The World as Object- Roland Barthes

The simple act of perception transforms the objective landscape into a human landscape. The Dutch masters have used the canvas as a metaphor for the way that we do this. Their paintings have traditionally shown a world which is utilized by the human. It has also depicted cultural divide between the patrician (the rich, who have power) and the peasant (who are subject to the power of the patrician).

Saenredam famously painted empty churches. His removal of the human subject was fascinating, but he goes further- the removal of the presence of humanity its self. His pictures give us a taste of the absurd; we see the world, produced by humanity, with an absence of the human. It creates a discordance in the viewer, if we perceive the antithesis in the picture, that of the lack of human in a human landscape. It renders the landscape as a realm of the natural.

Saenredam- The Interior of The St Jacob Church in Utrecht

If we look in the paintings of artists like Ruysdael, we see landscapes planted with people and human objects. Barthes tells us that these people are veritable ‘seeds’ which transform a natural landscape into a human landscape. The depictions of nature are rendered to have meaning in relation to human interaction with them. The artist utilizes the world. As objects and people are added to the world, the world is manipulated; a demonstration of our authority over it.

Still life paintings of fruit bowls and kitchens (for example) have a ‘sheen’ to them. Strong emotions are excluded because the Dutch artists wanted to depict a living world, not an emotional world. Life can be controlled by us, but emotions have their own power. Rembrandt’s David isn’t allowed to wear his sadness in his expression, his head is hung instead. Form expresses organic function in place of organic feeling. The sheen shows the world alive, yet ready for humanity, and for the viewer in particular. Oranges are half peeled, meat is carved and placed on a chopping board, or hanging. In depictions of Amsterdam, the produce of merchants is on open canal boats. Water gives the produce motion and life, whilst the buildings lean over to the boats, showing our place over the produce.

Now we see the next part of his thesis- humans in the paintings. They are dichotomised into patricians and peasants. The specific uses of either are token examples of the families ‘patrician’ and ‘peasant’. A token use encapsulates the entire morphology of the family it is from. The peasant is characterised by quantity, and is rarely, if ever, given any human traits. The peasant encapsulates pre-humanity, they are potential life, not human life.

Only the patrician is given real humanity. Their details are complex and unique, representing the individual, whilst still participating in the morphology from which their details are sourced. The patrician is given power in the paintings, showing that they utilize the peasants just as the artist utilizes the canvas.


Ruisdael- Road in the Dunes With a Passenger Coach

The power of the numen is in the gaze. The gaze is to be recognised as a convention in art. The patrician commands over the peasant in the picture because their gaze has power and humanity. The gaze even has power over the viewer of the painting. We see this in Rembrandt’s Cloth Merchants. One of the merchants gazes at the viewer of the painting, which has a powerful effect on the viewer.The numen is an active force in the paintings. It is a divine power which presides over things. It operates on multiple levels. For one thing, there is the numen of the artist over the painting, but you also have the patrician operating power over the peasant. The numen is infinite in power, but never infinite in action. The patrician has the power to command, but the world has limits. A canvas, too, has unlimited potential until a work has begun.

Courbet’s Atelier is a fascinating painting. It’s an example of the distance by which this tradition of art functions as allegory. The artist is painting an absent landscape, facing away from a model. The artist is painting free from any gaze. The gaze creates meaning, and without the artist’s receiving a gaze, his actions are not validated. The viewer and the viewed must have a two-way relationship for there to be meaning in the perceived, and this is encapsulated in this picture. Barthes concludes that “Depth is born only at the moment the spectacle itself slowly turns its shadow towards man and begins to look at him”.

Courbet- Latelier

Much of the power of this essay is in understanding how far we condition the world merely by the faculty of perception. The world without humanity seems absurd, so we perceive the world on our own terms, in relation to us, not on the world’s terms.

The power of the gaze is important too. Merely by perceiving we create a divide between the perceived and the world in which the perceived exists. In doing so, that to which we relate becomes not merely human, but personally meaningful. That which we do not know must necessarily be profane- absent of our numen.

Meaning isn’t usually thought of as a form of manipulation, but if we are appropriating personal human meaning into the world, then meaning must be, in essence, the product of action. By perceiving the world, we are like the painters. The power of Courbet’s painting is in that it showcases the extent to which it is true that everything we perceive is given validity by our creating a two-way relation between perceiver and perceived.

We should also remember that that relation is personal, the meaning created is internally private to the relation. Each perceiver has their own meanings created with their gazes. Each world of meaning becomes OUR world of meaning, as opposed to THE world of meaning. As everyone has the power of the gaze, we are both the patrician and the pauper.

This is at heart an essay about the function of Dutch art, but as we explore the function of the art, the essay unfolds as being about so much more. One lesson we should take from this is that a tradition of art has its own meaning, and that meaning has its parallel in real life. The patrician in the painting has power with the gaze, and the peasant is defined by number, and in relation to the gaze. In the same way, our gaze validates the meaning of other people and things. One consequence is that the meaning we give to other people becomes part of their identity. We designate meaning to other people whether it is true meaning or not. This logically leads us to the world of private subjective meaning as postulated by Sartre.

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One thought on “The World as Object- Roland Barthes

  1. “This logically leads us to the world of private subjective meaning as postulated by Sartre.” Whoa. Let’s not go totally relativistic here.

    The Dutch Masters also make good cigars.


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