The Story of Looking

‘Art’ is one of those notoriously elastic terms and ideas. It’s very difficult to establish any fixed or simple definition for what art is, or should be. Hence the endless, and mostly fruitless, debates about what constitutes art. Every year we get the stage-managed and media driven hype of bewilderment when the exhibits are shown for the Turner Prize. The following have all been claimed to be ‘art’: ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ by Titian; Cello Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach; ‘invisible art’ ( ; composer John Cage’s 4′ 33″ of silence (; a hole filled in by Claes Oldenburg in Central Park, Manhattan in 1967, entitled ‘Placid Civic Monument’ (; the ‘ready made’ urinal of 1917 ‘by’ Marcel Duchamp ( Each new posture has to be more shocking and incomprehensible than the last. We’re firmly in the territory of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Perhaps we need some background to all this cross talk and confusion about art.

Here is a recent book about the visual arts. In The Story of Looking, filmmaker, critic and writer Mark Cousins ( takes us on a tour – in words and images – through how our looking selves develop over the course of a lifetime, and the ways that looking has changed through the centuries. From great works of art to tourist photographs, from cityscapes to cinema, through science and protest, propaganda and refusals to look, the false mirrors and great visionaries of looking, this book illuminates how we construct as well as receive the things we see.

The journey begins by imagining how an early Homo Sapiens baby might have seen the world – as a ‘soft-edged’ and ‘immaterial’ shadowland – and ends, more than 400 pages later, with a meditation on Géricault’s painting, Head of a Guillotined Man. In between these two reference points – the birth of human looking and the unflinching gaze of an artist – Cousins covers a great deal of disparate ground. For example, in a section entitled ‘Atomic Looking’ he shifts in the space of 10 pages from Luis Buñuel to Satyajit Ray, by way of Albert Einstein, Piero della Francesca, John Sayles, Max Planck and Vincent Van Gogh.

Cousins has the ability to make us think hard about the act of looking, often through arresting juxtapositions. A section entitled ‘Zoos and Morgues’ contrasts the ways in which animals and humans became exotic spectacles for western audiences in the early 1800s. In one photograph, a row of well-dressed men in shiny shoes stare at a reconstruction of a Sudanese village featuring actual Nubian men, women and children. ‘Did they make eye contact, even for a moment?’ he asks. ‘And if so, what did each side think? Did the polished shoe people feel ashamed? Probably not, because the ideas of the time led them to believe that others should be available for their inspection.’


April to May 2018 is an excellent time get bewildered/challenged/infuriated/pleasured by art in Glasgow. It is the time of Glasgow International 2018 ( Read the book and at the same time enjoy 90 exhibitions, 268 artists, and 80+ events a train ride away from Lanark.


432 pages in Canongate Books

First published 2017

ISBN  978-1782119111

Mark Cousins

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