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Why do vampires avoid mirrors? Reflections on specularity in the visual arts

Author(s): Vangelis Athanassopoulos

Journal: Journal of Aesthetics & Culture
ISSN 2000-4214

Volume: 4;
Start page: 1;
Date: 2012;
Original page

Keywords: reflecting surfaces | visual apparatuses | theory of representation | reflexivity | projection | self-identification | myth of Medusa

Vangelis Athanassopoulos, Ph.D. in Aesthetics, is an Associate Professor of Philosophy of Art at the Department of Visual Arts of the University Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne in Paris, France. He is a member of the LETA (Laboratory of Theoretical and Applied Aesthetics, University Paris I), the AICA (International Association of Art Critics), and co-editor of Proteus, an online French journal on aesthetics ( He has published two books on postmodernism and advertising (La publicité dans l'art contemporain, 2 t., Paris: L'Harmattan, 2009) as well as several articles on modern and contemporary art. His research fields include visual semiology, philosophy of language and critical theory.This article is an attempt to organize the general axes of a research on mirror image in the visual arts, addressing the concept of specularity and its problematic status in Western aesthetics. The argument is that, paradoxically, despite the central role of reflection in the theory of representation, specularity is constantly repressed as false and dangerous. Hence the historical duplicity of the mirror in its relation to art: on the one hand it consolidates the Western system of representation while on the other it deconstructs the very principles upon which this system is erected. Literary theory and psychoanalysis enable us to focus on the ways which, in the founding myths of representation such as the ones of Narcissus and Medusa, vision, discourse and identity are articulated around reflection, relating a physical phenomenon with the mental processes defining self-consciousness. In the field of visual arts, this articulation is operated through the opposition between two different conceptions of the image, “painting-as-window” and “painting-as-mirror”. Locating this opposition in Svetlana Alpers’ reading of Las Meninas and Louis Marin's approach of the Brunelleschian optical box, we point out the discontinuity which comes to the fore in the latter's description of the reflexive/reflecting apparatus and which constitutes the blind spot of the classical system of representation. In contemporary art, specularity returns as a tautological figure, “zero degree” representation establishing a closed circuit in which the gaze is sent back to itself like Joseph Kosuth's self-referent linguistic propositions. But in the same time it problematizes the process of self-reference, opening it to similar specular apparatuses which destabilize tautological circularity. Works by Dan Graham, Robert Smithson and other artists demonstrate that mirror, which in the classical system guarantees the subjugation of the gaze to the eye, can on the contrary be used in order to emancipate the former from the latter, displacing the relation between the art work and the viewer.

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