King/Queen for a Day

Velazquez Painting: Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour), 1656

Part 3: Discover the picture that makes YOU the subject and how ‘The News’ is biased.

My Critical Analysis blog, discussing Representation by Stuart Hall et.al, this semester’s reading at AUS. This week I will discuss, in further detail, the ideas of social theorist Michel Foucault - by looking at the painting which turns ‘mere-mortals’ into opulent rulers.

Painting the Scene

It’s not often that I find myself transfixed by a painting, but in this case — that’s exactly what’s happened.

The Las Meninas was a key study of Michel Foulcault in the The Order of Things, 1970, and it’s meaning continues to be a source of ongoing controversy. “But what makes it so special?”, I hear you ask? Well, according to Foucault, this picture has two subjects: The first is the king of Spain’s daughter, Infanta Maragarita, positioned in the middle of the picture, surrounded by her maids’. The second is a little more complex to understand.

Let me stop you, for a moment, and explain why Foucault was driven to distraction. Foulcault is, after all, famous for Discourse Theory — which, looks at how meaning is created through an exchange of language, whether that be verbal, written or visualised — as in this instance.

Discourse theory, suggests Las Meninas convey’s meaning at the point of consumption, i.e. when it is viewed. In 1665 this, then, would have meant being physically present; being in front of a large oil-on-canvas image (318 cm × 276 cm). Today we’ll have to settle for the pixelated representation.

“That’s all great, but what’s the second meaning,” I hear you say! Allow me to explain. If you look toward the back of the picture you see what looks like two figures in a painting. However, if I was to tell you that this is a mirror, your perception changes.

Let us go back (scroll, scroll, scroll) and analyse the foreground of the painting: The character on the left is Diego Velazquez, the royal painter himself, shown to be looking forward; his easel in front of him. Velazequez, along with the Infanta Maragarita and her maids, are all looking forward.

It is the effect of this piercing gaze, which claimed Foucault’s attention, as it’s intention is to make us the subject. If we are the subject that means only one thing, we must be the figures reflected in the mirror:

The king and Queen of Spain!

TV News: A Discourse of Bias

As the viewer of the above TV newscast, we can apply Foucault’s idea of subject positions.

For example, when watching Sky News’ Special Report: Terror in Paris, we adopt the subject position of distressed fan, firm police officer and bystander/team player.

Taking the example of anxious fans, there are two focal points: 1) fans are positioned close/ level with the camera. 2) when these fans look towards the camera they interact with us directly. This creates a sense of empathy as the pictures generate a representation on the fans. We may then understand from this that the choice of ‘who is filmed’ and ‘from what angle’ (Positioning) generates a particular bias.

Using Foucault’s line of thinking, then, we may see how a discourse has been created between the news images and us, the consumer. A final consideration is Foucault’s suggested relationship between Language and Power. This concludes that meaning is most powerful when it comes within a wider discourse. Therefore this report adds to the ongoing discourse of ‘Terrorist Threat’, making it’s message stronger — regardless of whether it’s right or wrong.

You might want to adopt a cautious eye the next time you’re watching.

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