cover image Tricks of the Light: Essays on Art and Spectacle

Tricks of the Light: Essays on Art and Spectacle

Jonathan Crary. Zone, $32 (272p) ISBN 978-1-942-13085-7

In this erudite collection of previously published essays, art historian Crary (Scorched Earth) examines 20th-century visual art (including performance, photography, television, and film) and how it negotiates perception and attention. He takes a microscope to Gretchen Bender’s 1987 video installation Total Recall, in which “delirium, [and] sensory overload” upend “our familiar, domestic relationship to the TV screen” and “intensif[y] our physiocognitive involvement to a threshold at which it becomes acute,” and contends that in Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 painting The Passage from Virgin to Bride, “the audience becomes a key agent [of] creation” due to the work’s sense of openness, which creates “an active field of potentially unlimited relationships” that “resist being inserted into a structural logic.” Linking these essays is the idea of attention: how “the emergence of a social, urban, psychic, industrial field increasingly saturated with sensory input” in the 19th century complicated the ability to focus even as new systems of consumerism demanded it, and how visual culture can challenge spectators to look more intently and with all their senses. Students of 20th-century art and media will appreciate Crary’s fine-grained analysis and prescient cultural insights, including how television can “produce, rather than represent, a world of experience” that “becomes more real than so-called everyday life.” This is edifying. (Sept.)