can be seen in pristine clarity. And what is seen? Society. Modern, urban, liberal-democratic society. Not all of it, of course: what we see is young, hip, affluent, cultured. But that’s easy to see. The street scene is defined not by those attributes so much as by habits of civic interaction that are much more broadly distributed in the developed world today. Look, for example, at the spacings between the individuals and the several groupings of people. The proxemic ratios there will be maintained whenever possible in public in the US.

Let me focus today on how this photograph exposes one dimension of the complex social experience on display. I’ve written before about how public life depends on visual norms, habits, and practices, and how critical theory can misrecognize these forms as long as it depends on assumptions that visual media are largely instruments of power by which elites create spectacles to manipulate the masses. By contrast, one can point out that even social critique calls for “transparency,” a visual metaphor that if nothing else assumes that someone is looking; more important, social phenomena are constantly changing, and social theory needs to do the same if it is to account for public culture as that is something different from manufactured consent. Today’s photograph provides one example of what one might look for if taking seriously the idea that modern civil society requires or at least makes use of forms of seeing.

Let’s simply catalog the many ways the sight is marked in this photograph. The caption features an art museum–an institution devoted solely to public viewing of visual artworks. The people in the photograph are identified as “onlookers”–defined by the act of looking. They may also be citizens, or New Yorkers, or connoisseurs of the arts, but all that is folded into “onlookers.” And looking on is a specific type of seeing: one is not within the scene being observed, not part of the action, but rather seeing “from the sidewalk” as it were. They are spectators, but not degraded by that. In fact, they are “inspecting” the building; although not inspectors, they are engaged in an inherently visual act that includes an assessment, in this case, an aesthetic judgment. That is what the architect assumes, and so we are seeing the other side of architecture: not the building, but the culture within which it makes more or less sense. The building will be judged according to how well it meets the visual challenge carried by the story caption, “New Look for the New Museum.”

And those are merely the captions. In the image itself we see people defined by looking, which clearly goes in many different directions probably reflecting different points of view. Even the dog is looking. More specific looking also is evident, from someone pointing to direct others’ view, to the woman pointing her camera, to the couple in the background who have to watch for traffic. The city is a place to look, from streets to signage to buildings. It also is a place to look at people: those in the picture are posed by the still image as if for inspection. The red coat in the right middle fixes that element of the scene, which is carried across the image by the common fashion of blue jeans, casual coats, shoes, headgear, bags, and postures. Like the woman in red, albeit to varying degrees, everyone has agreed to not only see but be seen. No burqas here.

This shared visual experience is given a reflective touch by the large windows (a transparent barrier) and the reflections off the polished floor. We see, but always through things (even the air can distort) or off of things (such a this web page). One reason people go to art museums is to become more intelligent about how they use their eyes, and the photograph is doing some of this work for those, like the onlookers in the photo, not yet inside.

The final touch is provided by the sign in the center rear of the composition: “City Sights NY.” This cheap sign for what I assume is a low-grade tourist operation is perfect here. On the one hand, it is the art museum’s opposite: a commercial, artistically worthless painting for pre-packaged “sight-seeing” for bumpkins. No wonder it is getting exactly zero attention from both those interested in the museum. On the other hand, it is just the other side of the same street: the city is a place for seeing, and people go there for that reason. The vulgar, vernacular signage tells us why the museum is there, for both are all about “City Sights NY.” And that is a story about not only New York but also anywhere people are to mingle together in modern civil society.

To see what I mean, just look at the picture.

Photograph by Suzanne DeChilo/New York Times.



City Sights and Civil Society


6 Responses

  1. pw says

    I really appreciate the commentary, and wanted to point out an aspect of the image that supplements the description that Hariman has appropriately laid out. Note the woman right in the middle of the image, the one with the camera. She is engaged in an act of looking just as important for public culture as all the other modes of seeing caught within the frame. If you are right, then this speaks directly to the value of snapshot photography as itself a way of looking, and as a way of focusing on those aspects of everyday looking that have the value-added of being worth photographing. And the image replicates the same logic, by catching the act of looking and its various modes (observing, pointing out, photographing, looking upwards, etc.) as themselves worthy of looking at, and as a result, reflecting on.

    This image is the opposite of something we get in DeLillo’s White Noise, “the most photographed barn in America,” which is precisely something that is only worthy of photographing because so many people have taken its picture. These acts of looking generate the “aura” of the icon, which is in the final analysis nothing but a barn. Looking at looking, for DeLillo, is a critique of spectacle. All icons are reduced to spectacle in DeLillo (Mao II goes to great lengths to put forward this claim: “the future belongs to the crowds,” the images of religious figures in Beirut…).

    Looking at looking here is about something different: everyday practices of looking as modes of engagement with the world around us.

  2. Elisabeth says

    For pw: check out the National Gallery of Art’s new exhibit, The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978 (

    Regarding the looking of onlookers: The onlookers are not only defined by the act of looking; they are drawnlookers: drawn to look, not themselves part of the scene, but drawn to the exposed yet still closed museum. The glass windows could just has well have been papered up until the doors opened to the public. Why lure the looking public? Unveiled, the empty lobby – looked at — now becomes an event. (Although the lobby can’t really be empty because the NYT photographer herself is standing inside, capturing the captivated). As soon as they become inspectors or judges, the onlookers, too, are inspected and judged (as “young, hip, affluent, cultured” with time to stand and stare…), which left me wondering: How much “mingling” is there really? Is this a look of the elite? How much do these large, inviting, open windows actually create walls (as the photograph clearly accentuates) between inside and outside, insider and outsider. The photograph puts us, the viewer, in the position of seeing very well that there are those who stand still and those who must keep right on moving, the invisible, the blurred.
    So, is the new look the same as the old look?

  3. Lucaites says

    Elizabeth’s comment calls my attention to the fact that the photographer is shooting from “within” the museum looking out. And that then makes me wonder, what is the real “museum’ piece here (which perhaps goes back to Hariman’s point). Which is the real “object” for display? What does the museum see? (Or to put it more crassly, what do the animals in the zoo see when they look back?) — who’s seeing whom?

  4. duncan says

    Also significant-

    the New Museum has been running a widespread ad campaign around New York (particularly below 14th or so) which uses the iconic profile of the building to advertise its opening on the 1st. (the facade is a uniform, washed out grey color, except for a rainbowed “Hell, yes!” on the street-side).

    Here’s a link:

    essentially, it’s a building built for its iconicity; the image from the NYT is paradigmatic for the whole project.

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