Old Art Terms #3: Liminal

John Elderfield
Nov 23, 2012 10:08PM

T. S. Eliot’s term, “the bewildering minute,” to which, he says, you have to surrender yourself in the experience of a work of art (see Old Art Terms #2), uses an old and wonderful word from the 1680s, "bewilder." It was probably a back-formation of the word “wilderness” (“be-wilder”) that originally meant, “lure into the wilds” and, therefore, “lead astray,” from which derives its current meanings, “cause to lose one’s bearings” and “to perplex or confuse.” 

All depictions create uncertainty for the viewer, which is how they engage us—if we allow them their bewildering minute, and especially if we allow them much more. Some depictions, however, are technically perplexing—most familiarly in “painterly” works, where the edges of objects are incompletely defined; where shadows and objects appear equivalently substantial (or insubstantial); where identification is thwarted by uncommon or partial viewpoints; and so on. And some of such technically perplexing depictions are also thematically perplexing—in choosing inherently indistinct subjects: most familiarly, scenes of darkness.

In this respect, Sally Mann’s photograph belongs to an old “painterly” tradition. But her photograph is special (although by no means unique) in this tradition not so much by being a photograph as by depicting a dark “wilderness," and thereby claiming for itself the atavistic meaning of “bewilderment.” In doing so, its connotations of elusiveness and unavailability speak of what anthropologists would call “liminal” phases, states of split reference in which the  identification of things is thwarted and deferred. 

John Elderfield