Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

"Enslaved Sovereign": Aesthetics of Power in Foucault, Velazquez and Ovid

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

"Enslaved Sovereign": Aesthetics of Power in Foucault, Velazquez and Ovid

Article excerpt


Michel Foucault's essay on Las Meninas has created spaces for diverse analyses of Velazquez's painting and of Foucault's reading of its intimations. My purpose in this paper is to argue for an interpretation of both painting and essay that is shaped by an exploration of aesthetics of power rather than by perspectival considerations. To further delineate Velazquez's interest in the inherently antagonistic relation between artistic expression and institutional power, I extend my inquiry to his Fable of Arachne, a painting that could have served Foucault's aesthetic and epistemological purposes well, and to a text from Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which this painting is firmly rooted.


Michel Foucault se essay oor Las Meninas her die moontlikheid geskep vir uiteenlopende interpretasies van Velazquez se skildery asook van Foucault se eie vertolking van die betekenis daarvan. My doel in hierdie stuk is om aan te voer dat sowel die skildery as die essay geinterpreteer moet word deur middel van 'n verkenning van die estetika van mag, en hie aan die hand van perspektiwiese oorwegings hie. Ten einde Velazquez se belangstelling in die inherent antagonistiese verhoudig tussen artistieke uitdrukking en institusionele mag verder te karakteriseer, brei ek my ondersoek uit na sy Fabel van Arachne, 'n skildery wat Foucault se estetiese en epistemologiese doeleindes goad kon gedien her, asook na 'n teks uit Ovid se Metamorphoses, waarin hierdie skildery stewig gewortel is.


A remark in Michel Foucault's A History of Sexuality 1 has prompted an attempt to explore intersections of reflections on art and preoccupations with aspects of power that seem pertinent to a discussion of the aesthetic in Foucault: "At bottom, despite the differences in epochs and objectives, the representation of power has remained under the spell of monarchy. In political thought and analysis, we still have not cut off the head of the king" (Foucault [1976] 1998: 88).

The figure of the king is pivotal in Foucauit's perhaps best-known discussion of a work of art, the chapter on Diego Velazquez's Las Meninas that opens his book The Order of Things ([196611970). (1) Since Foucault did not elaborate formally a specific aesthetic of art, it is at the intersections of artistic purpose and strategies of power in particular artworks that I intend to locate my discussion.

My interest in the present essay will be to consider anew specific compositional features of Velazquez's work in the light of Foucault's analysis and within the perspective of power relations, in an effort to delineate an interpretation of Foucault's reading that provides an alternative to art criticism based on purely technical aspects. Although the primary site of my exploration is defined by Foucault's interest in Las Meninas, I have found it useful to include in my discussion another painting by Velazquez that reflects, and bears confirmation of, the artist's continued preoccupation with problematic relations between art and power. I shall speculate why this painting, The Fable of Arachne (also known as Las Hilanderas, "The Spinners"), was not considered by Foucault, although it might have suited and affirmed certain aspects of his analysis as well as, if not better than, Las Meninas. A discussion of The Fable of Arachne's all-important grounding in Ovid's metamorphic tale of Arachne is intended to provide further connections with narratives that extend beyond the figurative realm. (2)

Foucault's project in The Order of Things is to map an archaeology of discursive regimes, as they emerge from three distinct epistemes. A brief review of these may be useful to identify clearly the temporal and epistemic parameters within which his analysis of Las Meninas is situated. Foucault argues that the guiding principle governing knowledge, or episteme, in the Renaissance is resemblance, an analogical mechanism that relates part to whole or microcosm to macrocosm, allowing all forms of knowledge to mirror and illuminate each other. …

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