The definitions of power: A recent visit from art historian and critic Michael Amy

We could all tally the amount of times we have all heard the phrase “with great power, comes great responsibility.” The Supreme Court even quoted this saying from the original Spider-Man comic book series. But how we each individually define power varies––whether we see power as some sort of supernatural capability or the ability accomplish any sort of task.

In a recent visit from Michael Amy, an art critic, art historian, and professor at Rochester University, I had the opportunity to reinvestigate the definition of “power” since it is a word with such individualized meaning. In his own evaluation of two different artists, Amy defined power as a complex of authority, a means of subjugation and ultimately, a weapon.

The first pieces were by the artist Michael Borremans, including Man Holding His Nose, The Angel, and The Ear. In each painting, the subject refuses to confront the viewer. Man holds his nose and closes his eyes (Man Holding His Nose); the subject gazes down (The Angel); and the female has her back turned to us (The Ear). This immediately sets a particularly mellow and nefarious tone to each painting.

Amy said that it seemed that each subject was conceding to unseen authoritative voice, suggesting the effects of potential verbal abuse. Certain details in Man Holding his Nose and The Ear suggest physical abuse as the man grasps his nose in pain and a gash appears behind the woman’s ear in The Ear. Through his artwork, Borremans defines power as a tool of belittlement and hurt, a method to physically and mentally break someone down.

man holding his nose
Michael Borremans, Man Holding His Nose (

The second piece Amy displayed was Pax Kaffraria by Meleko Mokgosi. In this eight-chapter project, Mokgosi defines power through Botswanian identity, power shifts in globalization and colonization and social structures of the post-colonial world. Power is displayed in the militia men, one in profile in the first panel, and others in silhouette farther to the right. Other forms of power are seen through a liturgical figure, representing the power of church over the state throughout history. In the style of a triptych, the liturgical figure is flanked by two panels displaying dead cows.

This tells the story of the Xhosa tribe in Zimbabwe who killed their cattle in retaliation against Britain, a demonstration of power against British imperialism. Within the painting we see an African American woman, washing the floor, while another African American man lounges on a green couch. Perhaps, this is a reference to the exploitation of the African race through slavery as a result of an unjust imbalance in power for over 400 years.

Moleko Mokgosi Pax Kaffraria (

From Amy’s discussion, I realized that power must always be taken within context as power has held many different personalities and definitions throughout the course of history. Power could represent identity and a challenge of the status quo, or it could also represent an unwelcome authoritative voice. It can also be used to stop the vicious behavior that power can simultaneously start. While power can sometimes be a good thing, it is important to remember that power can also be misused. Therefore, let us take Uncle Ben’s wise words to heart and use power with careful responsibility.


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