Wilson Fisk and the White Painting: A Detailed Analysis

WILSON FISK AND THE WHITE PAINTING:

A DETAILED ARTISTIC AND CONTEXTUAL ANALYSIS

This is an experiment in writing and disseminating a more academic-style paper through the Vine.

PART 1 OF 3

In the Netflix Daredevil show, Wilson Fisk’s white painting, and the white walls associated with it, play a fairly big part in the storytelling. It’s very unusual for any quote-unquote fine art to be so prominently featured in a movie or TV show unless it’s part of a heist or a biography of an artist, let alone for it to be used so thoughtfully, so I would like to analyze the painting both aesthetically and how it is used within story.

Over the next three posts within this blog thread, I will discuss the actual painting and the two white walls as if all three are paintings, or even as if they are all the same painting, in a sense. I will also tend to call it “the white painting,” instead of Rabbit in a Snowstorm, for reasons described in the second post, below.

In this post, I’ll recount the details of the painting’s appearances in the show, but first, a summary: when Wilson Fisk is a boy, his father tells him to stare at a white wall as a punishment, and think about what it means to be a man. His father then proceeds to beat his mother, upon which Fisk tears himself from the wall and kills his father. When WIlson is older, he buys a painting that reminds him of the wall.* He seems to get some level of comfort from it. It also leads him into a relationship with Vanessa, its dealer, seemingly one of his only mature relationships in his life. When he finally goes to jail, he stares at the wall in his cell as if it were both the original wall and the painting, with a new sense of intensity and anger.

* This is my one unanswered question about the painting—why did Fisk go to the gallery in the first place? Did go there on purpose to buy it, having perhaps seen it in the gallery’s publicity? Did he randomly show up at the gallery by chance, going out to some art openings as other rich people in the city might do for an evening’s entertainment? Did he have some ulterior motive for showing up, like planning to extort the gallery or someone else in the area? I don’t think it was to arrange a “meet cute” with Vanessa; she seems to almost intrude on him when she introduces herself. He does clearly have a refined aesthetic taste, based on his apartment and his music, so perhaps he did just go out for a tour of the local gallery openings.

A DETAILED BREAKDOWN OF THE PAINTING’S SCENES

Times are approximate.

Episode 3: Rabbit in a Snowstorm

Starting at 49:04 in (3:40 remaining)

It is an opening reception for a group show at the Scene Contempo Gallery. Vanessa is strolling through. She sees Fisk staring at the white painting, with the shot centered from a few feet away.

The rest of the exhibition also seems to be pure abstraction, with most of the work consisting of monochromatically-colored canvases of a basically similar size.

Vanessa comes up and says, “There’s an old children’s joke. You hold up a white piece of paper and you ask, what’s this? A rabbit in a snowstorm.” She smiles and laughs, with no response. “Are you interested or just looking?”

“Interested,” he says.

“People always ask me how can we charge so much for what amounts to gradations of white. I tell them it’s not about the artist’s name, or the skill required, not even about the art itself. All that matters is, how does it make you feel?” Her eyes scan back and forth across the painting in an appreciative, searching way.

We finally see his face, which turns to look at her, longingly. “It makes me feel alone.”

They stare at each other. He turns back to the painting, while she continues to look at him.

The White Painting
The White Painting

Episode 4: In the Blood

Starting at 18:40 in (34:21 remaining)

Fisk comes to the gallery to see Vanessa.

V: How are you enjoying Rabbit in a Snowstorm? [It’s unclear if she’s using the title ironically, or if it’s the painting’s real title.]

F: You remember?

V: Of course. It’s one of my favorite pieces.

F: I hung it in my bedroom. It’s the last thing I see every night.

V: That’s either very romantic, or very sad. [smiling]

F: I like to tell myself it’s the former.

V: Don’t we all.

After some stumbling he asks her out.

Episode 5: World on Fire

Starting at 40:22 in (16:09 remaining)

Fisk and Vanessa are talking about friends.

V: So you do have those. And yet the man says he was lonely when he looked at my painting.

F: MY painting.

Episode 8: Shadows in the Glass

Multiple scenes:

Starting at the beginning of the episode

Fisk wakes up after a nightmare and looks at the painting, in a sort of desperate need for calm. Classical music starts to play in the background. The first shot is of Fisk’s face, then it switches to the painting, and then the camera zooms in to a close-up on the painting. Fisk makes an omelette with the music continuing. The painting is part of what makes him feel civilized, under control, calm—“alone” doesn’t really feel like part of what he’s feeling. He feels like himself.

He picks out a black suit with black shirt and his dad’s cufflinks. Then he sees his young self in the mirror, soaked in blood.

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Starting at 29:43 in (24:13 remaining)

Fisk wakes up again. Once again, the camera starts with his face, then does a reverse shot to look at the painting, except that this time it zooms out, and out of focus, instead of in. He stares at the painting. This time he looks more sad, wishing for something like love or hope or redemption. Wishing things had been different. It almost feels as if the painting is failing him, he wants it to do more but knows it can’t. He makes an omelette again. He picks out the same clothes. You get more of a feeling of “aloneness” from the process this time—it is sad to be doing it the same every time. He is lonely with himself. Classical music again.

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Starting at 35:24 in (18:32 remaining)

Fisk’s father is angry with the young Wilson: “Think of the man you want to be. You sit here, and you stare at that wall. And you think about that. You’re my son. You should be a king, not some fat little pussy.”

The mom shakes her head.

Father: “Sit. What I say? Don’t look at me, look at the wall,” as Wilson looks briefly up at him for guidance. Now Wilson looks at the wall.

Father: “Don’t take your eyes off till I get back.”

The camera focuses on the wall and we see it has a similar texture to the painting.

The mom and dad talk about his loan to a loan shark. Wilson continues to look nervously at the wall. The dad starts beating the mom. Wilson continues to look at the wall, and we see it close up again.

Then we switch to Wilson in the present, staring out the windows of his apartment into the dark night, similarly to how one might stare at a painting. Wesley shows up with Vanessa, wearing white, his emotional savior. At one point they both stare out of (or at) the window together.

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Starting at 38:43 in (15:15 remaining)

Wilson’s father continues to beat his mother. Wilson is now crying and staring at the wall. He gets up and kills his father.

Wilson screams “keep kicking him” while hammering in his father’s head, in reference to when his dad made him repeatedly kick a bully.

We see (and Wilson sees) the wall again when he hugs his mom. He is finally alone with his one ally in his life at the time, and for the first time with nothing to interfere with him accessing her; but his father’s murder seems to have created a new distance of a sort between them.

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Starting at 47:04 in (6:56 remaining)

Wilson wakes up from a nightmare and looks at the painting again, but this time we don’t see his face in a reaction shot. The painting comes into focus behind him, but then he looks around at Vanessa in his bed almost immediately, and the focus is back on him, and his face. The reaction shot is to Vanessa, not the painting. He doesn’t have to rely on the painting any more. He isn’t alone any more. No music this time—Ben Urich’s voiceover starts instead. Fisk and Vanessa have breakfast together. His solitary habits are no longer a reminder of his lonesomeness. She picks out different clothes for him than what he’s worn before: a grey suit, grey shirt, and cufflinks that are both black and silver. She still wears white; during the press conference she wears a grey coat.

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Episode 9: Speak of the Devil

Starting at 20:28 in (37:39 remaining)

Vanessa and Murdock are talking in the gallery.

V: You don’t need sight to appreciate art, but you do need honesty.

M: Sight helps.

V: Sure, but there’s something very intimate in experiencing art through someone else’s eyes.

V: Art isn’t furniture…if you knew exactly what you were looking for you’d just be decorating. Art should speak to you. Move you.

V: This one, for example, one of my favorite pieces. [This is the same thing she said about Fisk’s painting.]

V: Imagine a sea of tonal reds. The color of anger. Of rage. But also the color of the heart. Of love, hope. It strikes a perfect balance between the two.

M: I don’t know, it sounds aggressive.

V: It all depends on your point of view.

M: Maybe something a little less challenging.

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Episode 13: Daredevil

Starting at 53:14 in (3:05 remaining)

Fisk settles down onto his bed in his prison cell. He is intense, angry, focused, the ill-intent. We see him staring at the wall from the side, but don’t understand. The camera looks at him directly in the face, zooming in. Then the camera moves behind him, and we see what he sees: another wall, which comes into focus similarly to how the painting came into focus after Fisk slept with Vanessa. The wall takes on new meanings. We see his face in close-up again. The ill-intent.

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[Since I will be discussing the “ill-intent” concept a fair amount below, here’s the dialog from that scene, earlier in the episode:

F: There was a man, he was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was set upon by men of ill-intent. They stripped the traveller of his clothes, they beat him, and they left him bleeding in the dirt. A priest happened by, saw the traveller, but he moved to the other side of the road and continued on. And then a Levite, a religious functionary, came to the place, saw the dying traveler, but he too moved to the other side of the road, passed him by. Then came a man from Samaria, a Samaritan, a good man, he saw the traveler bleeding in the road and he stopped to aid him, without thinking of the circumstances or the difficulty it might bring him. The Samaritan tended to the traveller’s wounds, applying oil and wine. He carried him to an inn, gave him all the money he had, for the owner to take care of the traveler. The Samaritan, he continued on his journey. He did this simply because the traveler was his neighbor. He loved his city, and all the people in it.

I always thought that I was the Samaritan in that story. It’s funny, isn’t it, how even the best of men can be deceived by their true nature.

Guard: The hell does that mean?

F: It means that I’m not the Samaritan, that I’m not the priest, or the Levite. That I am the ill-intent, who set upon the traveler, upon a road that he should not have been on.]

SOME OTHER DETAILS ABOUT THE WHITE PAINTING’S ART GALLERY

A few comments on the other art tidbits found during the gallery scenes.

Episode 3: Rabbit in a Snowstorm

The gallery has perhaps the cheesiest name ever, the “Scene Contempo Gallery.” Honestly this name is so unlikely to be used by a New York gallery that it makes me hard to take the rest of the art content of the show seriously, so let’s move on.

The gallery is hosting a group show that features selected work from seven artists, some of whom may be intentional references to real artists:

Daniel Ballarón

Eric Blum: there is a real Eric Blum who does abstract painting similar to what is in the show

http://www.ericblum.net/images_prnt.html

https://www.artsy.net/artist/eric-blum

Emily Fairhurst

Isaac Holt: there is a real Isaac Holt on deviantart, but he’s 17 years old, and his work is fantasy sketches, so he doesn’t seem to be an intentional reference

http://isaacholt.deviantart.com/

Alan Posner: there is an Alan Posner who was the owner of the iZm art gallery in Bremerton, Washington

https://www.facebook.com/IZM-Gallery-356341757754006/?fref=photo

http://www.kitsapsun.com/news/local/bremerton-woman-making-art-out-of-trash-ep-418318109-357143621.html

Erica Wessmann: there is a real Erica Wessmann who makes some abstract sculptures similar to some seen in the gallery, although her work tends to have more of a conceptual edge

http://www.ericawessmann.com/

https://www.flickr.com/photos/realpigywigy/

Gary Worth

I have searched to see who made the actual white painting seen in the show, but have not found anything. I would be interested to know the artist’s name. We also don’t know which of the above fictional artists is supposed to have painted it within the show’s universe. I am guessing that perhaps one of the people listed above may be the actual artist who painted the prop painting. (Another question is, was it painted specifically for the show, or was it an already-existing painting that was just loaned to the show by an artist?)

Episode 4: In the Blood

We can see the above artists’ complete names more easily.

Episode 9: Speak of the Devil

The gallery has a new show up, it looks a bit post-Cubist, some more general abstraction with a bit of an ‘80s neo-expressionism feel, and some that look a lot like Richard Diebenkorn’s work. It features selected work from:

Zach Citare

Mike Crupi: there is a real Mike Crupi who is a documentary photographer

http://www.mikecrupi.com/

http://mikecrupi.tumblr.com/

Michael Dave: there is a real photographer named Miki Davcev who uses Michael Dave as a pseudonym, and there is also a real Michael David whose work includes abstract painting like those in the gallery, and finally there is a real Michael David Lynch who has worked on several comic book movies

https://www.elance.com/s/michaeldave/about/

http://michaeldavidartist.com/michaeldavidartist/Works/Works.html

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2253518/

Jacquie Dore: this is the name of a production assistant on Daredevil

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3034617/?ref_=fn_nm_nm_1

Alex Foreman: this is the name of a production assistant on Daredevil

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm4876010/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1

Lisa Mall: this is the name of a production assistant on Daredevil

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2762279/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1

Angela Persico: this is the name of a production assistant, but she did not work on Daredevil

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm5505065/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1

Based on how many of these people are either artists or people in the TV/movie industry, presumably Citaire is as well, and probably the other names in the first show too, although I was unable to find out their connection. Anyone who has any information on these people, please let me know!

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PART 2 OF 3

ANALYSIS

Now to analyze the painting and its role in the show. This post will analyze the painting itself.

AESTHETICALLY

First, I’ll describe the painting and do a little aesthetic and contextual analysis.

Rabbit in a Snowstorm

As I noted in the first post, I am avoiding calling the painting Rabbit in a Snowstorm. It’s unclear if Rabbit in a Snowstorm is the actual title anyway. Vanessa refers to it that way twice, but both times makes it sound like perhaps it is just her pet name for it and not the actual title.

I also think Rabbit in a Snowstorm is a bit of a red herring in so far as its meaning (for Fisk) goes; you could argue that he hides in plain sight as a criminal, like the rabbit does in a snowstorm, but I don’t think that’s the intended implication of the title; the joke (as normally understood outside of the show) is more about a viewer trying to find the rabbit than the rabbit trying to hide, and in any case Fisk’s own personal use of the painting is much more emotionally-oriented than perceptual. And, despite the fact that the episode is called “Rabbit in a Snowstorm,” the show never really tries to tie the name into any of the big themes of the show.

Vanessa calls it a children’s joke, and it is definitely silly, goofy, a visual pun that seems out of place in the overall emotional narrative of the painting, and the show as a whole. Even ignoring the painting’s place in the show and just thinking of it as an artwork, I find it hard to believe that the person who painted it would give it a name like that. It just doesn’t seem like the kind of painting that someone would want to contextualize that way—it seems too sincere, and not gimmicky. (Here are some actual paintings called Rabbit in a Snowstorm, by an artist whose name is, appropriately, Joe Kitsch, for comparison’s sake: http://www.joekitsch.com/thumbnail_list.php?mgd_id=3333#.VqfNRcp-iQs )

Being a kids’ joke, it does refer back to the time when Fisk was a kid, but when he was a kid he was hardly the kind of kid to revel in that sort of joke. He was too unhappy in his own skin to revel in something silly like that. To a degree, when Fisk was looking at the first white wall, he was trying to hide from reality, to focus on the wall and pretend his mother wasn’t being beaten, but again I don’t see the idea of the joke being as much about hiding as it is about trying to find something. In that sense I guess Fisk’s desire to find truth in the painting makes some sense, but it seems a bit tangential and would be equally applicable to any viewer of any artwork. So while I would note the reference to hiding and camouflage in the title, I would rather avoid the name altogether and just call it the White Painting, since whiteness seems to be a much more useful and appropriate metaphor, as we’ll see below.

Visual Description

The painting itself is painted in sometimes-scumbled, sometimes-impasto, wide, somewhat curvilinear strokes. Up close, we can see that the white is scored-into with rectilinear hard-edged grooves. The paint is mostly fairly pure white with some grayish-white visible. From a distance, it’s hard to tell if this is just multiple layers of white, which become more opaque and purely white-looking as they’re layered up, or if it is a mix of white and grey. Up close, it becomes more clear that it’s actual grey, not just different levels of translucency. The different values and the quality of the strokes are more or less equally applied across the canvas without any particular areas of emphasis. To an extent, the center-top and lower right have concentrations of greys. In the gallery lighting, the painting looks somewhat luminous.

The first wall—Wilson’s apartment as a youth—matches the surface of the painting quite well. It is mostly white with a few grey splotches (perhaps other coats of paint, or raw joint compound, below the white paint), and is crisscrossed with roughly-applied spackle in strokes and layers that are very similar to the painting’s layers of thick whites, scored with grooves.

The prison wall is a bit different—there is less variation in value, and no clear grooves—but it has smooth and rough sections caused by the cement’s surface treatment, which causes optical patterns of seemingly lighter and darker sections, and certainly has the same general variation in texture as the others, even if the exact texture isn’t quite the same.

Importantly, considering the way that Fisk treats all three walls—by staring at them—each wall/painting has a largely uniform surface, but with enough minor variation in value, texture, and line to continually involve the eye—to keep the eye and mind actively moving around the surface even as its overall consistency allows the mind and eye to simultaneously unfocus and open into infinity. The large-scale uniformity and and small-scale variation essentially allow Fisk to flicker between meditation and concentration, escape and concreteness.

Some Historical White and Monochrome Paintings

The White Painting is a pretty standard example of monochromatic abstraction, and the standard expectation for how people approach monochromatic abstraction is to do pretty much what Fisk seems to do: meditate, create an emotional connection, and get lost in the details. But there are actually quite a few other ways artists have approached monochrome paintings, and I’d like to go through a few of them, to provide some context.

The artist whose work most immediately comes to mind when it comes to monochrome white paintings is Rob Ryman. He is an abstract painter whose work, for decades, has consisted of almost entirely white paintings. Sometimes he throws in a little color, but generally speaking all of his paintings are white. The paintings show great visual variety however. I first saw a huge show of his at MOMA when I was at an age where I would normally ridicule this kind of art (just painting white paintings your whole life? C’mon!), but it blew me away and introduced me to new ways of seeing. Each white painting is as different from each other as multi-colored paintings would be. One painting may be cool white, another warm white. One glossy, one matte. One big, one small. One smooth, one impasto. Others mix all of these variations together. You realize that while you originally saw color as the main differences between abstract paintings, now you can see that it is only one of many differences, each of which is as important as color. It makes you look at the subtle visual differences and see how they, small as they are, affect your perception of the work. Ryman’s work is about the concreteness of the individual object: by making everything “the same,” he makes it so you have to look for the differences, which makes you look at the individual. So you go from seeing it as all uniform, to seeing more differences that you normally would. This type of painting is really about seeing, and not feeling, in the sense of being an “expression” of an emotion. But because of the lushness of the visual, you do feel pure joy in the act of looking itself. As Ryman says, “the real purpose of painting is to give pleasure,” meaning that one should feel pleasure at the visceral nature of the paint, and of seeing, itself. In a way, Fisk mimics this way of looking, in trying to escape the real world by studying the concreteness of the wall while his father is beating his mother, but mostly this kind of experimentation with visual difference and viscerality is not what Fisk is looking for from his painting, so let’s move on to someone else.

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Rob Ryman

The other artist I think of immediately when I see an all-white painting is Ad Reinhardt, but not because he made white paintings. Instead, Reinhardt is the anti-Ryman, in the sense that Reinhardt made all-black paintings for years, up to the ‘60s when he committed suicide. Reinhardt’s paintings also featured small differences from one to another, so he does share something in common with Ryman. Reinhardt’s paintings are a little different though. Each of his is a square, the exact same size (60x60”), and each square is subdivided into a grid of 3x3 squares. Each painting is lushly smooth—no differences in texture here. So not only is the color the same, but also the size, shape, and texture. However, while they are all black, the squares are painted with slightly different blacks. Generally they have one color of black in the four corner squares, another color black in the top and bottom center squares, another color black in the left and right center squares, and a final black in the middle square. I tend to believe that he painted the whole painting with one black, as seen in the corners, then painted the middle row a second black, and the middle column a third black, resulting in the various patterns of black described above through intermixing or overlapping. The effect is somewhat like a black cross on a black ground. Sometimes it is reasonably easy to see the difference between the blacks, and sometimes it is almost impossible.

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Ad Reinhardt

Reinhardt was a man of extreme beliefs. He believed that art is objective, not subjective, and that anyone who read their own meanings into his work was wrong. This makes him sound like a jerk, but actually his writings on art, which are extensive, are actually very enjoyable to read due to his passion. (There’s an example at http://www.artnews.com/2015/01/24/less-is-more-ad-reinhardts-twelve-rules-for-pure-art/) You sort of have to read them as if he’s a (highly educated) street corner preacher, bellowing his truths out to the art world. And, paradoxically for someone whose art is so serious, he also had a great sense of humor: he was a cartoonist as well as a fine-arts painter. It’s hard to briefly describe how he expected people to look at his work, but basically he considered the paintings to be philosophical propositions of the definition of art. He had a few famous phrases, such as “art is art, everything else is everything else.” He didn’t want art to be anything but art, didn’t want it to be about meaning or reference or introspection, or anything other than what it is. (Joseph Kosuth, one of the founding fathers of conceptual art, later picked up on Reinhardt’s ideas while conceiving his notions of conceptual art.) In short, however, let’s just say that Reinhardt wouldn’t believe that it matters a rat’s ass how art makes you feel, quite unlike how Fisk uses the White Painting—and even unlike Ryman’s idea of visual pleasure. Ryman’s paintings are alive with experimentation, Reinhardt’s are examples of monk-like asceticism. They deny instead of affirm. You could perhaps say that they are about immanence—seeing the truth in an object as object, or perhaps learning to tie the self into objecthood, instead of the usual understanding of art providing transcendence, in which we learn to rise above the self, or to tie the self to something above it. (I would argue that to a degree, Fisk actually uses the two walls as examples of immanence, and the painting as transcendence.)

So, Reinhardt’s work is black and hard-edged, and very different in some ways from the White Painting. But, due to his prominence within the world of monochromatic painting, and his somewhat yin-yang relationship with Ryman, I thought he would be worth including here as a piece in the overall contextual puzzle of abstraction.

Now let’s go back in time even farther, to the nineteen-teens, and look at one of the pioneers of pure abstraction, Kasimir Malevich. This Russian artist is arguably the first pure abstractionist ever. One of his most famous works was Suprematist Composition: White on White. It is pretty much exactly what it says: a white square on top of a white background. It was a very bold statement for the world at that time: a white square on black would be challenging enough, so a white square that theoretically disappears into the ground so that there is theoretically not even a figure-ground relationship was something else. However the two whites are reasonably clear to tell apart, one being a cool white and one being warm, so the figure and ground do actually stand apart. (It’s also worth considering, for context, that the famous Whistler’s Mother, painted a few decades earlier, is really called Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, providing a titular precedent for both White on White as well as Rabbit in a Snowstorm.) Malevich’s idea of how one should interpret/view his work is no less abstruse than Reinhardt’s. His style was called Suprematism, and essentially it was a mix of an appreciation for the pure visual relationships between color and forms with a completely esoteric philosophy of symbolism. He was also interested in the “zero point” of painting—how far painting could go before it was no longer painting, and he felt that White on White was the pinnacle of that direction. He wasn’t interested in appearance, but in truth, and believed that absolute truth could best be found through pure feelings, but his idea of feelings wasn’t the sort of things we represent though emoticons. He was talking about “the supremacy of pure artistic feeling,” or “the supremacy of pure sensation in creative art,” sort of a conflation of aesthetic sensibilities and a mystical sense of purity and freedom that lay outside reason and humanism. But again, the idea is not really about your emotional reaction to the painting, although arguably it could be seen as somewhat transcendant, so in that way maybe he’s closer to the way that Fisk and Vanessa talk about and use the White Painting than the others we’ve looked at so far.

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Kasimir Malevich

Agnes Martin’s work may perhaps provide more insight into our White Painting. She was also known for making white paintings, usually with thin pencil lines on top in some sort of grid or other pattern. They typically are considered to be examples of Minimalism, in which we look at the work itself for its own properties, similar to the way we talked about Ryman and to a degree Reinhardt. You’re supposed to see just the object, and not to think of it as something full of meaning or anything else. You just consider it as a “specific object.” However Martin’s work always seems more humanist, more existential to me than the work of more strident Minimalists, such as Donald Judd. That is to say, they’re not exactly emotional, but they are intended to create a poetic space for having a human response to them. One can feel lost, or peaceful—or alone—in front of a Martin. They can be inspirations towards transcendence or at least existentialism. Martin, in fact, sometimes called herself an Abstract Expressionist, although her work is miles away from, say, de Kooning, in terms of expressionism; her paintings are vastly more austere and quiet. This existential quality puts Martin’s paintings in the same wheelhouse as Vanessa and Fisk’s conversation about the White Painting (“All that matters is, how does it make you feel?”…”It makes me feel alone”). It is also worth considering both of the walls in Daredevil as “specific objects”: objects that exist in a particular point in space and time, with particular qualities, objects that can exist as a focus for attention just as any Minimalist work could. Minimalism can be described as “what you see is what you see,” or Literalist, or “No Illusions. No Allusions,” as Judd said. All these could be applied to any normal object, if viewed with the intent of seeing it within an art context, which is to say, as an object capable of bringing some degree of value or worth to the viewer’s eye or mind. Martin’s work is, however, uses very quiet, if not imperceptible, brush strokes, and is in that way different from the White Painting, which in terms of strokes looks much more like a Ryman.

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Agnes Martin

Another artist, whose work may be the closest in intended response and paint handling, is Mark Rothko. I’ve left him for last because his work usually builds a relationship among multiple colors in a painting, and in that way is quite different from the White Painting. However, Rothko was an expressionist (at least, that’s what most people consider him, although he didn’t consider himself one), unlike most of the artists above. This term can be confusing, because abstract painting is often conflated with abstract expressionism. However, as can be seen from the examples above, Expressionism is only one of the many forms of Abstraction. Expressionism is the most popularly known branch of abstraction, however, which is most likely due to the fact that it is (generally) intended to be “felt,” to create a certain state of mind, and/or to be aesthetically appreciated in a fairly straightforward way. In Rothko’s case, he was interested in approaching the Sublime, a state of mind that is analogous to the awe one would feel in the presence of an omnipotent god. It is the simultaneous horror and wonder one would feel while trying to apprehend infinity. This is a psychological state of mind and an aesthetic feeling, and not exactly an everyday emotion like love, hate, or loneliness. I mentioned that Rothko normally uses multiple colors in his paintings, but there is one well-known series where he does not, and which have some similarities to the White Painting, namely, his black paintings at the Rothko Chapel. Set up in a permanent installation at a chapel, they are intended to help one view oneself introspectively, and get in touch with oneself, while also reaching out into the infinite, transcendental wonder of God—the All-in-All that is outside of us, and also makes us connect to one another. I think Fisk may be seeking this kind of apprehension of the infinite, but the White Painting makes him feel disconnected, rather than connected. It makes him feel his individuality rather than his connection to humanity, due to what we later see is his family situation.

Rothko Chapel
Rothko Chapel

I would like to give one other humorous example of white painting. Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler had an exhibition at the MIT List Gallery a few years ago where they painted each wall of the gallery a different color of white. Each color was the particular white that each of the different curators at New York’s Museum of Modern Art preferred to use on the walls of the shows that they hung. In other words, when curators hang a show at MOMA, each one uses a different color of white for the walls that the art hangs on. One would normally assume—I certainly had—that this white would probably be the same for all curators. However it turns out that they are quite different (sort of how Ryman’s are different). Some are warmer, some are cooler, some have hints of other hues. One, as I recall, is actually a yellowish cream color, not even a true white at all. Anyway, as a show, these different hues of white ended up making each entire wall look like a painting on its own, so that you were surrounded by white paintings in all directions in the gallery. All of this is neither here nor there when it comes to the White Painting in Daredevil, but if you’re interested in monochromatic painting, it’s a great piece.

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Ericson and Ziegler (sorry, the photos don't really get the effect across well)

All of this is simply an analysis of monochromatic painting in terms of color. I could also talk about paintings with brush strokes, texture, and so on that are similar to the White Painting’s, but I’ve chosen to mostly focus on its monochromatic qualities, and in particular its whiteness, for reasons that will come up in the next section. There are also plenty of other painters with well-known monochromatic periods, including Yves Klein, who made blue paintings (and even copyrighted the color); Ellsworth Kelly, who is known for using non-rectangular monochromatic canvases; Franz Kline, who mostly painted in black and white; Frank Stella, who is known for a series of paintings with thick black lines in simple patterns; Brice Marden, who made some Minimalist monochromatic paintings; Antoni Tapies, who made highly-textured paintings that were occasionally monochromatic and are actually similar matches to the walls’ surfaces; Cy Twombly, whose paintings were often scribbles on white canvas or paper; Robert Rauschenberg, who made series of White, Black, and Red paintings; Jasper Johns, who painted various versions of the American flag, including his White Flag; Allan McCollum, who made hundreds of framed black paintings; Charles Ray, who made a Minimalist-looking box actually containing black ink, and a circular piece of white wall that spun at high speeds; Tom Friedman, who stared at a sheet of white paper for 1000 hours, and wrinkled one white paper to exactly match the wrinkles in another white paper. The list goes on; I just wanted to show off a small range of the approaches that exist within monochromatic abstraction.

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Yves Klein
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Ellsworth Kelly
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Franz Kline
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Frank Stella
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Brice Marden
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Antoni Tapies
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Cy Twombly
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Robert Rauschenberg
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Jasper Johns
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Alan McCollum
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Charles Ray
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Tom Friedman

Whiteness

As I mentioned, however, when I look at the White Painting, what I think of is its whiteness more than anything else. Whiteness has a lot of meaning within western (and world) culture. The show doesn’t only use white in the painting; the grey scale as a whole is also an important visual signifier for the show and Fisk in specific. Fisk starts out wearing black all the time. He has a whole wardrobe of black and grey suits, but picks the same color every day. However, when Vanessa, who to a certain extent symbolizes the painting (and his mother), fully comes into his life after they sleep together, she moves him farther down the value scale, towards greys instead of blacks. When they come out for their first public press conference together, he is wearing grey and she is wearing white with a light grey coat. (She wears white on a number of occasions throughout the show.) I think this is important given Fisk’s well-known predilection for white suits in the comics. She is, in a sense, moving him towards his comic self by changing the palette of his suits. It seems at first like she’s moving him towards goodness, in the sense that he’s more emotionally open and honest, and thus able to wear white, the color of purity, but in fact it may be a signal that he is moving towards being honest about his evil nature, as is more directly seen in the comic, and as he admits to in the “ill-intent” scene in the last episode.

It’s hard to even begin to describe the meaning of white within culture and the arts. White often symbolizes purity and goodness in western culture, of course, so in that sense Fisk’s classic white suits are an ironic gesture, like a Stormtrooper’s armor, or perhaps a way of showing that he sees himself as good even if others do not. But the contextual associations of whiteness goes well beyond that. It is the white of an art gallery, neutral and blank. It is the White House, Modernist architecture, white people, a wedding dress, the white of the page (horror vacui!), hospitals, a white picket fence, whitewashing information, pearls, lab coats, white hot, Alice’s white rabbit, classic iPods, an albatross (in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and also an albatross around your neck), angels, the Lone Ranger’s hat, Snow White, the White Witch of Narnia, a white knight on a white horse, ghosts, snow, white light before it is broken up by a prism, the white light at the end of a tunnel that people see when they die, albinos, icebergs, clouds, the white flag of surrender, milk, God, Gandalf the White (and the White Hand of Saruman), the white prison in THX-1138. It can be the sublime, reason, innocence, emptiness, starkness. White can be warm, and it can be cold; it can be hard or soft. Perhaps most prominently of all, it is the White Whale, Moby-Dick, the uncatchable, the unknowable, the ineffable, terror itself. Moby-Dick has whole chapters about whiteness (http://americanliterature.com/author/herman-melville/book/moby-dick-or-the-whale/chapter-42-the-whiteness-of-the-whale). Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative ofArthur Gordon Pym, is also in great part about whiteness, playing off of Moby-Dick, using whiteness as a metaphor for the limitations of the human eye and mind, for sickness, oblivion, madness, infinity, fear, and death. (http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/pymb03.htm ) White can symbolize death in China and some other Asian cultures, which is perhaps significant considering Fisk’s extensive connection with China, and with Madame Gao—although white is also yang, the positive, masculine, active side of the yin-yang relationship.

Within comics, white is the skin of the Joker and Harley Quinn (pale and creepy like the grave), the Phantom Rider (playing off the tropes of both a ghost and a traditional “white hat” cowboy, although some versions of him were the opposite of that), Dr. Doom in the 2015 Secret Wars (white for godliness, but also somewhat symbolically desaturated and submerged in responsibility from his traditionally more melodramatic persona), Magneto in All-New X-Men, Storm Shadow (cold as ice in his quest for revenge, then later embracing honor and goodness), Power Girl, Moon Knight (white like the moon, both hopeful and hunter), the White Power Ranger, She-Ra (innocent), Emma Frost (playing against virginal innocence), the White Phoenix in the White Hot Room (the sublime of infinity), White Tiger, Sabra, Ice Man, the Future Foundation (austere), Dagger (the pure white light of the spirit), Fantomex (ineluctable), Ghost, Space Ghost, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, and many others.

White, in other words, can symbolize things that are the exact opposite of each other. It does not always stand for goodness and purity. In the same way that white light is comprised of all the colors of the visible spectrum, white as a symbol can stand for almost anything, depending on how it’s used. But despite this variety, its power can be very intense; it is not watered down by its diversity of potential meanings.

White’s potency is to mean so many things, to allow a viewer’s mind to wander from one to the other without feeling contradiction, which is exactly what Fisk does with the two walls and the painting—he changes its meaning to him as he goes through life, as we will see below. But mostly, I believe that Fisk tends to see whiteness, especially for the walls, and in part with the painting as well, along the lines of how Melville and Poe see it. Or, to put it another way, more like the fear and oblivion and ineffability symbolized by Moon Knight or White Phoenix, than as a Dagger or She-Ra-esque symbol of the purity and innocence of his childhood (the latter is how he wants to see the painting, but it eludes him). When he feels alone with the painting, he feels surrounded by the hard inescapability of whiteness—the Chinese whiteness of death, the unending white of madness.

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PART 3 OF 3

ANALYSIS, CONTINUED

IMPLICATIONS WITHIN THE STORY ON CHARACTERS’ EMOTIONS AND DEVELOPMENT

In this final post, let’s move on to the way the painting actually functioned in the story.

The Power and Characteristics of Art

Art Can Affect Your Life

One of the most important claims that the show makes is that art can affect your life. Art is not decoration, as Vanessa says. It is not there to sit around and be neutral. It can change you, and affect the paths you take in life.

Fisk’s life is clearly changed by the painting—and not because it happened to be the plot point that led him to meet Vanessa. Because of its aesthetics, and its association with his memory, it brings him to new emotional worlds that he would not have achieved otherwise. He met Vanessa by the chance; he stayed with her, and achieved a stable, meaningful relationship with her, because the art allowed him to reach a new level of emotional openness and maturity that he would not have otherwise. In fact, he clearly uses the painting for its power to affect him. When he wakes up, he looks to it for guidance; he practically beseeches it to help him make it through the day.

Let’s track his emotional narratives from the first wall to the painting, and the painting to the second wall.

He begins with a form of escapism, perhaps an anxious escapism, with the first white wall. He wants to escape the fact that his mom is being beaten, and he hates his father. But he is supposed to think about what it’s like to be a man, according to his father, and it is perhaps that forced meditation that enables him to grasp and at least temporarily embody part of that identity of manliness (which his father basically defines as the willingness to wield power) and use it to kill his father. In other words, it is by listening to his father, and staring at the wall and unwillingly thinking about what it means to be a man, that he ultimately manages to “act like a man” enough to defend his mother against his father. In this way, the wall may be seen as a white door to enlightenment, a classic state of mind associated with the purity of white, but it may also act as the white portal to insanity and death that Poe and Melville evoked in their work. In either case, the wall is part of a transformative event, and depending on how one sees it, perhaps the transformative element in that event.

Then he moves on to the white painting. The painting, which I believe he sees in three different ways corresponding to the three different times he looks at it, and which we will look at in more detail later, acts as comfort, as proof (to him) that he has risen above his past, although it also acts as a mnemonic of the fear he felt then. He finally, I believe, is able to move past the painting altogether as he switches his emotional anchor to Vanessa instead of the painting. He can now relate to humans instead of the implacable white wall. I would argue that the painting itself actually doesn’t do much to affect him directly—that’s what he desires, for it to bring him past his childhood trauma, but he finds its transformative effects wanting. Instead he is actually transformed by Vanessa. So ironically in the case of the actual artwork, it is a transformational dud.

Finally he transitions to a form of rage and focused evil with the final wall. I will argue that the final wall essentially represents the “ill-intent” that he identifies himself with in the armored car. When his father tells him to look at the first wall, he tells him to think about being a man. His father would certainly hold himself up as a role model of that ideal man. I would argue, however, that Wilson’s father is actually an early incarnation of the ill-intent: evil without provocation or reason. Evil to make up for weakness, evil that takes its own problems out on others without mercy. Evil that beats on someone for merely walking down the wrong road. When Wilson looks at the wall at the end, I believe he is finally willingly thinking about what it means to be a man, and is now actually holding up his father as that ideal, knowingly or not: as his father was the ill-intent, so shall he be. He looks at the final wall as a transformative way to commune with the spirit of ill-intent of his father that passes through him. The new white wall helps him communicate with the original wall, now bypassing the white painting which had come to hold associations of goodness, forgiveness, and emotional healing in its connection with Vanessa (connections that Fisk wanted the painting to bring to him by itself, but which he had to bring to the painting, by associating it with Vanessa).

Although it’s a minor point, it’s also worth noting that there is a scene in the episode “Shadows in the Glass” (where we first find out about the first wall, and where he kills his father) where the adult Wilson is looking out of his apartment’s windows just as he looks at the painting. Twice earlier in the episode he is near the windows when he has gotten bad news—first that the cop he had shot is waking up, second that Gao wants to talk with him (although he was not looking out of the windows before, he was just conspicuously near them). Later, Fisk and Vanessa stare out of (or at) the window together.

Clearly, as the episode title “Shadows in the Glass” reinforces, the physical windows are also a “window” into himself, a way to access his memories and motivations, as are the walls and the painting. Essentially, the windows are a stand-in for the painting, which is a stand-in for the first wall, and therefore there are actually four “paintings” in the show (first wall, second wall, the actual painting, and the windows). It’s worth considering whether the second wall takes over the same mnemonic dynamic as the windows (second wall --> painting --> first wall, just as windows --> painting --> first wall), or whether the second wall jumps over the painting as a link and makes him think directly of the first wall (second wall --> first wall), or whether the second wall takes on a wholly new identity and thus in essence “records over” both the painting and the first wall, becoming a new prime memory instead of a referent to an older memory (so that second wall =/= painting or first wall).

In any case, however, the case is clear that all the examples of the walls/painting/windows possess the ability to help Fisk reflect on himself, and thus change and develop his character over time. Art is shown to be something which has the power, on its own, to affect characters’ development in much the same way that interaction with another character would. It is not a static decoration in the background, but a living piece of the dynamic world of the characters.

Art Can Make You Feel Different Things at Different Times

Another lesson the show has about art is that the same artwork can inspire us to have different feelings at different times.

Each time we come to view an artwork (whether a painting, or TV show, or movie, or whatever), we are a different person. We have more experience each time we see it, even if it is just a day longer. We are also coming to it with different existing emotions for the artwork to interact with. If you start off sad before you look at a painting, your impression of it may be different than if you come to it feeling happy. This is a basic truth, but not one you see reflected a lot on screen. But we do with Daredevil.

Fisk clearly has different feelings about the walls and the painting over time. Here I will consider all three of them—the original wall, the painting, and the final wall—as one continuous artwork, since I would argue that Fisk treats them the same in his mind. He sees them all as one: they are all versions of the original wall to him, although they may show different aspects of its truth to him at different times.

When he first looks at the first wall, it is a source of tension. He is tense from what his father says to him about his identity as a “pussy” and how he is supposed to find enlightenment about what it means to be a man from the wall; he is tense from what his father is doing to his mother; he is tense from his anxiety about wanting to stop his father, but feels caged by his father’s dominance over the family. He is supposed to stare, but wants to look away—the opposite of a car crash on the side of a road. He doesn’t want to look, because to a degree it means to accept his father’s label for himself, and he doesn’t want to embrace that self-definition. At the same time I think perhaps the wall has just a little bit of comfort for him. It helps him escape the emotional storm in the apartment. Wilson wants to disassociate himself from his reality, which he hates, and which pains him so much, and in a way this wall is a gift to him, it provides the possibility for him to mentally get away. As long as he obeys his father and stares at the wall, frantically stares at its blankness in hopes of either a transcendent enlightenment or being swallowed up in immanence, using it as an almost Buddhist meditative focus of attention to avoid the pain in life—of life—he can avoid the real life problems that threaten everything in his life. All he has to do is obey, and lose himself. It is an avoidance crutch that later translates into his avoidance of choices in such simple things as what clothes he wears every day, retreating into the familiar instead of taking hold of the details of life. But he can’t accept this gift of escape because of what his father is doing to his mother, which forces him to pull himself out of that potential peace (although no avoidance is perfect, and would always contain tension within itself) and act. The tension he brings to the wall leads him to action: murder.

Later when he buys the painting, it is clear that he has different reactions to it at different times. The first time he wakes up from a nightmare, presumably about his childhood trauma, and he seems to have a desperate need for calm. This time he is very much in parallel with the original wall, where he wanted to use it to get rid of his tension through escape, and then through action. Now, however, he wants to get rid of the tension of the nightmare by meditation—his staring at the painting is an attempt at peace and centeredness, finding himself. It gives him the apparent serenity and self-control to make his omelette and listen to his classical music, at peace with himself, or at least seemingly so.

Later he seems sad when he looks at it, missing his lost innocence. It’s a different emotion, loss instead of worry—a backwards-looking emotion instead of a forward-looking one. As he says to Vanessa, the painting makes him feel alone. He clearly looks to the painting as something that will (should?) bring transcendence. But when we see him undertaking his morning rituals now, the repetition makes the previous serenity seem more like compulsion—a juxtaposition of emotions that mirrors the conflicted emotions he felt at the original wall. I would argue that to Fisk, the painting essentially represents his mother, or at least that’s what he wants it represent—the white balm of goodness that she represented to him. But instead, he sees his father, and the wall that he was forced to look at, the pale abnegation of death and madness—especially at the beginning. But as he looks at it over time, it takes on this feeling of loss, which is more about his mother, and loses some of the feeling of anxiety, which is more about his father.

Later, when he wakes up with Vanessa, he feels different. He no longer feels alone. Because his relationship with her is not only romantic, but Romantic [see “It’s the Last Thing I See Every Night,” below]: it opens him to some degree of idealism and optimism and dreaming that he had not had before, and he brings that new emotional state to the painting when he next sees it. Perhaps he feels like he can make a break with the power that the painting, and by extension that period of his life, has on him. Perhaps he just sees the painting in a new light: now it represents the fulfillment of being in a meaningful relationship, rather than being alone. Instead of the painting reminding him of his mother, now it reminds him of Vanessa, who takes her place as the prime female in his life. Vanessa is now his white light of peace, leading him out of his personal darkness. The first wall led him to an act of violence; the painting leads him to an act of love. It becomes a fairly straight-up Oedipal object, since it connects to the killing of his father and the desire for his mother, as replaced by Vanessa.

However, at the end, when he is staring at the wall in prison, he sees it with what seems to be an all-new emotion: with hatred, with intense fury. And yet it is once again a means of meditation, of focusing to remove all extraneous portions of his life, so he can concentrate on getting out, getting revenge. Although perhaps this is not a new emotion, for certainly he felt rage at the first wall too, but it was suppressed rage at the time. It is only with this third wall/painting that he feels free to make that anger visible, on the surface, now that he has accepted his role as the ill-intent. He is not a Romantic now, he is not a victim: he is an agent of power.

Thus we can see that Fisk relates to the walls/painting different in each phase of his life, and in fact he even relates to the painting itself differently each of the three times we see him wake up to it. The same visual stimulus creates different reactions at different times.

Fisk’s Emotions

“How does it make you feel? It makes me feel alone.”

Fisk says the painting makes him feel alone. Why is this so?

The painting reminds him of the first wall, and based on the fact that he sees his blood-soaked younger self in the mirror soon after he looks at the painting, he specifically associates it with the fact that he killed his father—and his identity as a killer. For him to see himself as a child, and as a killer, tells us that his emotional identity is still somewhat stunted, restricted to that formative event.

This event involved his father’s rejection of his identity, his father’s death, and a distancing between Wilson and his mother. When his father, Bill, tells Wilson to stop being a “pussy” and be a man, he is rejecting Wilson’s identity, saying that he is not good enough and needs to model himself on some other persona—his own, obviously. Wilson is reminded, when looking at the painting, of how he was not good enough for his father—or himself, since he clearly desired his father’s approval, even if he feared him—and is thus distanced from himself. By killing his father, he tried to remove his father from the position of being able to approve or disapprove of his self, but clearly that did not work and his father is still on his mind. Meanwhile his mother, whom he loved and felt safe with, was forced to adopt a cold, pragmatic demeanor in the clean-up of the tragedy, and she became something other than the safe harbor of nurturing warmth that he had previously depended on. In this scene, he felt his self being rejected, and attempted to remove the source of exterior disapproval, but also removed his sense of unconditional sanctuary. This left him bereft, alone, even with his mother. In return, however, he gained a new sense of agency, the feeling that he could mold the world to fit his own needs—but this new identity also carries with it a feeling of being alone, a solitary responsibility akin to rugged individualism.

He lost his father, started the process of losing his mother, and gained the authority to define himself—but the self that he gained was alone. The one relationship he cleaved away in an instant; the other he slowly distanced himself from as she aged, as she took on new responsibilities, as she remarried, as he put her in a home. We don’t see a lot of how she reacted to Wilson after the murder, but given her remarriage, perhaps she subconsciously tried to distance herself from him after seeing what he did—although there’s no doubt that she feared and hated her husband, and was happy about the result. And she clearly still loves Wilson. But it’s no longer the same as it was. Perhaps she sees the ill-intent begin to rise in Wilson from what seemed like an act of self-preservation and mercy for his mother.

So the associations he has with the wall all have to do with being alone, or being separated from others, through his father’s denial of his identity, his forced attempt to become someone else, his father’s death, his mother’s distancing, his eventual solitary him-against-the-world attitude. However, the painting eventually leads him from this feeling of being solitary, to a brand new stage in his evolution as a person, where he is not alone, where he has a true coupling with another person. When he wakes up with Vanessa for the first time, he feels connected to her in a pairing, a bond, that he has never had before, even seemingly with Wesley. He can truly be himself, he lets himself be changed by her, he lets himself be opened to new things.

One important question raised by this is, is it his evolution into a person who can feel love and connection for another person that opens him up to the feeling of honest introspection in which he realizes that he is the ill-intent? In other words, does love lead him to an acceptance of evil? If he had not found love, would he have not realized that he is the ill-intent? [See “Up for a Challenge? A Question of Honesty” below.]

Later on, when he is in prison, and looks at the second wall, does he feel alone again? He is alone in a cell now, obviously, literally in solitary and separated from Vanessa. But he seems to feel a certainty, a self-reliance and burning focus, that makes him seem to no longer worry about being alone. He is past the hobbled identity crisis of his youth. Vanessa brought him to adulthood, to a new adult identity, and paradoxically his confident relationship with her allows him to be alone without feeling alone. He knows she’s out there, waiting for him, so he can no longer truly be alone, whatever his physical situation. (Also paradoxically, his path to truly becoming a man, via a mature relationship with a woman, is something that his father, who told him to be a man, was incapable of achieving—although Fisk may not see this himself, and possibly still sees his father’s definition of being a man through his use of brutality and power as being the one that he will embrace for his new criminal plans.)

“It’s the Last Thing I See Every Night.”

Fisk says that the painting is the last thing he sees every night, and when Vanessa says that’s either romantic or sad, he thinks it’s romantic. I would argue that they both mean “Romantic” not so much in the sense of romantic love, but in the sense of Romanticism.

This seems a bit out of character at first. I don’t think of Fisk as someone who thinks of himself as a Romantic. First, he’s pragmatic: he believes that the end justifies the means, and he wants to get things done. Second, he clearly sees a large part of his identity through the lens of his traumatic childhood, which was in no way Romantic either. He was bullied, beaten, put down; he seemingly had no real saving grace other than—and even this just to a degree—his mother. On the other hand, he does seem to look at the painting as a form of comfort, he clearly sees some good in it, something that aids him in getting through the day, so perhaps there is at least some Romanticizing involved, in a forced-nostalgic sense.

I wonder if Fisk is lying, maybe even to himself, in an attempt to get Vanessa to like him more, to present a more positive sense of himself to her. Or, to put it another way that is more charitable to Fisk, perhaps he is just courting Romanticism in the face of his first romance—as a flirtation. It is possible that he realizes that it is sad (not in the sense of unhappy, but pathetic) to be going through the repetitive processes every day, picking out the same clothes, eating the same food. Looking at the painting is just another of these processes, and it is a sad/pathetic thing to do that, to use it as a crutch. I think perhaps Fisk doesn’t want to admit this to himself, or at least not to Vanessa. Being pathetic is not part of “being a man.” And so to avoid the perceived weakness of being sad/pathetic, he tries to flirt with the idea of Romanticism, something that would normally be outside his emotional wheelhouse. But even by wearing it as a mask, as a set of new emotional clothes, he lives it, and it leads him to build his relationship with Vanessa to heights that he would otherwise not be able to achieve.

Being a Man Versus Being a Child

When Wilson is a child and looks at the first wall, he is supposed to think about being a man.

When Wilson is a man and looks at the painting, he reminisces about being a child.

When Wilson is a man and looks at the second wall, he thinks about what it is like to be a man, now that he has left the child behind.

The first wall transports him out of himself into an imagined identity as a man; the painting transports him out of himself into an imagined life of childhood, a childhood he missed out on by committing patricide; the second wall focuses him on the present, and his father’s now-lived and -understood construction of what it means to be a man—to rule by violence, to be the ill-intent. Masculinity here is equated with aggression. This is the very quality that Matt doesn’t want to associate himself with in the red painting, perhaps through an avoidance mechanism similar to Fisk’s desire to avoid being “sad”—it is a truth that he doesn’t want to admit to, regardless of its reality in his life.

When the second wall helps Fisk focus on his ill-intent, he finally gets rid of the power of his father by symbolically taking on his father’s identity as a “real man”; similarly Vanessa took his mother’s place earlier. In this way, Fisk now finally moves past both parents, one loved too needily, one feared too easily.

“MY Painting.”

When Vanessa describes the painting as “her painting” in episode 5, with the tenderness of a parent who has given it away, Fisk is clear that it is not hers any more—it is his. He owns it.

Fisk is clearly proprietary of the painting, as he is of everything. Just because he understands the transcendent nature of art doesn’t mean that he doesn’t think of it as a possession. However, it is unlikely that he thinks of it as a commodity—it is not something to be bought or sold. It exists to be his, forever.

What does it mean for a painting to be owned by someone? In Fisk’s case, I suspect that he is less interested in it as an object of monetary worth, as he is in the role of being the person who controls its meaning and mythology. In other words, he wants to be the one who has a relationship with it, he wants to be the one who decides what it means, how it is received, who sees it.

It may be the object that brought him and Vanessa together, but his relationship with her (at least at the point where he has this conversation) does not stand above his most basic relationship with everything, which is ownership of all he surveys.

Comparison with Other Characters’ Thoughts and Emotions

Vanessa’s Perspective on Art

Reiterating Vanessa’s lines from episode 3, emphasis added:

V: People always ask me how can we charge so much for what amounts to gradations of white. I tell them it’s not about the artist’s name, or the skill required, not even about the art itself. All that matters is, how does it make you feel?”

And also from episode 5, emphases added:

V: You don’t need sight to appreciate art, but you do need honesty.

V: Sure, but there’s something very intimate in experiencing art through someone else’s eyes.

V: Art isn’t furniture…if you knew exactly what you were looking for you’d just be decorating. Art should speak to you. Move you.

V: Imagine a sea of tonal reds. The color of anger. Of rage. But also the color of the heart. Of love, hope. It strikes a perfect balance between the two.

M: I don’t know, it sounds aggressive.

V: It all depends on your point of view.

M: Maybe something a little less challenging.

Vanessa generally takes an emotional approach to appreciating art: “how does it make you feel,” and “art should speak to you. Move you.” She describes the red painting in emotional terms (“The color of anger. Of rage. But also the color of the heart. Of love, hope.”) although curiously she describes the white painting in the context of a children’s joke. Interestingly, she says both the white and red paintings, despite her different approaches in describing them, are “one of her favorite pieces,” leading one to wonder if this is just a sales technique and thus a form of dishonesty. Honesty—knowing oneself—is a prerequisite to being emotionally open and introspective, states necessary for experiencing art fully from her perspective. For her, experiencing art is akin to experiencing the world through another’s eyes, which is an intimate, that is to say, humanistic, experience rather than, say, an intellectual one. Looking through someone else’s eyes is a subjective, relativistic experience, which she believes is a metaphor for all art, which “depends on one’s point of view.” I think this is a particularly mature way of approaching the subjectivity of art. Often artistic subjectivity is framed in terms of subjective quality (in the sense of a level of excellence)—what is treasure to one person may be trash to another, and there is no objective measure of quality. Vanessa explains why someone may see a work as valuable—because it allows them to see the world as another sees it, which is a mind-expanding experience, but also a subjective one because it means switching your subjective experience for that of another. Vanessa doesn’t see quality as subjective so much as the kind of experience one has.

On the other hand, Vanessa’s approach to appreciating art is somewhat limited compared to the variety of approaches within contemporary art, as seen in the section on other historical monochromatic paintings above. By limiting herself to using painting for only humanistic insights (in the vein of, say, Rothko or Martin) she avoids other possibilities, from the immanent to purely visual pleasure to intellectual (as found in, for example, Ryman, Reinhardt, Kelly, Tapies, Ray, Johns, etc.). There’s nothing wrong with her approach, and I would expect an arts professional to have her own personal opinion on how to approach art, and furthermore it’s probably one of the best to use as a sales technique, but it would be wrong to take it as the only possibility.

Fisk’s approach is fairly similar to Vanessa’s. He has an emotional, existential connection with it, one that allows him to see through his own eyes from a younger age. It helps him see the world more honestly by remembering the piercing pain of his youth, instead of ignoring or submerging it. It enables him to modulate his pain in the present, to affect his moods and create a more contemplative emotional atmosphere in his mind, realizing how far he has come since then.

Up for a Challenge? A Question of Honesty.

Let’s consider again Vanessa’s discussion about art with Matt. In one of the most interesting comparisons of Murdock and Fisk (and the show is constantly creating parallels between them), Fisk seems to better take on Vanessa’s formulation of the challenge of art: honesty. She points out to Matt the necessary intimacy, the necessary willingness to be challenged, the necessary willingness to be affected. Murdock essentially admits he’s not up to the task—or at the very least, that he’s not a serious enough person to commit to the idea in a conversation. Vanessa and Murdock’s discussion is inflected with flirtation and salesmanship on the surface, but it goes deeper than that. When she says you need honesty to appreciate art, he deflects the point by saying that sight helps, not wanting to look at his own honesty too closely. And when she essentially pushes the point by talking about the work’s meaning (a balance between rage and hope), which requires that same introspection and honesty, he again smilingly deflects by saying he would like something less “challenging.” This may just be because he’s there to flirt and investigate Fisk, and not to talk about art. But, given his problems of intimacy with Foggy, Karen, Stick, and Claire Temple, this unwillingness or inability to have a direct connection with another soul, his problem with baring his soul to anyone but his priest, may be real after all. He doesn’t want to see his “aggressive” truth through someone else’s eyes. Whereas Fisk, although he has issues with intimacy, manages to build a mature, honest relationship with Vanessa, and also has a strong, sincere relationship with Wesley. Fisk is open to being honest with himself, in order to gain the emotional truths available from art, and in fact he intentionally seeks it.

But it is worth looking at Fisk’s honesty. Fisk is in many ways about honor, which usually implies being upfront, but he is also a schemer and pretender: pretending to be a normal businessman, pretending to not have designs on his criminal partners. His life as a boy was all about denial. His revelation at the end in the armored car, that he is the ill-intent, is his coming-out. No longer pretending to be what he is not, he is now for the first time completely honest—a place that he has been led to through his relationship with the painting and Vanessa. How would this final honesty affect his ability to view art in the future? Was his original relationship with the white painting less than honest or sincere? Was it the one place where he was honest—about his fear? Or was it his attempt to fool himself with nostalgic notions of childhood purity, a dishonest approach to art? It is also possible that Fisk wasn’t really lying to himself before; perhaps he went through more of a transformation into the ill-intent over the course of the show, rather than having that identity be a revelation to him, and so he was being honest in both phases. At a minimum, however, Fisk is more willing than Murdock to use the mirror of art to look at the truth of his own soul.

In any case, Murdock’s lack of honesty—with the contradictions of his emotions and goals, personal and as a vigilante—is perhaps what makes him unable to talk about the art sincerely, needing to make facile jokes, while Fisk can talk about it personally, with feeling.

CONCLUSION

I was attracted to the white painting in Daredevil for a few reasons. It held an unusually prominent role in the plot, and in the development of the characters in the show. Usually, when a work of art is in a show, it’s just in the background, or it might be a plot-point in a heist. Occasionally, someone in a movie will be shown admiring some art, but this is usually just intended to act as a kind of shorthand, showing off the character’s implied depth or sensitivity—think, for instance, of the scene where the characters go to the Chicago Art Institute in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And of course, we see art in movies that are specifically about art, such as Mr.Turner or Exit Through the Gift Shop. But rarely is an artwork in a mainstream, non-art-themed movie given the opportunity to show exactly how an artwork can function in someone’s life—where we see the character interact with the artwork, and understand why they are attracted to it, and see that artwork actually affect the character’s development over time. (Sometimes we’ll see a movie where someone will say, “oh, this artwork really affected me,” but we don’t actually get to see that affect, or why they were affected by that artwork as opposed to some other. The art in those cases usually just acts more or less as a MacGuffin, a plot device, instead of a naturalistic part of the fabric of the person’s life, that helps us understand, when we see the artwork, why it affected them.)

Fisk’s painting really shows the aesthetic and psychological mechanism of how and why it affects him. We get to see the moment he first sees it (meaning the wall, in this case), and how it then follows him along in his mind over decades, in different periods of his life, meaning different things in different eras. It creates an interesting psychological web through its associations with his father, mother, and Vanessa, which are built, replaced, and reworked over time. Overall, it makes sense to us why he is affected by this particular artwork, and the specific ways that he is affected by it.

Beyond the specific painting itself, we are given a specific framework for contextualization and interpretation of art in general by the main art-world character, Vanessa, who talks about how art helps you see through others’ eyes, discusses it within an emotional perspective, and describes how it can challenge a viewer.

The painting also uses white in an interesting way that avoids clichés, but still fits within literary precedents for the color, like those of Melville and Poe—while also tying in with the Kingpin’s classic preference for white suits!

All in all, it’s a particularly mature use of art within a piece of pop culture, and all the more satisfying because it takes place in a TV show originating in comic book, a genre that was in the past usually looked at as one of the most lowbrow examples of our culture.

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Amendment50

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i liked the part where he took the guy's head off with a car door

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Slayz

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Nah he's just looking at a white painting

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MadeinBangladesh

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Edited By MadeinBangladesh

Great analysis

~MiB

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i liked the part where he took the guy's head off with a car door

That was pretty great.

@slayz said:

Nah he's just looking at a white painting

He is looking at a white painting, that is true. But why?

Great analysis

~MiB

Thanks very much!

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Bump!

I know this is long, but I'm curious to hear any sincere reactions to the content.

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i liked the part where he took the guy's head off with a car door

@slayz said:

Nah he's just looking at a white painting

Never change, Comic Vine.
Never change, Comic Vine.

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MarlboroMan

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This post made me feel like a ignorant neanderthal :(

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Avatar_of_Green

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Oh, how humans ascribe meaning to art and abstract art, the purposeful nexus of random shape and color and pattern.

I much prefer art intermingled with story and meaning.

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VoloErgoMalus

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Edited By VoloErgoMalus

Nothing to add, but if I comment, more people are likely to read it. Great analysis.

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oldwasher

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just finished watching daredevil today (I know i'm late) and feel this blog is very accurate

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Oh, how humans ascribe meaning to art and abstract art, the purposeful nexus of random shape and color and pattern.

I much prefer art intermingled with story and meaning.

I understand; I obviously like story-based art as well, being a comics fan. One thing I think is interesting here is that a visual/story-based medium (TV) is using an abstract image within the plot, in which one of the characters (as opposed to us, the viewers) ascribes meaning to the abstract image, thus creating meaning for us, the viewers, through the role of the character in the story.

Nothing to add, but if I comment, more people are likely to read it. Great analysis.

Thank you!

just finished watching daredevil today (I know i'm late) and feel this blog is very accurate

Thanks!

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@owie: Good point about using static abstract art in a dynamic medium. Not very commonplace in mainstream television.

Great analysis, BTW. Just find it interesting that people are so fascinated by abstract art's beauty when their minds are the actual tools that are ascribing meaning to the random canvas.

In their minds lies the real art, the painting is just a cue to recede into those feelings and thoughts and give them pattern and meaning relative to this canvas.

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Owie

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@owie: Good point about using static abstract art in a dynamic medium. Not very commonplace in mainstream television.

Great analysis, BTW. Just find it interesting that people are so fascinated by abstract art's beauty whentheir minds are the actual tools that are ascribing meaning to the random canvas.

In their minds lies the real art, the painting is just a cue to recede into those feelings and thoughts and give them pattern and meaning relative to this canvas.

That's a very good point. Although I'd make a distinction between the way the mind/senses react to abstract art from a purely aesthetic point of view--"this is beautiful"--and the way they ascribe emotions or meaning to them, since the latter are more associative (this painting reminds me of X, which I have an emotional connection to, or which I associate with some important part of my life). So for instance a painting by Rob Ryman or Ellsworth Kelly doesn't really "mean" anything, we just look at it, its value exists purely on a visual level as an example of the Elements and Principles of Design in action, with line and color and shape and so on working together to make an aesthetic statement. Whereas looking a painting by, say, Franz Kline or Mark Rothko might act more as a spur for emotion, and a painting by Kasimir Malevich or Cy Twombly would involve more of a search for "meaning." Fisk's example is actually the best case for what you're talking about, where he ascribes emotional content to the walls and paintings due to the life events that he associates with them, and then connects all those walls and paintings together, creating emotion and meaning entirely within his own mind.

(We could if you want also go down the rabbit hole of whether even purely aesthetic judgements require the mind, or just the senses. On the one hand there's an argument that aesthetics are objective, with examples like the Golden Ratio as an "objectively" harmonious proportion, and that's why we find a lot of nature beautiful, because the Golden Ration is everywhere in nature. There is some evidence that the brain is innately attracted to certain kinds of sensory input--things it finds harmonious instead of discordant. For instance, in music, certain notes sound right together, and others are jarring; in art certain colors work well together, and others are jarring; in both cases the ones that work together have a mathematical relationship with each other, and the ones that don't, don't have that relationship. But, there's also an opposite argument. For instance, is the reason we think the Golden Ratio is so pleasing precisely because we see it everywhere, and because we're so used to it, and thus we think it's beautiful? In which case, our experience conditions our minds towards what we think is beautiful, and the mind is, as you said, the artist. Another good example is why we think men or women of a certain body type are beautiful--do we think that objectively, with a Darwinian-style kind of built-in sexual selection, and thus those body types are reflected everywhere in our culture? Or do we think those body types are beautiful because they're reflected everywhere in our culture, and thus we are conditioned into liking them, in which case the mind is the artist?)

Either way, great point.

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Avatar_of_Green

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Edited By Avatar_of_Green

@owie said:
@avatar_of_green said:

@owie: Good point about using static abstract art in a dynamic medium. Not very commonplace in mainstream television.

Great analysis, BTW. Just find it interesting that people are so fascinated by abstract art's beauty whentheir minds are the actual tools that are ascribing meaning to the random canvas.

In their minds lies the real art, the painting is just a cue to recede into those feelings and thoughts and give them pattern and meaning relative to this canvas.

That's a very good point. Although I'd make a distinction between the way the mind/senses react to abstract art from a purely aesthetic point of view--"this is beautiful"--and the way they ascribe emotions or meaning to them, since the latter are more associative (this painting reminds me of X, which I have an emotional connection to, or which I associate with some important part of my life). So for instance a painting by Rob Ryman or Ellsworth Kelly doesn't really "mean" anything, we just look at it, its value exists purely on a visual level as an example of the Elements and Principles of Design in action, with line and color and shape and so on working together to make an aesthetic statement. Whereas looking a painting by, say, Franz Kline or Mark Rothko might act more as a spur for emotion, and a painting by Kasimir Malevich or Cy Twombly would involve more of a search for "meaning."

Good way to look at it. I can find art beautiful without ascribing outside meaning to it. This is normally a concrete work of art. For instance, a landscape scene could be aesthetically objectively beautiful but without as much subjective meaning. An abstract work has aesthetic value but I would argue that it also normally aims for a more primal, subjective level of beauty vs. merely aesthetic beauty. This is why, generally, there are famous abstract artists rather than famous abstract art pieces. Each piece has different meaning to the beholder.

This is not to say that concrete art cannot have subjective meaning, however. Just that I tend to find purely subjective meaning in a higher percentage of abstract art.

Fisk's example is actually the best case for what you're talking about, where he ascribes emotional content to the walls and paintings due to the life events that he associates with them, and then connects all those walls and paintings together, creating emotion and meaning entirely within his own mind.

(We could if you want also go down the rabbit hole of whether even purely aesthetic judgements require the mind, or just the senses. On the one hand there's an argument that aesthetics are objective, with examples like the Golden Ratio as an "objectively" harmonious proportion, and that's why we find a lot of nature beautiful, because the Golden Ration is everywhere in nature. There is some evidence that the brain is innately attracted to certain kinds of sensory input--things it finds harmonious instead of discordant. For instance, in music, certain notes sound right together, and others are jarring; in art certain colors work well together, and others are jarring; in both cases the ones that work together have a mathematical relationship with each other, and the ones that don't, don't have that relationship. But, there's also an opposite argument. For instance, is the reason we think the Golden Ratio is so pleasing precisely because we see it everywhere, and because we're so used to it, and thus we think it's beautiful? In which case, our experience conditions our minds towards what we think is beautiful, and the mind is, as you said, the artist. Another good example is why we think men or women of a certain body type are beautiful--do we think that objectively, with a Darwinian-style kind of built-in sexual selection, and thus those body types are reflected everywhere in our culture? Or do we think those body types are beautiful because they're reflected everywhere in our culture, and thus we are conditioned into liking them, in which case the mind is the artist?)

Or maybe along with those possibilities there is also subjective aspect to beauty, where I find someone or something beautiful and a large part of the rest of the human population may not agree. That's why art that is objectively beautiful is very hard to come by, and very valuable, in my opinion.

I do agree that in music, some notes sequences are just objectively perfect. This is the juxtaposition of mathematics with reality and perception, as you have pointed out. If Beethoven didn't write Fur Elise someone else would have put those notes together in that sequence eventually. It's like the tune always existed in some primal sense and he's just channeling the notes.

Either way, great point.

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Owie

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@avatar_of_green: Thanks for your comments...that was a very enjoyable conversation. Nice perceptive points, again.

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Great post.

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@keenko said:

Great post.

Thanks, I appreciate it.