Ethics and the Implicit Beholder

Lately, I have been thinking about how when we look at a painting we not only complete or finish what the artist began, but we also can become unwitting participants in the fictional world of the painting. In his wonderful essay “The Work of Art and Its Beholder,” Wolfgang Kemp argues: “In the same way that the beholder approaches the work of art, the work of art approaches him, responding to and recognizing the activity of his perception.” Kemp’s essay is essentially an explanation of ‘aesthetic reception,’ a methodological approach to art history, which takes this aspect of works of art very seriously. Aesthetic reception recognizes that works of art are made for an “implicit beholder” and that looking at works of art involves an “asymmetrical” communication between the artist and the real beholder.

He develops his theory through an interesting analysis of Nicolas Maes’ The Eavesdropper (1655). Our status as ‘implicit beholders’  is obvious because the painting addresses the viewer through the maid who looks ‘out’ of the painting. The painting is a comment on the moral implications of looking, and it invites consideration of when an onlooker becomes an eavesdropper.  In a sense, The Eavesdropper provides the viewer with a fictional choice. Should we join the maid in her invitation to be an eavesdropper? Should we pull back the curtain? Although the maid invites us into the scene, it is, of course, impossible to see or hear what is happening in the room beyond.  As Kemp says, it is “by the art’s grace [that] we have “only” the painting.”

After reading Kemp’s discussion of The Eavesdropper, I was reminded of the work of contemporary painter Eric Fischl. Many of his paintings, like Maes’, have a domestic setting, but in these familiar and intimate settings (at least for those who live in homes like them) Fischl often confronts us with disturbing scenes.  What is most interesting about Fischl’s work, however, is his ability to make the viewer feel as though he is witnessing and potentially implicated in the scene before him.

His painting The Bed, The Chair, Dancing, Watching masterfully draws the viewer into the action of the scene. A middle aged man sits, nude, upon a white chair covered in a strikingly red floral patter. He looks straight at me, scrutinizes me. I become aware of a shadow on the wall, and I recognize that a woman is undressing before this man, and that I am somehow standing in her place. What relationship do these two people have? What exactly is going on here? Needless to say, I feel uncomfortable and unnerved by looking at this painting. I am thrown into the scene and become a complicit participant as this narrative unfolds. While Maes offers us the grace of a curtain, the only grace offered by Fischl is that we do not see what happens next.  The bed directly behind the man suggests where the story is headed, and his gaze is hardly one of love and care.

Both Maes and Fischl place the viewer into awkward positions.  By simply looking at these paintings we are caught up in a tense moment when some choice, or some action, is demanded of us.  While such a position can be unnerving, it may help us to explore a moral dilemma in a ‘safe place.’  Furthermore, they may also help us to develop sympathy for others faced with difficult decisions.  Because we are participants in these scenes, we cannot simply judge the actions displayed as though we are on the ‘outside.’  In a fictional, and yet powerful, way we stand in the shoes of another.



  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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  1. says: Bruce Herman

    Thanks Jim — as a painter, I find it gratifying that a sensitive viewer should raise the ethics, or one might call it the response-ability of the implicit participant. Another layer suggests itself to me however — having to do with the change that has occurred since the development of digital media. The viewer in this case cannot be said to have actually encountered Fischl’s ( or anyone other artist’s) work — but rather a “ghost” of the work. Furthermore, digital “users” of art can, at will, “operate on” the work, making a collage of it or altering it in multiple ways — in effect committing travesty. And I would argue that any other gaze than the personal one offered “in person” is not the sort of participation that painting traditionally invited — but is, rather, a form of violence. It could be analogous to a conversation in which the listener doesn’t actually listen but simply awaits his turn to speak. Obviously I am over- simplifying to make a point. But after many years of the painstaking labor of making a work of art, and the “courtesia” of extending an offering to the conversation, I’d be more interested in amgenuine encounter on the part of my viewer. Of course thisminvolves some potential inconvenience — such as making the effort, or traveling the distance to actually see a painting. But them, the hundreds of hours that that artist expends on a work is a commensurate “inconvenience”. The ethics of digital viewership needs discussion as well I think.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Bruce, thanks for bringing up the ethics of digital viewership. It is especially appropriate considering that this is a blog, and all works of art shown here are digital! I appreciate your point that “any other gaze than the personal one offered ‘in person’ … is a form of violence.” Perhaps the impersonal nature of the internet is deceiving because it allows us to forget that works of art are offered by persons and for persons. I also agree that the digital image is no substitute for a physical image (provided a physical image exists). It seems to me that digital images of paintings can be dangerous because they convince us that all we need is a mere simulacrum, but I find that the original in all its physicality, substance, volume and place is always far richer. But this makes me think that the ethics of digital viewership is perhaps one instance of a much larger problem: the ethics of a digital life. So many technologies present the tantalizing possibility of replacing certain aspects of our lived and physical existence with a digital one. But, a life without bodies is a life in isolation. Perhaps the danger of digital media is that we get what we want without feeling the loss of what we need. In some ways, even a blog like this one might have the effect of replacing ‘real life’ conversations. Hopefully, we can find ways to appropriately use digital technology so that it becomes an aide for physical reality, and not the other way around.

  2. says: Cole Matson

    I’m unnerved, disturbed, and often angered by pieces of art that make me, as the viewer, “complicit” in anything. I can’t experience a piece of art until I experience it. I can’t accept that that experience, rather than a particular response of mine to it, makes me “complicit”. The Eavesdropper of the painting might be looking at me, inviting to join her in her auditory voyeurism. In that case, is my only moral response to leave the situation by walking away from the painting? If I linger to look at it, to enjoy the painting (enjoying vs. contemplating, i.e. studying certain technical aspects of it), am I enjoying the feeling it provides of doing something wrong – a feeling which I should not, after all, enjoy? If that is the painting’s invitation, I am not complicit if I walk away. I am only complicit if I stay and join in. But has the artist been uncharitable by inviting me into such a situation?

    If my empathy is increased by being the viewer of the second painting – by knowing how disturbing it is to have that objectifying, dignity-stealing gaze turned on me – then well and good. But in that case I am standing in the place of a victim, not a complicit participant. If, however, the artist is trying to implicate the viewer by forcing him or her into the place of a person willingly degrading herself – implying that, by standing in that place, the viewer is also willingly participating in an act of degradation – my response is outrage, not compunction.

    I can’t accept that I, the viewer, am implicated just by receiving the artist’s communication. How I respond to that communication may implicate me; but any attempt to place me into a situation and then accuse me for being put into that situation does not in fact reflect any guilty action on my part, but a guilty action on the part of the artist. Is he himself not primarily complicit in the situation, as its manipulator – the one who betrays the trust the viewer places in him in order to violate the viewer?

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Cole, thank you for this comment, and I apologize if these images disturbed you in any way. I think, perhaps, you misunderstood my use of ‘complicit’. I did not mean it in its more literal sense of actual wrongdoing in an illegal activity. I do not think there is anything illegal, or morally problematic, about looking at these paintings. My point was that by looking at the scenes we become participants in a fictional wrongdoing. In other words, the paintings are depictions of what appears to me to be morally problematic behavior. The paintings are also made in such a way that they assume the presence of the viewer as PART OF that scene: the maid looks out at the viewer, and the man in the chair looks out at the viewer. When the viewer looks at the painting, especially when the viewer meets the gaze of the fictional characters, the viewer becomes a fictional participant in the scene. I was using ‘complicit’ as more or less a synonym for participant because in this case the viewer is fictionally participating in a scene portraying a morally problematic activity.

      To a certain extent, I think that all paintings do what these two paintings above do. It seems that nearly all paintings assume the presence of a viewer, at the very least of an eye that can perceive the painting, but not all paintings do this in so direct a way as these two paintings. What is happening in these paintings is analogous to the use of the ‘aside’ in the theatre. By using an ‘aside,’ by speaking directly to the audience, the distance between actors and audience is diminished, and the audience may feel that they are more directly involved in the plot unfolding before them. A similar technique is being used here. By including characters that look out at the audience, these paintings make the viewer feel they are more involved in the scene than they would otherwise.

      You suggest later on that even the artist would be implicated in a violation of trust were he to use a work of art to manipulate the viewer. I agree with this, and I don’t think that these paintings manipulate the viewer, in the sense of forcing the viewer to do something he or she does not want to do. It is also worth pointing out that the opposite is equally problematic. A painting that is somehow ‘indifferent’ to the viewer would be equally impersonal and de-humanizing. I think that some photorealist paintings come close to attaining this level of impersonality. I think that art functions properly when it exists in a relation of trust between artist and audience. But this might mean that the audience needs to let go of a sense of absolute freedom in respect to the work of art if they are to fully appreciate it. As these paintings suggest, it is a grace of painting that one can look away. But not looking is simply not participating. And because looking is, itself, a moral activity I am open to the possibility that not looking is the proper response to a painting. I am not convinced that is the appropriate response to the paintings above, and in order to appreciate and understand these paintings one needs to place their trust in the artist and become a participant in a fictional world.

      1. says: Cole Matson


        You’re right, I misinterpreted the use of your word ‘complicit’. I see now that what you were saying is that, in these paintings, the viewer himself is not made to be complicit (in the sense of guilty because of cooperation in morally problematic behaviour), but is rather invited to play a part, to inhabit a character in the scene who is involved in morally problematic behaviour. The guilt attaches to the character, not the viewer. At the same time, the paintings are particularly powerful because the viewer is invited to action within the drama of the scene, instead of merely watching the scene unfold from the outside. Correct me if I’m misunderstanding you.

        The use of the word ‘complicit’ pushes my buttons because of its use to refer to the audience in some forms of performance art, in which the artist is in fact trying to make the audience member a participant in an action which violates social norms, simply by the fact of his being a viewer. That is, these artworks imply that the viewer is himself guilty because of his role as audience member – but the viewer is not warned that he is going to be placed in a situation of guilt until he is already in it. In these cases, the artist has taken advantage of the trust the audience placed in him in order to do them a disservice, in which he manipulates the situation to make them the perpetrators and himself the victim. (See the double-bind that some of Chris Burden’s pieces placed on his audience through his exploitation of the bystander effect, which I discussed here:

        I agree with your last paragraph, especially, including the statement that a viewer must place their trust in the artist and surrender in order to truly enter into an artwork. Since such trust is necessary, it is also necessary for the artist to remember he has a responsibility not to betray that trust.

        Now that I understand what you mean by ‘complicit’, I think we’re on the same page, and I’ll let Maes and Fischl off the hook.:-)

  3. says: Samantha Friede

    I’m blown away! Your article has really made me think. I think I will write about this information.

    Thank you.

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