I’ve noticed that art that makes commentary on the body/involves the body leaves the most lasting impression on me. I guess this post is about unpacking these images, films, occurrences, etc. and figuring out exactly why and how I have such a visceral response to them.
From previous blog posts, I’ve made it largely apparent that I am fascinated with the idea of the spectacle. In this instance, I will also be using the word “spectacle” as defined by the Situations and Letterists International, both examples here taken from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle:
“Though separated from what they produce, people nevertheless produce every detail of their world with ever-increasing power. They thus also find themselves increasingly separated from that world. The closer their life comes to being their own creation, the more they are excluded from that life.”
“The fetishism of the commodity — the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things” — attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality.”
I will also be expanding on the notion of spectacle with what it particularly means to me, which is a hybrid between the ideologies of the SI/LI and the dictionary definition of: “something exhibited to view as unusual, notable, or entertaining; especially : an eye-catching or dramatic public display.” For me, the spectacle, in relation to the body, involves using the body (with or without consent of the person) as something to be viewed or provide pleasure and/or entertainment. The two examples of the body as spectacle that come to my mind are “ethnographic” presentations of people and pornography. Yes, they seem pretty unrelated right now, but bear with me.
The practice of displaying people is centuries old. Particularly after the colonization of Oceania, the Americas, and Africa “indigenous” people were sent back to Europe for display at fairs as “ethnographic displays.” The most well known example of this is the Hottentot Venus, an African woman who was sent to Europe as a “specimen” due to her engorged secondary sexual characteristics and “odd” (not European) aesthetics. A brilliant commentary on this practice is Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez –Peña’s performance piece circa 1997, The Couple in the Cage. This piece, which is one of my favorite performance pieces, shows the injustice and continuance of these practices. We’d like to believe that these practices no longer exist, that humans are not turned into spectacles, but think back to the last time you visited your favorite art or natural history museum. Remember that Ancient Egyptian mummy? Yeah, that is a human body. I know; it’s easy to forget.
Now what do “ethnographic displays” and mummies in museums have to do with pornography? Well, in these adult videos bodies are on display – in this case, not really as specimens, but as objects of pleasure and enjoyment. I guess in some ways it is not THAT much different than the theater or cinema, in which actors and actresses use their bodies and talents to entertain. I think what, in my mind, connects pornography with the display of bodies is the degrading and careless way in which many of its subjects are treated. Discussing pornography also provides an excellent transition to my next topic: the body as commodity.
When discussing the body as commodity, all that I can think of is prostitution and sex slavery. Once again, two very different things, though they are really only differentiated by one, rather important aspect: consent. My first experience unpacking the body as commodity and commentary on prostitution was exploring Picasso’s Demoiselles D’Avignon. In Picasso’s fragmented cubist painting, he is making a harsh commentary on the barbarous nature of selling one’s body for money. Particularly commenting on the crude behavior of seemingly sophisticated Parisian life in the early 20th century, which was rampant with prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases, Picasso uses the notion of primitivism to criticize the Western world, rather than the common practice of using primitivism to denigrate non-European (and therefore inferior) cultures. Though the female subjects of Picasso’s painting, as prostitutes, are choosing to be commodities, their bodies are shattered, their faces are ugly; they are far from beautiful or inviting, which was (and still is) the common glamorization of sex for sale.
I’ve had many debates over whether or not prostitution is a symbol of barbarism for a culture, of whether or not prostitution as an economic function of society, as an unsightly byproduct of capitalism somehow justifies its existence. To me, the body used as spectacle, but particularly turned into commodity can only be explained by this quote by Walter Benjamin: “there is no document of civilization that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism.” In my mind, prostitution is as disturbing as sex trafficking and it is the physical manifestation of a culture’s barbarity. It is the underbelly of a culture that is in denial of its own primitivism.