The Body Aesthetic: From Fine Art to Body Modification

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The last thirty years of cultural theory have seen a vigorous analytic focus on the human body both as the subject of cultural representations and as an escape from their repressive influence. Rare is the account that focuses on the most obvious fact about the body: it is the stuff out of which human beings are made.

Generously and variously illustrated, this volume gathers together the work of literary critics and artists, classicists, art historians, and specialists on the history of the body, who survey the strangeness and variety with which the body has given human beings form. Richard Leppert traces how the representation of little girls responds directly to the cultural anxieties of modernity. René Girard plots how starvation becomes an art form, while Eric Gans surveys the contemporary phenomenon of body modification. Sander Gilman explores aesthetic surgery as a response to human unhappiness. Simon Goldhill discovers in the Roman empire the initial stirrings of institutions that focus on the spectacle of the body, and Cynthia S. Greig provides a glimpse of what the history of photography would look like if male nudes replaced female ones. Marion Jackson details how the different physical existence of the Inuit guides the way they make art. Joseph Grigely transforms aesthetics as usual by focusing on the disabled body, while Tobin Siebers describes the traumatic appeal in both fine art and the media of wounded flesh, whether human or animal.

The Body Aesthetic is a broad exercise in cultural studies and will address a variety of readers, from those interested in detailed, theoretical accounts of the body, to those interested in belles lettres, to those interested in fine art.

Tobin Siebers is Professor of English, University of Michigan.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472111237
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 10/26/2000
  • Series: RATIO: Institute for the Humanities
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.55 (h) x 0.98 (d)

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The Body Aesthetic

From Fine Art to Body Modification

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2000 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-08673-3

Chapter One

Joseph Grigely Postcards to Sophie Calle

Author's Note: The "Postcards to Sophie Calle" were written in the spring of 1991, as a response to Sophie Calle's exhibition, Les Aveugles, at Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York. A selection of 16 of the "Postcards" was published in English and German in the Swiss art quarterly, Parkett (No. 36, [1993], 88–101). For the present publication I have collected together all 32 of the original "Postcards."

Dear Sophie,

I am writing to you about your New York show at Luhring Augustine in the spring of 1991, particularly one installation: Les Aveugles. My curiosity—or is it my concern?—is a reflection of anomalies and ambiguities: New York with its unforgiving inaccessibility is not a city of patience, nor is Luhring Augustine an artspace where one expects the voice of an oppressed minority; and you, Sophie Calle, a professed voyeur of private lives, what is this installation you present to us?

On a small pedestal in the center of the room is a lectern on which is placed the conceptual locus of Les Aveugles: "I met people who were born blind. Who had never seen. I asked them what their image of beauty was."

Around the room framed texts record the responses of these people: brief, printed declarations of beauty. I—like others around me—am easily taken in by these voices and their resonance:

What pleases me aesthetically is a man's body, strong and muscular. Hair is magnificent. Especially African hair. I curl up in women's long hair. I pretend I'm a cat and meow. In the Rodin Museum, there is a naked woman with very erotic breasts and a terrific ass. She is sweet, she is beautiful.

I am—how shall I say it?—entranced. No other word will do.

Yours, Joseph

Dear Sophie,

My entrancement is mitigated by something troubling about these words, and what is troubling is that they are, shall we say, Body Aesthetic forthright. They do not apologize for the fact that it is the body, the engendered body particularly, that must be touched to be seen. This is the tactile gaze of the blind. It is a gaze unconditioned by whatever feminism and sexual politics have taught us about touching. The terms and conditions by which this tactile gaze exists thus cannot be judged by our own standard, where the actions of the blind become rendered—I use that word advisedly—into our vocabulary of tactile violence. This touching is not about feeling, not about touching even, but about seeing. Touching itself is elided; it is a semantic projection of our own physiology, not that of the blind. If everyone in the world were blind, perhaps touching would be called seeing.

Am I being too romantic? Quite possibly. But inasmuch as the Deaf do not see sign language as a pretty way of communicating—it's language, language pure and simple—I think the same can be said about this tactile gaze: it's about seeing, not about touching. This is the inevitable effect of an imposed transmodality: it reconfigures our physiological conventions and the language with which we describe those conventions. This room and the voices of the people within it require much patience, Sophie. I need to slow down here, we all need to slow down and begin to try to understand what is behind this tactile gaze—we need to rediscover the act of seeing, and should we freeze up at the sight—our sight—of this seeing-as-touching, it is our preconceptions that freeze us and our unwillingness—not inability, but unwillingness—to see what we are seeing.

And what are we seeing, Sophie?

Yours, Joseph

Dear Sophie,

Beguiled now, I am almost afraid to face the photographs that supplement these texts, almost afraid to go past the honest audacity of this language to that which lies beyond: images that presume to be of the objects, people, places, and passions described. But here they are: the Rodin, her erotic breasts and terrific ass flattened by ektachrome into two dimensions; a woman's head covered with blond hair; a man's body tangled in sheets. Yet, the most troubling part remains: your photographs of the faces of these blind people: their signatures. I am arrested by fact that these images do not, because of their visual modality, return themselves to the blind. Since your face is not available to me, why should my face be available to you? An echo from somewhere, but I cannot pin it down. Something seems wrong to me: I am able to gaze, look, stare into the Sophie Calle faces, into the eyes, of faces and eyes that cannot stare back. "Subjects," they are called. I feel I am in the presence of a social experiment. I feel I am being watched, feel as if I am a part of this experiment. Alone and not alone, I am uncomfortable.

Yours, Joseph

Dear Sophie,

I hate myself here, yet I am taken in, seduced, drawn closer to this cultural keyhole. I struggle with my ambivalences—don't we all, don't you?—struggle with the these images: hypostatization, the enscribed voice, and Sophie Calle's photographic interpretation of that voice. I look closer at the voices, try to listen, try to expunge the images that intervene—the faces, the photographs, the presence of Sophie Calle. It isn't easy. The photographs of the voices, your photographs, your interpretations, are resolutely hermeneutic: they crowd around me, crowd around the texts, impose themselves, and in the end reveal not so much the voices of the blind as the voice of Sophie Calle. I turn from the keyhole; I feel guilty, angry. Pushing away, I push myself closer.

Yours, Joseph

Dear Sophie,

One thing becoming clear just now is that recent cultural representations of the disabled are often, it seems, mediated by those who are from outside the experience: Nicholas Nixon's photographs of blind children, Frederick Wiseman's documentary films on schools for the Deaf and the Blind, and Nancy Burson's photographs of children with cranio-facial disorders. All of these works have, I must admit, brilliant, sensitive, and (in)sightful moments, but they simultaneously evince a certain awkwardness in the fact that they remain "documentary" works. They are, that is, representations that are at best interpretations, like your own photographs. Looking at this art people remain on the outside looking in, looking in through the camera's eye, looking in through the double turn of culture and aesthetics—looking in, that is, at the inextricable tangle of truth and fiction, at a tangle that will never, can never, untangle itself. Nor, I suppose, can we.

Yours, Body Aesthetic Joseph

Dear Sophie,

I'm stepping back now, stepping outside of this room, stepping into the register of contemporary critical discourse and thoughts about how issues concerning the disabled fit into paradigms of this discourse. Perhaps you are aware that one acknowledgment of postcolonial criticism is how our predecessors engaged in cultural voyeurism and aesthetic appropriation. Both in art and literature modernism arguably owes much of its existence to the confluence of "primitive" aesthetics and discourse. By reifying aspects of the colonized other into a western whitemale ethos, our cultural practices evolved as a mode of "refined" (and hence permissible, even desirable) barbarism. Perhaps unconsciously, this barbarism remains within us, remains—dare I say it?—within your work: the other is not a colonized other living elsewhere, but a native other, a physiological other living in our midst. Why have you transcribed the voices of the blind into a medium to which they do not have access? What difference is there between gazing at the eyes of the blind or the labia of the Hottentot Venus? It is a discomfiting analogy, and I realize some people will not like it. They will be angry. Perhaps then they will begin to understand the anger of the disabled—how the gaze that acts under the guise of curiosity, like colonialist curiosity, is actually a gaze of violence. We are at a stage in cultural history where our conceptions of "otherness," to be truly other, must move beyond representations of the canonized Other. The colonized no longer necessarily live abroad; they live next door to us, and within our own homes.

Yours, Joseph

Dear Sophie,

Despite my initial resistance to your work, I sense that there is something uniquely engaging about Les Aveugles. Part of my ambivalence is in realizing that what strikes me in a negative way is striking others quite differently. Is this because I am disabled and others are not? Is this because I see, as others perhaps do not, a convoluted relationship between the studied history of colonization and the (largely) unstudied history of the disabled? Is this because I see emerging from these texts the horror of domestic colonization? "Colonization" is of course a strong word, because it suggests subjection through the use of physical force. But frightful too—perhaps more frightful when one realizes how subtle and psychologically tortuous it is—is the use of language as a colonizing agent. The oppression of native languages and attempts to control the genesis of a language by other means (what is most often termed "language planning") is an undeniable aspect of the history of many oppressed people. More difficult to acknowledge as oppression is when the language one social group uses to discuss another social group marks itself in negative terms: the identity is branded—"marked"—by language. Metaphor, particularly, is a form of latent violence that becomes manifest in the use of blindness and deafness as pejorative metaphors to imply ignorance, witlessness, and stupidity.

The phenomenon is ingrained, a reflection of how easily the disabled are stereotyped, and, in its ongoing pervasiveness, a reflection of how the changes related to racism and sexism in language have not yet been felt by the disabled. The English language has yet to respond to the vast semantic space between not being able to see and not being willing to see, between being unable to hear and being unwilling to hear. This, for example, is Elaine Showalter, writing in Raritan (Fall 1983):

We can hardly fail to welcome male feminist criticism when we have so long lamented the blindness, the deafness, and indifference of the male critical establishment towards our work.

This is Kwame Anthony Appiah, writing in Critical Inquiry (Winter 1991):

All aspects of contemporary African cultural life—including music and some sculpture and painting, even some writings with which the West is largely not familiar—have been influenced, often powerfully, by the transition of African societies through colonialism, but they are not all in the relevant sense postcolonial. For the post- in postcolonial, like the post- in postmodernism, is the post- of the space-clearing gesture I characterized earlier, and many areas of contemporary African cultural life—what has come to be theorized as popular culture, in particular—are not in this way concerned with transcending, with going beyond, coloniality. Indeed, it might be said to be a mark of popular culture that its borrowings from international cultural forms are remarkably insensitive to, not so much dismissive of as blind to, the issue of neocolonialism or "cultural imperialism."

And this—it's a long quotation but needs a full citation—is from an artists' statement by Houston Conwill, Joseph De Pace, and Estella Conwill Majozo that accompanied their 1992 installation at Body Aesthetic the Brooklyn Museum:

We create maps of language that present cultural pilgrimages and metaphorical journeys of transformation that can be experienced as rites of passage through life and death to rebirth and resurrection, fostering greater cultural awareness and understanding. They are composed of collaged and edited quotations from world music including spirituals, blues, gospel, soul, jazz, funk, samba, merengue, reggae, rap music, and freedom songs in dialect, and critical voicings from speeches of heroic models of African-American culture. Their prophetic and humanistic words reflect the values and aspirations of the culture—hope, wisdom, temperance, justice, and love—and function as both a critique and a healing, addressing issues of world peace, social justice, human rights, civil rights, rights of the physically challenged, freedom, equality, democracy, history, memory, cultural identity, loss, cultural diversity, multicultural education, pro-choice, public support for the arts, ecology, and caring. They also address the universal enemies of war, hatred, racism, oppression, classism, violence, bigotry, censorship, sickness, drug addiction, sexism, ageism, apartheid, homelessness, AIDS, greed, imperialism, colonialism, militarism, historical and cultural amnesia, cross-cultural blindness, and fear of the Other.

Cross-cultural blindness? It is almost ironic, Sophie, that the people who continue to use these pejorative metaphors are also the people who have done the most to open our cultural consciousness to the diversity of the human condition. Almost ironic; what else, Sophie, can it mean?

Yours, Joseph

Dear Sophie,

I have a hypothesis about the English language and how our sensitivity towards human differences is aligned with certain linguistic factors: terms like "racism" and "sexism" work successfully in English because they use a monosyllable in an easily engaged disyllabic form, and this adds to their ubiquitous presence in everyday discourse. Hence, it is easy to see how such terms and their concomitant ideologies are more readily assimilated by the American population: "race" and "sex" are quick draws. "Disabled"—already an inadequate term—is trisyllabic, burdened with awkwardness. "Differently abled;" "physically challenged;" "handicapped:" none of these terms work, nor have we a term to describe conscious and unconscious oppression of the disabled ("paternalism" comes close, but as a metaphor it does its own share of unjust damage). Defeated by the aporia of language and the strictures of etymology we crawl back into our present: we are we to ourselves alone. You remain you. The gulf widens.

Yours, Joseph

Dear Sophie,

I have a little more to say about language today, about semantics particularly—that is, about meanings and connotations.

My concern just now is about why the disabled as a social group have made little progress in becoming a central part of our social consciousness. I mean, Sophie, when people talk about "multiculturalism," they seem to mean everyone except the disabled—we're something else. Something else. I'm sure there are many reasons why this categorizing occurs—some are political, some demographic, some educational—but the most important reason, I think, is linguistic.

A large part of the problem is that the word "disabled" is not exclusively applied to humans or human culture. When we speak of "African-Americans" or "Asians," or adjectival variations ("African-American history," "Asian culture," and so on), we identify a human nexus from which consequent human activity originates. We are thus constantly reminded of the human center, that it is a people, even a diverse people, not an ideology, that is at the root of signification. But this is not so for the disabled: the word "disabled" does not automatically engage a human context because it is part of an independent matrix for that which is dysfunctional or otherwise adjudicated by prefixes: disabled, abnormal, malfunctional. On the New Jersey Turnpike between Delaware and New York are a great number of signs that, as social texts, reiterate this matrix: "Please park disabled cars behind cones;" "Please wait with disabled vehicles." What the matrix continually communicates is that a disabling condition is a deviant condition, one that subverts an illusory normalcy and needs assistance of some kind to restore ("rehabilitate") it to a more socially accepted condition.


Excerpted from The Body Aesthetic Copyright © 2000 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Defining the Body Aesthetic 1
Postcards to Sophie Calle 17
Viewing and the Viewer: Empire and the Culture of Spectacle 41
Representing Girls: Modernity, Cultural Anxiety, and the Imaginary 75
Where "Sleeps" Are a Measure of Miles: Physical Conceptions of Space and Time in Inuit Art 107
The Bride Wore Trousers: The Life and Photographs of Isabelle Raymond 127
The Body Sacrificial 159
Hunger Artists: Eating Disorders and Mimetic Desire 179
Imagined Ugliness: A History of the Psychiatric Response to Aesthetic Surgery 199
The New Art 217
Contributors 243
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