We spy on others – and are spied on by others – all the time. From conventional eavesdropping and peeking where we should not to the high-tech surveillance of the government and the measures of stalkers or peeping toms, uncovering the lives of others has an illicit fascination. The arts are well-versed in this voyeurism.
This week I had the misfortune to see Contains Violence at the Lyric Hammersmith. A show of almost breathtaking inanity and dullness, it places the audience on the Lyric’s terrace, equipping them with headphones and binoculars so we can spy into a building opposite and consume the play.
But instead of a Rear Window-esque thriller (more on which below), we are left dangling without an obvious plot (woman murders man several times) or credible characters. Instead of our voyeurism giving us a pleasurable, shameful thrill, the play holds your attention so little that it becomes more interesting to see what is going on in the other buildings around the theatre, which is actual voyeurism. Contains Violence is a perfect missed opportunity. It turns what could be a clever theatrical device into a gimmick, unnecessarily invoking voyeurism as a substitute for drama.
Hitchcock knew what to do. The tension of the immobilised James Stewart becoming involved in lives (and deaths) of others in Rear Window works perfectly. He gave us snippets which mount up into terror, brief glimpses and low-tech spying. It makes us just as voyeuristic as Stewart, desperately craning to see what comes next, and this double implication of actor and audience in the scene makes us think about our own voyeuristic desires and culpability. It is not something we are proud of, but we cannot turn away.
In serious works of art, the voyeurism is never solely – or at all – pleasurable. Compare Sliver with The Lives of Others. The former is a high-tech soft-porn movie where William Baldwin gets to spy on Sharon Stone’s breasts. (Why he didn’t just rent Basic Instinct is anyone’s guess.) The latter examines how we interact with those we spy on, through the eyes of a Stasi agent in late 80s East Germany; without exploitation, the morality and effects of spying are played out, with drama and humanity.
And of course paintings have been taking up voyeuristic perspectives for centuries. Think of Velazquez's Rokeby Venus, where we are introduced to Venus as she examines herself in a mirror. The genius of this is that not only are we voyeurs of her, but she seems to be looking at us too from the mirror. It is a private moment but one in which our spying is thrown back at us.
The thrill of what we might see – and the fact that we are not supposed to be seeing it – will be an eternal prompt to voyeurism. While it may be immoral, it is also endlessly fascinating. The art that makes us feel all of these contradictory emotions at once surely succeeds in being valuable, whereas – as with Contains Violence – the work that merely seeks to exploit voyeurism ends up without even the thrill.