The Eye of the Painter and the Eye of the Police: What the Criminal Justice System Can Learn From Manet

Jonathan M. Wender, Simon Fraser University

Police officers constantly find themselves facing lonely, dejected people, who are an all-too-common feature of the late modern social landscape. One of the most poignant and evocative depictions of such a person is found in Edouard Manet's painting, A Bar at the Folies Bergeres (1881-1882). This famous image of a youg woman working at a Parisian bar gives powerful expression to what might literally be called the "face of modern life." It is a face characterized by an uncanny look of ennui, isolation, and calculated detachment. Taking Manet's painting as its point of departure, this paper contrasts the "eye of the police" with the "eye of the painter" in order to examine some essential differences between the bureaucratic objectification of human predicaments by the late modern criminal justice system, and the representation of those same predicaments in art. While the artist sees the entire person, the officer, as such, sees "a problem." Using a phenomenological analysis of some of his own experiences as a police officer, the author examines how the criminal justice system's response to human crises programmatically excludes from consideration the very dimensions of life that must be engaged in order to truly ameliorate misfortune and suffering.

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Updated 05/20/2006