Ways of Looking

I've been skimming Svetlana Alpers' Art of Describing, hoping that it offers other ways of thinking about vision and visuality in Orhan Pamuk. All the same, what I just put up about bicycling and visibility has stayed with me.

Very broadly, Alpers' book focuses on Dutch art, especially during the 17th century, and argues that Dutch painting can be generally understood as descriptive, versus the earlier narrative nature of Italian Renaissance painting. All that said, she writes briefly about the Spanish painter Velazquez. Referencing Velazquez's Las Meninas, she writes:
Like so many of Velazquez's works that present powerful human figures through elusive surfaces, this is a conflation of the northern mode (the world prior to us made visible) and the southern mode (we prior to the world and commanding its presence).
I couldn't help but think a little bit more about the distinction between bikers and drivers. As a cyclist, I sort of have to accept that you're a small and almost inconsequential thing on the road. Call it fatalism or humility, but as a cyclist, I assume a certain amount of risk.

As a driver, though, I have the luxury of pretending that the road is there for my pleasure. That which appears before me, in other words, exists to be driven by me. If I took long enough, I'm sure I could list a slew of car commercials that highlight the power of driving: Buy this car, they whisper, and the road will be yours. There's a certain assumption of power that goes along with driving - both literally, given the immense forces a car can generate, especially on the human body, and metaphorically, if one thinks of the social cachet that comes with driving an expensive car.

And again, thinking a little bit more about the myth of Los Angeles, there's a belief, I think, that this city was made for us (largely, of course, because it was). Part of the underlying ideology of the suburbs that sprang up after World War II was this sense that every individual could have his house with a lawn and a fence and a dog. Equally significant is the fact that this was very much a populist promise. And that lingering populist myth might go some ways towards explaining why distrust of cyclists is so deeply woven into the fabric of this city.

For all that the dream of surburbia has in many ways faded, the automobile still holds out something similar: If nothing else, I can have a car in this city, and for the time that I spend behind the wheel, entertain the belief that the world framed by my windshield really does exist for me.


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