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“The Eye and the Spectator” by Brian O’Doherty

A series of famous essays by a famous Irish writer O’Doherty called Inside the White Cube describes to the crisis in art, which is associated with the work and functioning of modern commercial galleries. The author explores the gallery space and analyzes the impact that this space has on the work of artists, as well as the artistic strategies that arise in response to this impact. The book consists of three parts named by O’Doherty’s essays published in 1976 in the Artforum magazine: Notes on Gallery Space, the Eye and the Spectator, and Context as Content. The goal of this paper is to analyze his second essay the Eye and the Spectator by summarizing it and giving some arguments for support of his views.

Summary of the Eye and the Spectator

The essay the Eye and the Spectator is dedicated to describing how the perception of art was changing through a metaphor of the Eye and the Spectator. These are two important tools for learning art and being able to understand paintings. Their roles have always been going through the process of transformation. The development of modernism had a direct influence on the change of perception. Besides, the author explains that the critical features of modernism have become the fragmentation of personality and separation of perception functions from it. According to O’Doherty, alienation of a person is a prerequisite for perception, while perception is a framework around which an individuality builds identity.

The first tool that is identified by the writer is the Eye. The meaning of the word “eye” in the essay is ambiguous enough, as it is mentioned in both contexts. It might literally be an organ of a human body that is able to observe, look around, find details trying to catch something bright and exciting. The Eye in this sense can be trained, the focus of it can be changed, and it has the usual functions of an eye. Also, the eye used as a visualization tool that helps to imagine, get the picture of an object, clarify each aspect of a piece of art. The Eye is suitable for perceiving abstract art but at the stage of the formation of conceptual art.

On the contrary, there is another tool of perceiving art – the Spectator. It is an assistant of the Eye that provides data processing in the head of a person. Using the word “spectator” the author means intelligence and conscience. It is the Spectator inside of us that allows to see a hidden meaning, imagine and think over something unrealistic and abstract. O’Doherty emphasizes, “the Spectator in a tableau somehow feels he should not be there” (O’Doherty 64). It means that the Eye takes the Spectator’s place when it comes to real scenes such as collages, installations, or others. Also, it is mentioned that the Spectator is not deprived of feelings. That viewer helps to perceive pieces of art not only by facts but by emotions too.

O’Doherty writes about the conflict between the Eye and the Spectator. They contradict each other but understand that one needs another. After the coming of late modernism, two perceptive tools reconciled and began to work in a team complementing each other. Another problem of the Eye and the Spectator concerns objectification that is based on our art experience. It is vital not to be deceived and perceive everything as real and genuine as it is possible. These tools are the means of a deeper understanding of what is happening inside of a piece of art, from its plot to its exact details.

The Eye and the Spectator give us an opportunity not only to analyze some works better but to think out of the box, looking both at a piece of art and environment around. The gallery space itself may also tell us something about art, give us some clues and broaden our view.

Arguments for O’Doherity view

The author is right claiming that before modernism, the Eye and the Spectator lived separately and started co-working in the second half of the 20th century. Art before the 20th century is nothing more than perceiving art from the only side (Frascina 15). Few people think deeply about the feelings that an author inserted inside a piece of art, whether it is a painting, monument, or something else. The Eye played the leading role, rarely allowing the Spectator to get out on the stage.

Sometimes it happened vice versa when the whole painting was so great that it made a viewer be buried in thought. For instance, it happens while observing Aivazovsky’s painting The Ninth Wave. When modernism, abstractionism came, people faced surrealism that has nothing to do with usual life from the first glance. However, a person should use both the Eye and the Spectator to get the artist’s point and the meaning of his or her work.

O’Doherty mentions that modernism influenced directly the way viewers perceive art. This statement can be proved by abstractionists’ and cubists’ works. Take Black Square, the most famous painting of Malevich, that shows just a geometrical figure. Some people needed the look from another perspective to get what the author wanted to say. In order to understand the idea of such art, viewers had to look differently at a painting. Some people felt emptiness, cold, and certainty of death, others ­­– dark matter and hidden facts about the universe (Carbon 9). The new era of art made people change the way they think and perceive art.

Another idea expressed by the writer regards the alienation from the identity, which is essential for the right perception of installations or paintings. O’Doherty meant to say that in order to get an original idea of an artist, a viewer should abstract. We can perceive art from our personal perspective and find our own sense of work. For example, when you watch about love, you recall the memories about the people you fell in. However, if a goal is to get the artist’s meaning of a piece of art, it is necessary to refuse from ego and think beyond identity.

All in all, O’Doherty stated a range of ideas about the change of art in the 20th century and the way of thinking. The essay explained how viewers perceive galleries and how their perception was transforming. This writing is a pioneer work for its time as nobody before explored gallery space from such a perspective. Besides, the concept of the Eye and the Spectator has never been expressed earlier. The views of the writer are persuasive enough and make readers reconsider the view on art. Deep metaphors hide as much meaning as many pieces of art in galleries. The author is an artist himself trying to make a viewer look at the matter differently.


O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space. University of California Press, 2010.

Frascina, Francis. Modern Art and Modernism: a Critical Anthology. Routledge, 2019.

Carbon, Claus-Christian. “Art Perception in the Museum: How We Spend Time and Space in Art Exhibitions.” i-Perception, vol. 8, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-15.

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