Artists often choose to remain silent when it comes to social discussion, whether because they believe the art will speak for itself or for other reasons, they take a pass when called upon to raise their voices and address the important questions. Because of this the amount of dialogue within the arts community suffers and a group of strong, passionate, creative individuals is broken into so many little pieces to be ineffective rather than a strong, informed community.
We at Empty Kingdom want to build a place not simply for beautiful art, but beautiful people as well. As we are sure you all are. We want to see a strong arts community capable not only of speaking it’s mind in a single, unified voice, but one large and powerful enough to get what they are asking for. In this Roundtable we are seeking to provide one of the many building blocks to build such a community.
But how do we stitch together so many disparate elements? One step at a time. We share our love of art with you, so we know that we have common ground. Here we present to you dialogue. The Roundtable series addresses important and often ignored issues that are very real to artists and the arts community. Addiction, sexuality, lust, love, beauty, give us your ears and the time and we’ll try and address them all. You’ve done us the great honor of coming to our site, now take whatever you read in the following roundtable, however much you manage to read, and go talk about it. This is how we create dialogue, this is how we create community. Good communities take hard work and we’re all in this together.
How do you view the feminine versus the masculine form, what qualities do they share and what qualities are unique to each? How are those qualities reflected in the stigmas society attributes to feminine and masculine form? As artists you are both curators and commentators, your work takes into account as well as addresses the ideological lanscape of the society, how do you think the contemporary depiction of physical form differs from past depictions? Do you think we have progressed? Regressed? What is your personal role in the discussion of physical stigma, whether support, contradiction or discussion and how does your work achieve this?
I am fascinated that this discussion persists, given how long this content has been part of larger discourses in art history, and the social sciences. After reading the prompts, I find myself asking questions, rather than coming up with defined responses.
When we refer to the “feminine or masculine form,” are we are addressing the actual, flesh-and-bone bodies of men and women? Or are we focusing on representation (all types of imagery)?
In my view, actual bodies are simply matter: flesh is flesh, and I tend to not make separations by gender. However, scientific advances now offer a “technologized body”: plastic surgery, gender reassignment, body modification, cloning, and genetic engineering have blurred the crisp, distinct edges of how I conceptualize male and female.
Images of male and female bodies vary widely, and reflect the culture, time and place they were made. Historians often speak of the “male gaze” built into nude imagery over time, and I believe that advertising has adopted “the gaze” in imagery geared towards fashion and commerce. More recently, this voyeuristic visual language is exemplified in images of both men and women, and has become increasingly androgynous.
My awareness of/sensitivity to images of the body has become more pronounced. I ask myself reflexively, “Who made this image? What is its’ context, purpose, and audience?” I don’t believe that reactions to male or female images are universal, or that value transcends cultural, racial and class differences. I am not certain if the development of images of male and female bodies over time can be judged in a linear way as “progress” or “regress.”
When speaking of “stigmas” related to the body, male or female, I question what are stigmas projected onto the human form? Perhaps illness, deformity, aging, and obesity: qualities that remind us of our own physical fragility and limitations? What is even considered “obscene” these days? These societal norms are clearly flexible and dependent on who is judging. The Internet offers a “supermarket” of easily accessible images of men’s and women’s bodies, that cater to a huge range of individual tastes and fetishes. How does one draw lines in the sand?
Sexually charged images are literally everywhere—we are so saturated in our culture. My main problem with this is that the paradigm of “what is sexy” is utterly predictable. Many of these images are overtly or subliminally about commerce, and therefore lacking in the surprise, or vulnerability of real sex. I personally find the glamorization of sex to sell products to be alienating. There are plenty of people who are aroused by the fantasy of this type of imagery, but I am not one of them.
Pornography is the fast food of erotic imagery; a quick sugar burn made for consumption, not multi-layered. We are meant to project our fantasies onto pornographic imagery; it is utilitarian at its’ core. I have no problem with this, although I find pornographic imagery to be predictable, and a bit silly.
As an artist, I am interested in making images that address the layered experience of living in a sexual body, that capture the pleasures and discomforts of being human and vulnerable. It is a challenge to make an image sexually charged and compelling. It is so easy to lapse into cliché or use overly familiar tropes to express eroticism. The corporeality in my imagery is not glossy or idealized. Sex is similar; real erotic experience can be squishy, humorous, gross, and makes one feel quite vulnerable. I make a point to avoid using symbols or signifiers to convey sex; rather, I aim to capture the physicality and fleshiness of erotic experience. I believe that my best drawings tap into the base of our desire, and also hint at the susceptible human body, and the dreaded passage of time.
I believe a human body is an artist’s most economical and effective tool, source of inspiration and language of communication. I am at the Sculpture Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. I stand underneath a sculpture by an 18th century artist Jean-Antoine Houdon entitled Winter. It’s a figure of a nude barefooted woman, her back painfully curled, her head drawn into her shoulders. She is wrapping herself into a scanty shawl just large enough to cover her head and breasts. The bottom half of her body is completely bare. Her body language is so powerful that it makes me shiver with cold.
The emotion her form portrays is so much more eloquent than any of the winter landscape paintings in the rest of this giant museum.
A human body is capable of projecting every powerful emotion and expressing it in most subtle ways. We can “read” the body and identify with its message immediately. As infants we’ve been “reading” adults even before we knew a spoken language. Sadly, I believe we’re loosing this skill because we’re spending increasingly more time interacting with virtual avatars as opposed to the flesh-and-bone versions of our friends and ourselves. (We think of ourselves in digital terms as well.)
In the past a human body was used to express emotions and convey human conditions. Be it Shiele’s and Degas’s wretched and disturbingly intimate portraits of prostitutes or Ingres’s luxurious sumptuous bodies of wealth and status. A nude placed in the right context was able to stir a controversy (e.g. Edouard Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe). But you can hardly create an intelligent controversy with a naked body today. That’s a pity to lose the powerful message of a human form in art. But I believe it’s just a cycle. Once sensuality and sensuousness turn the corner from the current Digital (“Dark”) Ages we will find the body depicted in the new reinvented context. A human form will then explore brand new quests and purposes of art.
Personally, I experience the world with all of my senses. Every day I am aware of my gradual and acute sensual atrophy caused by this virtual-digital 24/7 existence…. I am fighting it and trying to find a balance through my work – especially with a personal project I’m working on. It explores this very subject – how do sensuality, emotions and eroticism evolve in this New Brave Digital World?
As far as the difference between the depiction of male vs. female form… Starting with cave paintings, moving into ancient Egypt and Rome into the present time, I believe both male and female got their equal share of being fetishized. There is a big talk about “male gaze” in art – when a female body is used in gratuitous sexist ways. I can’t deny that the female body has been a political canvas/material/commodity/tool in the hierarchical male-dominated Christian society up until today. However, I completely disagree that ALL art involving human form is sexually biased.
When I thought of the sculpture of a shivering woman I mentioned earlier I actually had to look her up online in order to describe it here. Last time I saw it in person was more than ten years ago. When I looked at it carefully last night through the skeptical lenses of a photographer I saw how absurd this sculpture was. As absurd as the current fashion editorials that try to make the images more “edgy” by squeezing in some nudity. How silly is this shawl whose ends strategically cover the front of her crotch but leave her buttocks exposed!! But you know what? It doesn’t matter! Because when I think of the best depiction of freezing cold in art – EVER, I think of HER.
We must not forget that a human body has never been a neutral subject. At different times a certain shape of a body had been valued and idolized and therefore used in art more often. For example, an athletic and bronzed body meant something different in Ancient Greece, Victorian Era and today. (In 2012, a man with a body of a Gladiator will probably be immediately assumed a personal trainer, an actor or a porn actor. In short – not a very sophisticated social figure.)
I work with fashion. I think it’s the the most immediate no-nonsense link connecting the body, self-representation, consumerism and social status. Fashion is an enormous reflection and commentary on the society. Art carries the same purpose, So in a way fashion equals art. I feel like I’m in a position that holds a big responsibility and I’m still figuring out how I can make it work for the greater good.
These are questions for this time that is transitioning from the body to the mind but that I feel are becoming redundant in an age that is no longer dependent on the biological.
We have always lived in a culture which creates reflections and fetishes of the power and weaknesses of the human form. By which I mean across the ages there have been particular representations of the body according to the ‘contemporary’ culture and society. Unfortunately this has always been accompanied by a lack of understanding of the similarities and differences of the sexes. We now live in an age where the physical form is malleable and there are no differences that are impossible to attain or adapt. It is for the individual to decide on the qualities they wish to represent themselves and the sacrifices they will encounter in their age or race related endeavours, bearing in mind the freedom we have to decide is largely western centred.
Our comprehension of our physical world only leaves us with more questions though with the suggestion that we are all born from the same material, the same cells, atoms, consciousness. The more I feel lost to this mass the more I feel secure in my various places including the masculine and feminine, the X and the Y. Nonetheless, it seems that the more we have the power to dictate the form of our bodies the more problems are created and the same can be said for the mind.
The popular stigmas appear to be largely self-imposed relevant to the media diet the individual subscribes to, from pornographic magazines to Facebook, self-help books to religious doctrine. The difficulty is in avoiding such effects from the self as well as from peers but also from the way the various stigmas are treated medically or psychologically. The visual culture is led largely by consumerism but also continuing to be affected by religion, is a lazy reflection of a society ill-informed or blissfully unaware of their actions in the collective conscious and unconscious mind. Therefore, society continues to change as do stigmas, taboos, ethics and at a pace thought to be frightening whereas we are all part of the natural evolution along the spiral.
Visually, commentators appear to be in limbo, at best rehashing old ideas with a new glaze, at worst rehashing old ideas with a new glaze. However, culture is not the place for powerful social commentary or change, it reflects and is affected by both but at any one time it cannot dictate. The real power lies in the collective mind and the will to move with the times but this is as invisible as the force that organises bees. My unstoppable personal role in this discussion of physical stigma lies in being a father, present and non-abusive. As an artist I am often mis-quoted, mis-understood and mis-represented so either it is a case of right time or right platform but I doubt my own vernacular’s ability to achieve what my mind desires.
Pornography is the true reflection of our visual culture so in a way porn = fashion + art.