The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art

The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art

by Wendy Steiner

Our era is defined by the model. From Victoria’s Secret and America’s Next Top Model to the snapshots we post on Facebook and Twitter, our culture is fixated on the pose, the state of existing simultaneously as artifice and the real thing.

In this bold view of contemporary culture, Wendy Steiner shows us the very meaning of the arts in the


Our era is defined by the model. From Victoria’s Secret and America’s Next Top Model to the snapshots we post on Facebook and Twitter, our culture is fixated on the pose, the state of existing simultaneously as artifice and the real thing.

In this bold view of contemporary culture, Wendy Steiner shows us the very meaning of the arts in the process of transformation. Her story begins at the turn of the last century, as the arts abandoned the representation of the world for a heady embrace of the abstract, the surreal, and the self-referential. Today though, this “separate sphere of the aesthetic” is indistinguishable from normal life. Media and images overwhelm us: we gingerly negotiate a real-virtual divide that we suspect no longer exists, craving contact with what J. M. Coetzee has called “the real real thing.” As the World Wide Web renders the lower-case world in ever-higher definition, the reality-based genres of memoir and documentary are displacing fiction, and novels and films are depicting the contemporary condition through model-protagonists who are half-human, half-image. Steiner shows the arts searching out a new ethical potential through this figure: by stressing the independent existence of the model, they welcome in the audience in all its unpredictability, redefining aesthetic experience as a real-world interaction with the promise of empathy, reciprocity, and egalitarian connection.

A masterly performance by a penetrating, inquisitive mind, The Real Real Thing is that rarest of books, one whose provocations and inspirations will inspire readers to take a new—and nuanced—look at the world around them.

Editorial Reviews

Michael Holquist
“Wendy Steiner is an original thinker, and I always look forward to her next book with pleasure, and with the anticipation that my education will be enhanced. In this study, she explores the apparent distance between artist and model as a space of the most profound and ramifying intimacy. In lucid prose she explores psychological, philosophical, political, and aesthetic relations at play in modeling. She draws on a wide range of thinkers from Kant to Judith Butler; writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a particularly rich reading of J. M. Coetzee; and artists, such as Bob Dylan and the architect Peter Eisenman. Against this broad background, Steiner—who once herself modeled for a New York Times piece on stylish women academics—writes with eloquence and precision about the unexpectedly rich body of questions raised by the act of modeling.”

Charles Jencks
“Surveying the field of contemporary culture with grace and wit, Wendy Steiner comes to the surprising conclusion that ‘a revolution is underway in the general understanding of beauty.’ The Perfected Form of the engineered celebrity and supermodel—and such things as Platonic architecture and sculpture—is giving way to a more interactive beauty. The real real engages the audience in vital interaction—does not petrify as a Medusa head—a Reality squared”

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University of Chicago Press
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The Real Real Thing

By Wendy Steiner

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-77219-6

Chapter One

What Is a Model?

The goal of this chapter is to understand what a model is, and what characteristics of models make them useful symbols in contemporary culture. This might at first appear to be a doomed enterprise. Anything-material or abstract-can be a model for something else, insofar as it can be replicated, imitated, adapted. Human beings may be models for artworks; inanimate prototypes are models for products; mathematical equations are models of physical phenomena. Models may predict the future or, like Mitochondrial Eve, generate it. They run the ethical gamut: utopia is a model made real; so is anorexia.

The synonyms of model only add to the complexity. A model may be a paradigm, prototype, original, precedent, master: that is, an idea or entity "lying behind" or generating replicas and copies. But surprisingly, it may be just the opposite: an exemplum, replica, or copy, that is, an instance representative of the idea behind it. When Shakespeare's Henry V exhorts his troops, "Be copy now to men of grosser blood, / And teach them how to war," he is using copy to mean "role model." When a dealer points to a car and says, "This is a 2004 model," he is using model to mean "copy" or "instance." Some synonyms relate to the abstractness of models (norm, pattern, formula, schema); some to their excellence (ideal, icon); and some to their generative power, physical or psychological (script, score, sketch, matrix, inspiration, muse). Simulation points to the like / not-like relation (the "quasi-ness") between model and reality. Mannequin, miniature, and toy specify the nature of the difference-within-similarity.

Human models come in many varieties-fashion models, portrait sitters, life models, artist's models, role models-and many social guises-parent, teacher, leader. Deities, saints, and heroes are valued as models for human emulation, as the title Imitatio Christi implies. According to the book of Genesis, in fact, God was the first model, creating man "in his own image." The ambiguities loosed by this divine modeling have triggered millennia of theological debate. Similarly, the philosophy of Plato is a metaphysics of modeling that has permeated the history of Western thought.

Obviously, no single book could ever cover such a vast conceptual field, and it might well be meaningless to use the phrase "the idea of the model." But still, certain claims might be ventured. To begin: modeling is a process in which an original is replicated in a copy or copies. Whether we identify the model as the original or-less commonly-as the copy, some difference separates the two, and this discrepancy raises issues of matching, accuracy, or in the artworks that most concern us, realism. Models may be said to combine distinct orders of existence: their nature as beings (or objects or ideas) in their own right, and their virtual existence in the copies or replicas they generate. Thus, models straddle an ontological divide. And it is for this reason that they are ubiquitous in the arts today, for their doubleness allows them to symbolize the growing permeation of the virtual into everyday reality.

Second, "model" is a relational concept through and through. To say that something is a model implies that it is in play with other factors, human and inanimate. A model gives rise to something else-a product, a work of art, a "creature." In the case of an artist's model, she and her pose are directed toward someone-initially toward a creator, and ultimately toward a larger audience. The audience, in countless subtle ways, is attuned to the artist's treatment of the model, wondering, for example, about the "faithfulness" of a given rendering or the artist's emotional investment in the representation and its source. As a human being in the studio and a virtual presence in the painting, the model is connected to both artist and audience. Architectural models help artists conceive their buildings; they also help clients visualize and understand them. Jean-Paul Viguier puts the elements of his "tiny jewel- like models" together in front of his clients in order to convey "the imagination of what the building is going to be.... If [the client] loves it, he will never forget about it."

The myth of Apelles is an allegory of the model's system of relationships. Alexander the Great hires Apelles to paint his mistress Campaspe, and is so delighted with the result that he gives Campaspe to the painter, who fell in love with her in the course of her posing. According to Victor I. Stoichita, the Renaissance artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari saw this myth as symbolizing the idea that art "is the result of a fundamental pact between the artist (Apelles) and the sponsor (Alexander), concluded on the basis of a representation which has brought about the passage from reality (the lovely Campaspe) to fiction (a picture representing her). This is clearly a classic scenario," Stoichita concludes, "presupposing the fragile equilibrium of four elements constantly under tension: the Artist, the Patron [or Audience], the Model, and the Work."

If we were to add to Stoichita's four elements another two-the Code of art conventions and the physical conditions that permit the Contact required for experiencing the artwork-we would have all six of the factors, mutatis mutandis, in the linguist Roman Jakobson's famous communication schema. The Model is an integral factor in the communicative experience we call art, reminding us of its interactive nature. Since we shall be returning to these factors over and over throughout the chapters that follow, I offer Jakobson's speech schema adapted to visual communication as a handy reference.

I have put an asterisk beside "Model" in the diagram, because though in certain works, for example portraits, she is the referent, this is certainly not always the case. A work based on a model may not be "of" her: what it is about, what it means, what it designates or denotes, what its point is (or any of the other ways of construing "Referent"). And yet, she bears some connection (even if a contrastive one) to all of these. The ambiguities in the model's relation to the referent are precisely what make her such a provocative figure. Moreover, the model's relations to the other parties in artistic communication are equally variable. When a sitter lives with her own portrait, the model / referent is also the viewer. In a self-portrait, the artist and model / referent coincide. But, regardless of the situation, the model is an element in an interaction that is at once creative and communicative. Indeed, insofar as we consider artworks in relation to their models, it is impossible to separate creation and communication.

Third, the relations in modeling are hierarchical in nature, and they turn on three fundamental issues: temporal priority, power, and value. Which element comes before the other in the aesthetic process? Which determines the other? Which is the point of the modeling? In the relations between the model and the creation, for example, there is an obvious, conventional answer to each of these questions. The model exists prior to the creation and is more powerful, exerting a shaping influence over it. After all, that is what "being a model for something" normally means. Equally obviously, however, the tables are turned when it comes to value: once the work is complete, the model is usually no longer of much importance. The point of the modeling is to arrive at the creation.

These hierarchical relations obtain, mutatis mutandis, for inanimate models, too. A prototype, as "proto" suggests, preexists the manufactured product (priority). It acts as a pattern, precise or imprecise, that determines the way the product looks or functions (power). But once manufacture has begun, the prototype is of little interest compared to the product (value). It may end up in a design museum or an inventor's archive if it survives at all; frequently it ends up in the trash.

The direction of priority, power, and value between prototype and product may reverse temporarily during the design process. Some problem in the product may cause the designer to change the prototype or replace it with a totally new one. Some people may actually prefer the model to what it generates: "models can be more interesting to students and architecture fans," writes Robin Pogrebin, "than the final product, since they offer a window onto the creative process." Designers may also experience the allure of models as a distraction from their ultimate goal. For this reason, Frank Gehry generates multiple models of his buildings in different scales, so that no single one becomes an end in itself, controlling the design process. In contrast, some architects, such as Richard Meier, exhibit their models as artworks in their own right. Models are the ultimate product of Russian "paper architects," who claim that "the idea of built architecture is superfluous." The critic Karen Moon asserts the commonsense norm when she objects: "But a model is patently not equivalent to a building. It represents the idea of architecture, not the actuality." In short, despite temporary reversals and occasional exceptions, the conventional hierarchies of priority, power, and value are in place by the time a final design model has been created and products or a building are generated from it.

In the case of the artist's model, these hierarchies take on marked ideological significance. The life model predates the sketches students make of her in art class (priority). Her pose and appearance to some degree dictate the look of the drawings (power), though sometimes the hierarchy reverses, as when a formal issue in a drawing makes it desirable for a model to change her pose. But ultimately, the drawings, not the model, are the point of the modeling (value). If they turn out well-regardless of whether they resemble the model-they will be saved in a portfolio or exhibited in a show. By then the model will be gone and perhaps forgotten, her name and identity treated as irrelevant to the works she helped bring into being.

The life model thus figures in a scenario of some pathos. A preexisting being in her own right, she wields some degree of generative power until the image is finished, at which point it replaces her and renders her obsolete. The analogy with parenthood is all too clear, a reversal of fortunes depicted in tragic terms in such works as King Lear and Imitation of Life. The model engages in a self-sacrifice in which she "births" a creation that displaces her. For this reason among others, feminists have found modeling an intolerable structure for women, either as a profession or as a symbol of the female condition.

The perennial gendering of the model as female follows from the analogy between creation and procreation and the age-old association of woman with matter (and man with spirit). Womb and matrix are archetypes of feminine modeling-molds that generate copies. The Muses, archetypal models, were feminine deities, and ancient myths about art and creation are populated with female models and prototypes: Galatea, Pandora, Helen, Campaspe, the five maidens of Kroton. In popular tradition, the model is "mother" of the artwork, and wife or lover of the artist "father." Though there have always been male models, and though in some periods men were the only models used in art academies, the conventional account of studio life genders the model female and the artist male, with a host of attendant implications for priority, power, and value.

Thus far, we have been considering the hierarchies that hold between the model and the artwork, but the same three govern her relations to the creator and the audience. The creator comes before the model. A painter chooses a model; a designer builds a prototype. However, the model precedes the audience in the creative process and normally has more shaping power over the creation than the audience does (though reception theorists, taking the long view, would probably disagree). But the artist is conventionally seen as more powerful than the model in determining the artwork. "All the photos are really of his making," declares Eleanor Callahan, the model for her husband Harry's photographs; "I didn't do anything." Since not all models are so self-effacing, artists have sometimes felt obliged to assert their power. The insensitive photographer in the novel Black & White snaps at her model-daughter: "It's my work. It's not about you-it was never about you." Finally, as to value, both audience and creator are conventionally taken as more important to aesthetic communication than the model. The audience determines the fate of the work, and the work redounds to its creator's credit. The model, in contrast, is typically consigned to oblivion once the work is out in the world, an extraneous and sometimes awkward reminder of the work's "real" origins. The great exception is portraiture, in which the value hierarchy is reversed between model and artwork and even between model and artist-one reason that portraiture has become a crucial genre in the current focus on the model in art.

Even in nonportrait art, the balance of power between artist and model is not as simple as the commonsense view would suggest. An artist selects a life model and may costume and pose her, but he does not create her outright (except in some myths). Notice how uncomfortable we become at the thought of a model totally bereft of shaping power. Photographs of the dead-Andres Serrano's Morgue series, for example, or graphic images of war victims-elicit resistance and sometimes censure. Part of the brutality in the torture images from Abu Ghraib lies in the prisoners' powerlessness vis-à-vis the photographer, and this lack of agency is a concern as well in photographs of children. Depriving a model of power, of the freedom to affect her representation, seems a moral affront. Some competition for self-expression between creator and human model is almost an ethical requirement of the artistic situation, though traditionally the artist is assumed to be dominant.

The description of the model I have been giving so far represents a conventional, "default" understanding of the hierarchies in play. Obviously, there is considerable fluidity in modeling hierarchies, and objections and counterexamples will surely have come to mind. Postmodern theory specifically reverses many of these conventions. Consider these "premises" that Harry Berger Jr. outlines in his 2000 study of early modern Dutch portraiture:

The portrait is the image not of a sitter but of the sitter's act of self-representation. The portrait is the image not of an actual but of a fictional act of self-presentation. Even to hypothesize that a portrait imitates or copies from the life, that it reproduces an actual event, an occasion of posing, is to imagine more than we can know.

Berger's propositions may complicate the commonsense hierarchies, but they do not eliminate them, demonstrating instead how unstable and reversible they are. Thus, one explanation for why models appear so frequently in recent art concerned with real-world change is that the complex hierarchies attending this figure are so fluid: susceptible to exaggeration, reversal, or, in a utopian triumph, equalization.

As we anatomize the model, we cannot help but note that one of the most central assumptions about modeling is that the relation between model and creation involves likeness (fig. 1.1). A model gives rise to something else that resembles it. In a life class, for example, the model's pose or features will typically be reflected in the sketchers' drawings; the point of the exercise is that there will be some resemblance between them. For this reason, modeling finds a perennial symbol in the mirror.

But commonsensical as this analogy may appear, the mirror mystifies rather than clarifies the hierarchies in modeling. It implies, for example, that the model is at the same time both passive and all-determining. As we stand in front of a mirror, our image automatically pops into view, and we see it as "precisely" like us (despite the left-right inversion and diminished size). As a life model poses, her image similarly comes into being without her having lifted a pencil. The sketchers have taken care of that. But who is the equivalent of the sketcher when it comes to reflections? If pressed, we would probably say that it is the mirror (or the laws of physics) that creates the reflection. But these are inanimate or intangible agents, suggesting image making as a kind of magic. The fact remains that the image arises only when and because a "model" stands in front of a glass, and thus the mirror analogy makes the model's power and agency confusing.



Excerpted from The Real Real Thing by Wendy Steiner Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Wendy Steiner is the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and a wide-ranging cultural critic who has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Nation, London Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement. She is the author of many books, including, most recently, Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art.

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