Painting, Scultpture, in the Hall,
You Don’t Look like Us at All!
In order to sell products, American women are bombarded with images of a perfection few can achieve. The item for sale offers the consumer a step closer to ideal, and may achieve its sales goal with an unfortunate side effect. The customer is left with a diminished confidence in her unconscious mind, as she subtracts points from herself next to the graven image of perfect womanhood. While brave advertisers have started to use more positive representations of ‘real women,’ such are still rare.
These new advertising images reflect many of the concepts introduced in Chapter One of Representation (Hall). The terms are primarily those of a new 20th Century vocabulary introduced by two Structuralists, Saussure and Barthes, Epistemologist, Foucault and other modern linguistic philosophers. These thinkers have made child’s play of the simple communications theories half a century back.
Time does not permit proper explanation of their work, but their field was the understanding of the codes, signs and levels of meaning we use and acquire to communicate, learn, feel, connote, denote and know the world about us.
Such representations of the world create the perceptions that give us our sense of identity, security and reality. It is to the lack of realistic representations among the nude images in art of Clark (Clark), and the mildly broadening images of Hobson (Hobson) and Nead (Nead) that we turn our attentions. To these art historians, nude art is about beauty. Their argument is, ‘what is beauty’? The images from which to choose with these three authors are not a representation reflecting the diversity of the culture looking at them. That is my thesis.
For organization, we will use the terminology of Hall’s complex Chapter One to suggest that Clark is outdated in his quest for perfection. We will then look at and Hobson and ask ifshe proves her thesis in her rush to racial judgment, based on an image many regard as admirable. Last, we will look at Nead, the closest of the three art experts to understanding that the art or art history of a time might do well to represent the culture of that time. In her brief but thought provoking mention of Derrida’s frames and edges, we will look to a more inclusive artistic potential.
Few can claim a liberal arts education without some knowledge of Sir Kenneth Clark. Even those who avoided Art 101, saw his book everywhere on campus. Admiration for Clark approached veneration in certain circles. Re-rereading Clark after 40 years was a split-personality experience. On the one hand, his knowledge and language deserve respect. But after a lifetime spent promoting positive images for all woman, I was surprised and resistant to find him as old- fashioned, sexist, tactless and flat. His definition of culture, his shared meanings, as Hall (1) would say, are those of European High Art, of curators and of serious, stuffy, hushed halls. The art which he admired most seeks to reflect a perfection that is perhaps more in the artist’s imagination than in realm of possibility of the female body. Therefore, such art may be ‘intentional’ in meaning or it may be ‘reflective’ of the great beauty the artist sees in front of him. Clark defines the art of the nude as “…the transmutation of matter” (p. 27). He is an open elitist, in search of ideal beauty which he says is proven every time we criticize a feature of face or body. To do so, says Clark, means, “…we’re admitting the existence of ideal beauty (p. 13). In his well-known opening quote, he differentiates between naked and nude, implying that naked is shameful where nude is elevated and ready for Clark and Co. His company, those whom he sanctions include the Knidian Aphrodite, Venus de Milo, Velsquez, Botticelli, Titian, Rubens and Renoir.
Rarely does Clark show us art where we are left to construct meaning for ourselves. Les Meninas and Primavera are two notable exceptions and the former elicited much more excitement for Michel Foucault (Foucault) who used it as an introductory chapter for one of his most successful books, than it did from Clark. Rubens is a troublemaker to Clark. Twice , Clark refers to his subjects using the word abundance. He just cannot get over the excess, which is de trop, and therefore bad in his Kantian aesthetic and uses the f-word, “fat” (p.144) to describe Ruben’s models.
The Greeks, according to Clark saw body and spirit as one. Clark attributes power that is more earthly than spiritual to certain bodies- those worthy of portrayal in High Art. He compares the nude to a building (p.20) and architecture, (p. 15) and shows mathematical schemas of the nude (P, 16, 17, 19).The signified/signifier relationship of Clark’s words are clear. Whether looking at semiotic model of Saussure or a Myth of Barthes, the nude is very serious, tall and imposing- gifted with great importance by association with the waterfall of Clark’s glowing words. Aristotle, Clark tells us, says, “Art completes what nature cannot bring to a finish (p.12). On the page across from Michelangelo’s Crucifixion, Clark says “…the nude is the most serious of subjects in art…”, then he quotes, “The word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth”(p.29). These are among the most holy words in Christian theology. Between Aristotle, Jesus Christ and his thanks to the Queen for the use of her paintings in the preface, how much more does one need to establish the assumption of knowledge that has become the power base of 20th century art history and its regime of truth? In the art world, Kenneth Clark is a paradigm, a school of thought, knowledge, power and a culture unto himself. There are indications that the paradigm Sir Kenneth is less strong than it was I first saw it 40 years ago. Janell Hobson and Lynda nead are among those indications.
Culture is understood for the purpose of this paper to be a place of shared meanings. The problem with Hobson, in The Batty Politic (Hobson) is that she assumes some meanings that may not be widely shared. The first paragraph, and most of the second, take a broad leap of academic assumption, bringing her to a thesis sentence in her third paragraph that is, at that point, illogical, unproven and, in my opinion, a blatant play of the race card. “As this brief discussion of Williams suggests, the meaning assigned to this aspect of the black female body has a long and complex history…”(p.1), begins the third paragraph. The first paragraph has told us of a black spandex suit Serena Williams wore on the tennis court in 2002, Hobson says it caused a stir as it was excessively sexual and displayed William’s well curved posterior, a black trait of negative regard. She goes on to claim that this reaction mirrored the enslavement and sexual labeling and exhibition of black women, “…within a larger historical context…(p.1.). Citing the exploited Hotentot Venus, Saartjie Baartman, who appeared in London in 1810, who had an extremely protuberant posterior, by European standards, she likens the two women.
I researched a photograph of Serena and a print of the Hotentot. Visually, they are not at all alike. There are several reasons for the press notice of Serena’s ensemble that have nothing to do with her figure, for which the sports press uses words and images similar to those applied to black figure skater Sonya Bonnally: strong, muscular, athletic, broad-shouldered, muscular, built to last, sturdy, etc. The suit has the logo of the company Puma in several places. At the time, Serena had a well-known, twelve million dollar contract with Puma. Controversy is free publicity. Further, only recently, did the tennis associations, under whose rules Serena plays, take down the mandate for all white clothing for tennis . At first, tennis players wore some ‘pastels’. Both Williams Sisters, Serena and Venus, new and winners in tennis as teens, flaunted hot colors and youthful tennis dress styles and hair-dos. This ensemble was, for the youthful, curvaceous star of tennis, an ‘in-your-face’ fashion statement to a stodgy game with a sports press not known for its fashion savvy. The statement was made by the wearer, not to the wearer The myth was athletic can be young and sexy. As a fashion industry member, I recall that the outfit helped her sales and point of purchase recognition. So, it is more likely, in my opinion, that shrewd advertisers were putting Serena and Generation Y together as signifier and signified, and creating a ‘splash’, than that Serena was being likened to the Hotentot Venus or in any way insulted. Nor is the angle of the shot and of Serena arching her back, posterior and youthful breasts way high a signifier of sexuality. She is a champion, lobbing the ball with all her concentration. The next words from most people watching were more likely, “Nice shot” than “Big Batty!”
Bad body images know no color. Negative body image was more common among white women twenty years ago, but they are equal today- an equality few would seek. “African American women have adopted similar attitudes towards body image, weight and eating to White women” (Pumariega, Gustavson, and Ayers 2(1):1994). Most of Hobson’s rhetoric is intentional, as she manipulates language and meaning to fit her thesis, not prove it. She never tells us what press disliked Serena, but she calls the reaction, “This seemingly exaggerated response…” (p. 1). She says,“The locus of black male deviance is presumed to lie…in black male libidos” (p.6) as another example of intentional use of language. Her attempt at discourse on the subject rises at may points- her ending paragraphs about dance and young girls resonating within the circle of womanhood are moving. Nevertheless, most pre-adolescent girls, according to all one hears and read, experience a great loss of confidence and identity during the passage into young womanhood or menarche. It is not a black issue, but a female issue. Most of her effort to underscore denotations and connotations of black female aberrant body or sexuality, as viewed by white people is archaic. She cites an antebellum sideshow (p.5), an 1829 French ball (p.4) and travel narratives from 1500 to 1770.
In Stranger in the Village, James Baldwin (Baldwin) suggests that the white man has to stop dreaming of the day when things will be like old Europe and free of the disgraceful memory of slavery and the inconvenient black man left behind. Perhaps, as a black female intellectual, Janell Hobson, might serve those she represents by finding a new drum to beat to the dance of confidence she wishes for black women of all ages and shapes. Equating every occurrence to racism is old, tired and trite. ‘Excuses’ are listed no where on the “circuit of culture”(Hall, p. 1). That circuit flows from truthful representation: production, identity, consumption and regulation.
Serena Williams in a black leotard: “Wow! What a magnificent structure of an American female athlete, doing the home team proud! How many titles have those sisters won- look at those arms!” At the risk of upsetting national demographics, such has been the reaction of the people to whom I have shown that Williams picture. Hall says, “Meaning is what gives us our own sense of identity” (p. 3) Black women do not benefit from additional negativity of ‘spring-loaded’ interpretation of meaning to apply to identities sufficiently shaken by being black and female to start. Women are trying to emerge. Sander Gilman (Nead, p.74) says, “conceived within the terms of racial degeneration, black women’s bodies were reduced to signs of sexual abnormality…”(p. 74). He is, however, speaking of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Further litanies of women’s or black women’s oppression are of questionable merit when real, and hurtful, when constructed. Hobson’s initial image of Serena is interpreted in a Barthes-like myth that can be decoded as fraudulent, based on concomitant data to the contrary. Nead says,” Racial difference is an extremely complex set of contructs”(p. 75). Nead also speaks of the “…issue of control of identity through the control of the image (p. 75), suggesting a responsibility between the image and the image maker. So, when Hobson, calls for the need to “…reaffirm that our bodies are fine, normal, capable and beautiful”(p.10) she is making a statement applicable to American women of all ethnicities.
Michel Foucault used the term ‘episteme’ to mean the a priori knowledge that proceeded new thinking (Episteme). Clark is the episteme from which Lynda Nead’s The Female Nude, takes wing, and there is more. For example, she seems well versed in the philosophers of aesthetics of many periods. Well researched, and the work of a well-read, scholarly writer with a profound, often difficult, yet exciting style of writing, the book takes the dust covers off art history. My convictions on both Clark and Hobson came from a close reading of Nead.
Nead is calm and rational as she procedes from Aristotle, “The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness (p.7) to Mapplethorpe’s Lisa Lyon. Here, Nead really begins the discourse on ‘framing the female body that will be ongoing, and of this particular example, she says that, to the artist, “…’fat’ is excess, surplus matter” (p.10). Of Clark, she is respectful, but dismissive. He, Kandinsky and Kant are old school and what Derrida calls phollocentric, in short, men looking at naked women, holding on to their male hegemony with discourse, belittling significations and phallic tools. Nead says, For Clark, “the female body has been shorn of its formal excesses and , as Venus, been turned into an image of the phallus” (p.6). Clark sounds like a dispassionate, erudite ‘expert’, holding court on the subject of ideal art, and defining pornography as the sublime or a disturbance. A low point for ideal art is achieved in the words of fifteenth century artist Alberti who admitted the artists at Croton used different body parts from different women to create a perfection that did not exist in one woman. Modern art and thinking opposes feminist cultural strategies as Kandinsky refers to the canvas as a virgin and to the rape of the canvas (p.56). Kant defines “…what is bad…is matter……which…leads the viewer astray, away from the proper consideration of intrinsic form” (p. 25); proper to whom, one may ask? Derrida asks.
In contrast to Clark’s broad stroke quote “The Word was made flesh…” and Hobson’s ending of her essay with the image of Urban Bush Woman’s “Batty Moves” is the subtlety of Michel Derrida. Athough his mention in Nead is brief, and mostly limited to II, 6, a paragraph about him was sufficiently though-provoking to pale Clark and Hobson. The Velasquez painting “Las Meninas,” or two lines from T.S Eliot go far to explain the search for meaning of Derrida. Derrida, who died last year, was a follower of Foucault, who, in turn, followed the pioneering works or Saussure and Barthes. While others have made contributions of note, to the French goes the crown of advancement of 20th century epistemological linguistic thought. Contrary to Kant, who was concerned with control and limitation (p.26), Derrida, held discourse on the frame or framing edge and encouraged thinking away from the center, more towards the framing edge. He is anti-logocentric. To be literal, for example, one might look at Les Meninas and see the Infanta of Spain in the Center. This painting was a subject of great interest to Foucault, who concluded that there was no single point of view (Foucault). Others have argued that the subject was the King and Queen reflected in the mirror or the painter or the painting, which is literally at the edge. It is, however, only by looking away from the center of the work that one can view all of the possible signifiers to name the signifieds and begin the discourse or tell the myth. T. S. Eliot offers us a more succinct example of the framing edge:
“At the still point of the turning world, neither flesh, nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is…(Eliot, p. 15)
There is no turning back after reading Nead. “There is no possibility of recovering the female body as a neutral sign for feminist meanings, but signs and values can be transformed and different identities can be set in place”(p. 72) Nead says earlier that there is a variety of “…race, size, age, health, age and physical ability which create a variety of female identities…”…Rather that ‘being framed’, it is a question of who draws the lines, where they are drawn and for whom” (p. 33).
Clark, Hobson and Nead love art and love the nude female body. Where Clark has left off, at the classic definition of the female nude as high art, Hobson and Nead move forward. Hobson’s essay is more a political statement than an artistic critique, and political statements raise controversy. Nead is a worthy successor to Clark. She knows the world called Modern Art and makes it come alive with a potent future. She suggests inclusion for real women, sculptures and paintings we recognize, not goddesses pasted up from the best part of thirty different women.. In-scena, ob-scena, art is about representations and has meanings meant to convey thoughts, feelings or a myth or to begin a discourse. Like the rest of language, it is not fixed and unchanging, but open to new ideas and interpretations. “At the still point, there the dance is.” She gets it.
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