My favorite aspect of writing, as discussed in my most recent blog post, is process. Sorting out my thoughts and ideas, writing them down in my notebook, crossing out the awkward parts, replacing words, and adding and subtracting punctuation until I am pleased with the finish product, is what makes writing so rewarding for me.
My favorite part about being an art historian is the ability to make and negotiate connections while looking at objects of visual culture. Studying art helps me make sense of the world, by realizing connections and bridges between things that may, at first, seem very different. If I can borrow the words of artist Alfredo Jaar for a moment, “that’s the magic of art—and i think it’s extraordinary—the power to create connections, make bridges. it fascinates me.” This is a case where someone else’s words describe my thoughts better than I possibly could myself.
My love for the process of writing is very similar to artist Charles LeDray’s love of process in the creation of art, specifically in relation to his recent exhibition at the ICA/Boston, entitled workworkworkworkwork. The exhibition just closed this past Sunday, and is currently being de-installed and packed up for safe travels to the Whitney Museum in New York.
To be honest, I love pretty much everything about LeDray’s work. Born in Seattle in 1960, LeDray’s mother, a seamstress, taught him how to sew when he was just four years old. With no academic artistic training other than working as a security guard at the Seattle Art Museum, LeDray’s work and career are even more impressive.
Fixated on commodity, repetition, and identity, and obsessed with process, LeDray’s works are systematic and powerful. Hand throwing thousands of tiny ceramic and porcelain pots (over 8,000 in this exhibition alone), hand sewn miniature clothing, delicately carved human bone – at the most superficial level LeDray’s pieces are impressive based on sheer skill alone.
LeDray’s work, however, is anything but superficial. His pieces raise questions about gender identity, work and process, and loss. Traditionally considered “women’s work,” sewing is usually considered more of a craft than an art. LeDray challenges this traditional notion, as he is a male artist who uses sewn textiles as his most prominent medium. Overcoat, a piece that consists of a and sewn, navy blue miniature men’s overcoat stuffed with even tinier male and female clothes makes a commentary on gender identity and the sometimes blurred line between male and female, a false binary.
LeDray’s obsession with process and work leads to the dismantling, re-appropriating, and re-creating of objects. A piece entitled Small Suit made from Larger Suit, LeDray created a hand-sewn miniature plaid suit, complete with jacket, dress shirt, tie, and slacks. He then cut out from this suit the pattern for a miniature suit, which he sewed hanging off the right arm of the larger suit. He went as far as to punch out tiny, pin head sized, pieces of the larger suit’s buttons for the smaller suit.
Several macabre pieces carved from human bone illuminate the permanence of some aspects of the physical human body versus the average human lifespan. One piece, a miniature orrery, a mechanism used by the ancient Greeks to track the alignment of the planets in the solar system, reiterates the discrepancy and relativity of time and space.
One of the most moving and beautiful pieces, in my opinion, is the muted gay pride flag, entitled Pride Flag. This piece makes a harsh but realistic commentary on the politics surrounding gay rights. Many times, just as changes are being made, something happens to set back the progress. This is illustrated by the muted colors of the traditionally bright and vibrant gay pride flag. With miniature gray, white, and black men and women’s clothing sewn to the sides of the flag, the lives lost during the AIDS crisis are remembered.
The human body is not present in the exhibit, not even in miniature form. On display are only the objects that people use and/or wear. The absence of people, of the physical body, creates an eerie lack, an absence that makes the viewer long for the things, the people that are no longer physically here. The piece that conveyed this feeling the most for me, and that I could relate to the easiest was the work called Hall Tree. This piece includes a miniature coat tree, fabricated by the artist, with miniature hand-sewn coats hanging on the hooks. This piece reminds me of the death of my mother, and how things just sort of sat in places, as she had left them, until we were finally forced to move them; something that we put off for as long as possible, as them staying where they were was a reminder of her and the way things were when she was alive.
The miniature objects remind the viewer of doll clothes, of childhood, of the past. Though they appear at first glance to be innocuous and perhaps even a bit cute, these pieces are the symbols of the untold, silenced stories of the past, of the people who are no longer able to tell them.
This is an abridged version of a paper that I wrote for a History of Photography course I took in Fall of 2008.
The mysterious Countess di Castiglione, who commissioned hundreds of photographic portraits of herself from prominent Parisian studios, left a very prolific record of her life. In this paper I will discuss the way in which the Countess’s peculiar life gave her the agency to commission these photographs and control her self image. Due to her eccentric and fetishistic behavior, her photographs are generally bizarre and provocative. Using the ideas of feminist theory and gaze theory, I will discuss the way in which the Countess was able to use her social status and agency to obsessively construct her self identity before any one else could construct it for her.
I argue that the motivation behind having so many photographic portraits taken was her narcissistic and seemingly neurotic desire to preserve and document her beauty. Her apparent narcissism certainly stemmed from the fact that she was constantly receiving positive attention about her looks from both men and women. She was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful women of her time as Frederic Loliee says in his history Women of the Second Empire, “She was perfection. She enjoyed getting dressed up and making her presence known at exclusive functions such as royal balls.” She also took advantage of her sexual appeal by using her beauty to seduce some of the richest and most powerful men. Her frequent affairs with prominent men of the mid to late nineteenth century were clear indications of the power of her beauty and the way in which she affected men. Perhaps her obsession with documenting herself was a way of taking claim of her image and objectifying herself before any one else could. Being a prominent member of the court since the age of sixteen must have made her slightly jaded. Especially due to the fact that she was known more for being an object of desire than for playing the important political and social roles that she wished to play.
Though it was not uncommon for elite members of French society to have their portraits taken conveying different identities, the Countess’s photographs stand apart. They were not used for advertising or monetary gain and as Elisabeth Brofen says, “the photographs show with extraordinary clarity how self staging, apparently a safeguard and immortalization of the I, is accompanied by the destruction of the self” (156). La Castiglione’s obsession with her own self image led to a unique artist and model relationship that produced prolific amounts of fascinating photographs of a woman trying to define her self image using the medium of photography.
The advent of photography created an environment of quick and easy commodification. Instead of sitting for a painted portrait, patrons could go in and have their photograph snapped in a few minutes time. With the creation of the carte-de-visite, or calling card, people could disseminate images of themselves to whomever they chose. Though it appears as if the Countess never actually intended to circulate the unconventional portraits she deliberately pose for, she was undeniably concerned with making her own identity.
Photography also aided in the wide dissemination of pornography. Instead of taking photographs of the entire body, sometimes these illicit photographs would commodifying single body parts, like legs. In later photographs of the Countess’s legs as an old woman, the Countess overturns the notion of sexualized body parts by emphasizing her de-sexualized, aging body.
There is a tradition of women with some sort of agency, particularly political agency, commissioning their own portraits. As strong willed women with political agendas, these women used their agency to commission portraits of themselves in order to have control of the way they were depicted instead of letting other people have to opportunity of defining them. This, it seems, is very similar to what the Countess di Castiglione did with her series of self portraits. Instead of letting other people, particularly male artists or her male family members, decide how she would be presented to the public, she wanted to be in charge of her image. She, as a Countess, was also in a similar position of the possibility of accessing political power.
Though there is not a strong tradition of women with agency (the ability to act as she chooses) to commission unconventional or risqué portraits of themselves to create and solidify her own identity, there are some unique cases. This shows that, though the Countess is a particularly intriguing case, she was not the first woman to commission portraits to self-consciously create her identity.
Arguably the most intriguing photographs of the Countess are the photos in which she consciously makes the viewer aware of engaging in the act of looking. By countering the viewer’s gaze, the Countess questions exactly who is the subject and who is the object. Although she is the object of the photograph, in the photos where she is holding a half mask in front of her eye, titled Game of Madness, the Countess in turn makes the viewer both the looker and the looked at. The subject is almost always the person who has the power in the subject/object relationship. It is no surprise that the Countess would want to actively engage in the subject position, even in a situation where she is inherently objectified.
The radical and particularly intriguing aspect of the gaze photos of the Countess are dependent entirely on the time period in which they were created. During the Second Empire women in France did not have many freedoms and their agency in the arts depended entirely on their access to money. As a woman for whom money was not an issue, the Countess was able to commission portraits of herself that were not necessarily conventional or socially acceptable. Another reason why she could have these portraits taken of herself was due to her very intimate relationship with Pierre Louis Pierson. Perhaps if she had not developed such a strong friendship with Pierson she would not have been able to convince another photographer to take these risqué or scandalous photographs of her, regardless of how much money she offered.
In many ways it seems as if the Countess was ahead of her time. She was unknowingly, or perhaps very deliberately, engaging in a critical discourse that involved questioning the gaze and the position of women in 19th century French society. As a member of female aristocratic minority with agency in the arts, the Countess and her hundreds of photographs give scholars insight into the life of a woman who did not always play by the rules and was a product of almost every aspect and intersection of life in 19th century Paris, not just that of the upper class elite.
I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts which, though different in scope and concept, work off the ideas presented in the previous post(s). By doing so, I hope to emulate my thought process – to manifest the series of connections that are created in my brain while thinking about a certain topic. Specifically, this series of posts will discuss different facets of the concepts of agency and the power of the gaze.
I have already discussed the concept of agency, the ability to act/do, in previous posts. The gaze, however, is something that I have only mentioned briefly in my discussion of the spectacle. “The gaze” is an important concept in the art historical discipline. While teaching the introductory surveys, I would often ask the students where the figures (if there were figures in the painting) were looking. Though it may seem like a rather superficial, perhaps meaningless, question, the gaze of the figures is important in both formal and conceptual analysis. If the figures are looking directly at the viewer, they may be inviting of challenging the viewer’s gaze. If the figure(s) are not looking at the viewer(s), the viewer(s) can be spectators, voyeurs, or active participant(s) in the scene.
The gaze is inherently powerful. The act of looking is, in some ways, a privilege, and it can be a display of dominance or an attempt at intimidation. Though not particularly relevant to contemporary American society, there have been, and still are, places and time periods where only certain people could look at certain people/things. The privilege of looking was dependent on race, class, and/or gender. Generally, “the gaze” refers to the male gaze, particularly the heterosexual, privileged, white male’s gaze. This dates back to ancient art. Think ancient Greece – Aphrodite of Cnidos, in particular. Though the Roman copy is not as beautiful, the nude statue of the “goddess of love” (dubbing her a goddess made her nudity more acceptable), was adored by many men. There are ancient accounts that some men got so excited that they “left a stain on her.” As she coyly tries to cover her genitals in the Venus Pudica pose, she is actually drawing attention to her nudity and vulnerability. The fact that she does not look at the viewer head on puts the viewer in a position of acting as a voyeur, which adds an element of excitement and scandal to the viewing experience.
There were dozens, hundreds of male nude statues. The nude male body, however, was not an object of desire. Male nudity, instead, was a symbol of both athleticism and herocism. Even statues of nude men were created for the gaze of other men. To the heterosexual man they were a symbol of what the man should hope to be. To the homosexual male they were the same symbol, and, perhaps secondarily, objects of desire. The statues had commanding gazes which met the viewer’s eyes. They were confident, self aware, and proud. They were not created as objects for women to lust after, but as reminders of the Greek emphasis on and appreciation for athleticism, youth, and beauty.
The male gaze has always been the most powerful gaze, and it still remains the most powerful gaze… which will be the concepts expanded upon in the next blog post.
During my undergrad studies at UMass Amherst, there was a big media buzz about cultural ownership and cultural heritage, as many United States museums were being told they had to return some of their antiquities to their countries of origin. It also coincided with the publication of The Rape of Europa and the subsequent documentary of the same title. Needless to say, repatriation, restitution, and cultural ownership became hot topics of discussion in my art history courses.
One of the most prominent stories in the media was the so called, “hot pot,” the Exekias Vase that had been part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Collection since the late 1970s. When the provenance of the piece was questioned and the museum was unable to provide sufficient information to prove that the piece was not illegally excavated, the Met returned the piece to the Italian Ministry of Culture. The Met did not HAVE TO return the vase, but it would have been in very poor taste if they had not done so. Because of their eagerness to cooperate with the Italian Ministry of Culture, the two entities have a positive relationship and have agreed to give each other long-term loans.
Another hot story was the media buzz surrounding Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The art nouveau artist most famous for his iconic work, The Kiss, was a prominent artist who worked in around Vienna. This portrait of a family friend, Adele Bloch-Bauer, ended up in the Austrian State Gallery decades after WWII, when the portrait was originally stolen from the Jewish family by the Nazis. The surviving family members were shocked that the portrait of their deceased relative which was thought to be lost or destroyed was now on display in a museum. The family had to fight incredibly hard to get the piece back, hiring many lawyers and attending long, arduous trials. In the end, the family had to sell the painting as soon as they got it back, just to be able to pay for the legal fees. It is now in a small gallery in New York City.
What I find most fascinating about these scenarios, besides the obvious thievery and shady business dealings, is, especially in regard to the Exekias Vase, is that art as a sign of national identity. Though there are countless vases in hundreds of museums across Italy and Greece, this one particular vase was suddenly transformed into a symbol of cultural theft. I have very strong opinions about cultural ownership and retribution, which would be way too much to fully go into in this post, but I do understand why a country would want a piece back if it was, in fact, proven to be stolen from their soil. I do not think, however, that every piece created in Italy should stay in Italy. Art should educate and start a dialogue. If we, as citizens of the United States, were only exposed to art and artifacts created in our country’s very short history, we’d be missing out on a sophisticated world view.
The power of art, and the connection that people, countries, families feel towards these art works, is most apparent in regard to cases of ownership. If I’ve sparked your interest in the topic of cultural ownership, I recommend you watch/read Lynn H. Nicholas‘s The Rape of Europa and/or search ‘hot pot’ in Google to get countless articles about the return of the Exekias Vase.
In high school I was a self proclaimed anti-feminist. This was because the idea had been planted in my head that feminists were, by their very nature, man-hating women with radical politics who burned their bras. It wasn’t until college, graduate school really, that I finally realized that there is a reason why feminism has been branded this way towards the younger generation of young girls and women: it has the potential to be incredibly powerful.
By making feminism something that you shouldn’t be excited to align yourself with, and my making feminist politics seem removed from the life of the average woman, feminism is contained. Once I finally, reluctantly decided to embrace feminism, I realized that there are many girls and women who are in the same boat as I was. I now feel obligated to share how feminism has changed the way I think and to try to make more women aware of what feminism can do for them and how they think about the world around them.
My fundamental problem with feminism from the ages of 13 – 20 was that I incorrectly thought feminism was hypocritical. I wanted to know why, if women were calling for equality, they weren’t championing humanism. I thought it was ridiculous to even acknowledge that gender divide and instead call for equality for PEOPLE, not just women. This was because I was incredibly naïve and had not yet realized that it is impossible to disregard gender difference. Through feminist art historical practices I was able to finally understand the value of feminism: as a tool to illuminate the ways in which women are oppressed due to the constraints they are forced to work in, which are different from those of men. By acknowledging the ways in which women were/are oppressed by patriarchial power structures, it opened my eyes to the ways in which gender, race, and class play an important roles, not just in the case of women, but in all marginalized groups.
I’m not really a girl power, “I am woman hear me roar,” type of gal, but I definitely do identify myself as a feminist. I think that I should be in charge of my sexual health and reproduction rights, I want to get paid as much as a man does for doing the same job, and I don’t want to support or perpetuate the normalization of domestic violence towards women. Are you with me on one…two… all three of these issues? Guess what, you’re probably a feminist, too! Embrace it!
If I’ve sparked your interest at all, check out Jessica Valenti’s book: Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Women’s Guide to Feminism and Why it Matters (I have to thank Professor Kelly Dennis’s office door promoting for this book recommendation!)
I’m a weird person. People have been describing me as weird since I can remember, though I’ve always wondered if it was just because our elementary school vocabularies were so limited that no one could ever think of another word for the “W” in my last name when making those anagram projects. Even still, I’ve always been described as “weird,” though often followed up by a “but in a good way.” One of my weirder qualities is that I don’t really like television and movies. I rarely ever want to go to the movies, and I honestly cannot recall when I actually got excited about a movie that was coming out. I’d often get dragged to midnight showings, but I could have cared less whether or not I was actually there. I also feel asleep in the theater during the most recent Die Hard movie, and no, I wasn’t even tired before I got there. I just don’t care.
I grew up with a father who was on the cutting edge of all technology. I was also an only child. We always had at least 300 more channels that the three of us could possibly watch, but they were there just in case we needed them. In middle school, my parents let me have a TV in my bedroom. What did I chose to watch? The Home Shopping Network and Nick at Nite. No joke. I was obsessed with I Love Lucy, Green Acres, and Mary Tyler Moore, which in my opinion didn’t hold a candle to Rugrats, Hey Dude, and Salute Your Shorts, which I watched with my friends during the day. I never watched a show regularly, except for maybe TGIF, which was a family affair. I couldn’t be bothered to have to sit in front of the TV at a certain time – and I definitely still can’t!
In high school we got satellite TV, and my obsessions became the Game Show Network and the Food Network. Once again, not joking. To this day, I have never seen an episode of Dawson’s Creek, The OC, One Tree Hill, Laguna Beach, or The Hills. I didn’t care. At all. Despite the fact that I didn’t particularly enjoy TV, I still felt like I had to have it on. I think it was for the background noise, or just due to the fact that that seemed like the normal thing to do. Throughout my entire life it has been incredibly hard for me to JUST watch TV. I always have to be doing something else: surfing the internet, making dinner, knitting, eating… anything other than just sitting there. As a result, I barely even pay attention to the TV. It’s become rarely anything more than a box of colors and sounds that I instinctively tune out and don’t pay attention to.
Now that I am living away from my family and with my pretty frugal boyfriend, we decided not to get cable. I think this was one of the best decisions ever, because I am not paying for lights and sounds that I don’t pay attention to anyway. I get the local channels if I want to catch up on the news or, on occasion, watch the few shows I really do enjoy: How I Met Your Mother, Jeopardy, and The Ellen Show. The shows that I enjoy that are not on antenna TV are easily accessed on the internet, and we decided to get Verizon Fios for just that reason. Quality high speed internet > cable TV. Now I just waste my time on the computer instead of as a zombie in front of the TV, but I’d like to think that my time spent on the computer is exponentially more productive. Whatever helps me sleep at night, right?
9. We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
10. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.
It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.
Italy has been too long the great second-hand market. We want to get rid of the innumerable museums which cover it with innumerable cemeteries.
Museums, cemeteries! Truly identical in their sinister juxtaposition of bodies that do not know each other. Public dormitories where you sleep side by side for ever with beings you hate or do not know.
The above passages are taken directly from F.T. Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto.
Marinetti was an Italian poet and philosopher who attacked Renaissance perspective and bourgeoisie values. Obsessed with war, speed, and machines, Marinetti wanted artists to break free from the canon and create violent, radical works that represented modern life. Marinetti’s ideas were impressive, avant garde, and highly political. Like many radical ideas, Futurist works ended up being total failures, as they have been taken out of context and no longer successfully represent the ideological ideals they were created to convey.
Case in point: not many people really understand the (not particularly pleasant) ideologies of the futurist movement, as they are not necessarily visually apparent in Futurist works. For example:
Boccioni States of Mind: The Farewells, 1911
From this Boccioni piece entitled States of Mind: The Farewells, created in 1911, the bright, abstracted shapes are actually sort of fantastic and cheerful. Though the concepts of speed, machine, and modernity are conveyed by the paintings formal characteristics, the angular shapes and the dream-like composition do not convey the the concepts of violence and destruction that are so central to the Futurist’s Manifesto.
Balla: Girl Running on a Balcony, 1912
Giacomo Balla’s Girl Running on a Balcony, painted in 1912 is even less successful at illustrating the Futurists most important ideologies. This painting looks much like Georges Seurat’s canonical pointillist work, La Grande Jatte created circa 1884-1886. Balla’s use of light, bright colors makes this painting anything but ominous and his reference to the art historical canon does not suggest the obliteration of culture. Though it too conveys an infatuation with movement, as all futurist works do successfully, but there are once again no illusions to destruction – especially not the destruction of art or art history.
Boccioni Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913
Lastly, Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a sculpture created in 1913, is the icing on the top of the not so successful cake. This sculpture of is the centerpiece of the brightly lit, ENTIRE ROOM of exhibit space at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Yes, the artistic and social movement that wanted to destroy museums and libraries and equated museums to cemeteries has its OWN ROOM at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s own really beautiful, really impressive, incredibly misleading room…that also does not hint at destruction, war, or radical politics. The Futurists failure by ending up with their own room in one of the most prominent museums, museums being the foremost institutions that they wanted to destroy, is the perfect example of why form needs to meet function, or in this case – ideology. Oh, irony. You’re great.