Lenses, Frames, and Mirrors: Optical Devices as Metaphors in Art Criticism, Theory, and Beyond

August 4, 2013 · Print This Article

Reading a bit of art theory or criticism, it won’t take you long to find an author talking about viewing something through the lens of third-wave feminism or seeing something in a Modernist frame. The lens and the frame are referenced metaphorically so often in today’s writing that their presence is nearly ubiquitous, almost as though a piece of art writing is incomplete without the presence of at least one such optical metaphor.

Certainly, the lens and the frame are useful as metaphors, but as used, they are also quite limited. As an experiment, the next time you see one used, replace “frame” or “lens” with “context,” adjust the necessary conjunctions, and see if any meaning is lost. If in a given piece of writing, “seen through a queer lens” could just as easily be “seen in a queer context,” then the optical device isn’t living up to its potential as metaphor.

The chief ways in which optical metaphors can be improved in our writing are through diversity and specificity. These go hand-in-hand: the more diverse our optical metaphors become, the more specific they are able to be. Lenses, for example, can be convex-convex (the usual “lenticular” shape, which incidentally I suspect of being where lentils got their name, though I’ve done no research on this), but they can also be flat or concave on one or both sides. So, some lenses are plano-convex, others are convex-concave. These lenses behave differently and have different applications, and so could be employed in a diverse range of metaphorical applications.

The difference between a lens of any type and a frame is that we are directly aware of the ways in which lenses alter the image we are seeing. A biconvex lens held at the right distance from the eye will magnify the image. (At this distance, the image is not inverted; held out further, the image inverts, but the reason why is beyond my ability to explain from memory, so go Google a diagram.) This is the classic magnifying glass. Other types of lenses, such as eyeglasses, subtly alter the focal distance of our eyes (or rather, adjust the image to account for a flawed focal distance). Multiple-lens apparatuses like binoculars and microscopes magnify and can be focused. The point is that we are immediately aware of this alteration of the image we are seeing, because it is inherent to the function of the lens-based device.

Not so the frame. The untrained viewer thinks of the fame as a neutral context, setting the image off from its environment, perhaps, but not altering the image itself. Training in design and composition conveys an understanding of concepts like simultaneous contrast, which holds that a black frame can make an image look lighter in the same way that we can appear taller by standing next to a shorter person. Even to a highly-trained viewer, however, the frame, assuming it is a subtle, appropriate frame, becomes invisible, and it exerts its effect on the image outside our conscious awareness.

Metaphorically, then, the frame can serve more as an unconscious bias, changing an image indirectly, by the context of its presence, and without the viewer’s conscious awareness. When you see something in a given frame, that frame alters what you are seeing, but does do without your knowledge or consent. It takes alertness and training to become aware of the influence of the frame, and even with this awareness, its influence may not be negated. To return to the initial example, seeing something in a Modernist frame may mean unconsciously minimizing the political, activist, Conceptual, gendered, or other meanings of a work, and perhaps emphasizing the rapturous and sublime, along with overt formal analysis which is the ostensible goal of this frame. If the intention is to directly change the meaning of the subject, then the frame may be the wrong metaphor; perhaps a lens is intended instead.

A lens serves more as a conscious agenda. The function of lenses and lens-based devices tends to be to magnify, to enhance, or to focus a blurry image. Alteration of our perception of the original is the intention of the device. When used as a metaphor, then, the lens is a much more aggressive, but also honest, recontextualization. The effect is more direct, less subtle, more provocative, less manipulative. When we view something through the lens of third-wave feminism, we aren’t subtly altering that thing by its context. Instead, we are asserting, perhaps radically, that the original was either too small or too distant to be perceived accurately, or else that it was out of focus: essentially, that our subject was fucked up, and that third-wave feminism provides the necessary means to fix it.

These differences between the simple lens and the frame are only the beginning of the linguistic possibilities of the optical metaphor. Someone better versed that I in the effects of different types of lenses could apply those effects metaphorically. Devices composed of multiple lenses, such as telescopes, microscopes, binoculars, spotting scopes, and riflescopes each have their own potential applications. Viewing the work of an international artist through the telescope of globalization may bring their work closer, make it more accessible, but at the cost of a reduced field of vision, that is, the obfuscation of the cultural context in which the work was created—not to mention that as a monocular device, the telescope eliminates the viewer’s depth perception, so that while it appears to bring the subject closer, it makes it impossible to tell exactly how far away that subject is.

These classic, purely optical devices aren’t the only possibility for optics-based metaphors. For example, consider the fact that a viewer’s experience of relational art may be clouded by their participation in it, yielding a subjective response that is no less valuable, but is uniquely personal, because of their involvement. We might say that a viewer-participant sees relational aesthetics “through the glare of the fingerprint-streaked touch screen of their participation.”

In reading art theory and criticism, and even more so in writing our own, let’s consider the diversity of optical devices and viewing contexts that exist in the world, and the specific meanings that can be conveyed by this diversity. Consider critiquing works of art through the pinhole camera of Minimalism, distorted by the funhouse mirror of racism, or fractured by the prism of semiotics. What could these mean? I don’t purport to have the answers, but by way of example, I once compared a thematic group exhibition to the compound eye of an insect, producing an image of its subject by combining a large number of images produced by slightly different points of view (the artists in the exhibition). I’d like to see more, and hopefully better, metaphors like this, in which writers consider all manner of viewing devices as potential linguistic devices, rather than immediately, lazily defaulting to the lens or the frame, out of habit rather than specificity.