Thursday, November 04, 2004

Embodied Spectatorship

In this paper, I want to start with some of the mass media images of life class and artists models, and explore a little bit, how they have intersected with feminist interventions into art history and visual culture. To discuss the body, and practices involving the body, necessarily involves and engagement with a feminist intervention, since women's bodies have occupied such a troubling position on the history of art as well as philosophy. So while I don't want to confine my discussion to female models, I am interested in how women models and artists mediate their own cultural agency, in dealing with performing and representing their own and other bodies.. I want to explore a critical engagement with the life class and contemporary figurative art, and try to articulate some possibilities for how the critical cultural agency of female practitioners and subjects can be described.


I also don't want to be trying to evade or ignore the many aspects of the life class which are extremely problematic for a feminist project. My study of the life class, and artists models, is in order to destabilised, to transgress and rupture those relations imbedded within it.

In many ways, the life class has become a historical oddity, or a kitsch anachronism confined to the nostalgia of doddering amateurs who refuse to accept the saturation of electronic images, with greater verisimilitude, distribution and influence than traditional art forms. Most life drawings look kitsch, flat, inept and uninteresting. There is a curious shrinking cowardice attached to the clothed artist who stares and draws from a naked human being. There are awkward residues of elitist social relations, the objectifying of one person by another, financial coercion, a power imbalance, the speaker and the spoken for. The artists who draws from the nude appears to shrink from accepting and expressing that it is only our own bodies that we can manipulate, and not the bodies of others, or cartoon copies either.


My research is inspired by the very anachronism of the life class and its awkwardness and coyness in a culture saturated with images of the nude and of bodies generally. Firstly I want to explore some of the reasons why the life class has been ignored or marginalised by feminist art historians. The images I'm showing you are from a basic google search on life classes. They present the common garden kitsch amateur life class. the quotes Also come from popular press articles about the life class.

Most literature on the life class, features artists models, and mainly female artists models, and has done so since the mid 19th century. Most literature, and research on models, consists of biography - showing that muses had names, lives, diaries, careers and brains, or social history. The emphasis on “subjectifying” or specifying the life history of models, is a tension that runs throughout the research, press and popular literature throughout all of the twentieth century., Like this article form le monde, (October 2004) they how to articulate the agency of the female model, projecting her body and protecting her self mediating the fine line of dignity and decorum. Such articles act in two ways, to remind reader that yes, capitalism does let fat women be accepted, b) that the life class is respectable, progressive serious cultural pursuit c) that women don't prostitute themselves just because they take their clothes off for money. (anyone can do it!!!!)

This insistence on the “safety” and acceptability of the life class is often contradicted by some of the amateur images of the life class, which reveals it as a scenario for fairly blatant objectification and exploitation of women, by men. Almost every female model has one slightly sickening anecdote of a sleazy gig, a dodgy artist staring at them without drawing or chatting them up in the breaks, making pejorative comments on their bodies, or taking photographs and putting them on the net. Male models seem to experience these problems less frequently. By highlighting this ambiguous experience of life classes, I'm tyring to emphasise that the life class itself and the literature on the life class is and has been intensely preoccupied with controlling the volatility of the sexual and power relations embodied in the figure of the naked model. Even in contemporary culture, saturated with images of the nude, and of sexuality, this coy setting is still imbued with a strong protocol for control and respect. My theory is because the “spectators” in a life class are not disembodied voyeurs, but are involved in a physical affective activity, that is not merely mimetic, but also performative as well.

"One of the expressions of life modeeling is that "I'm suffeirng for your art'"

"Ever have nightmares where you're naked and everyone's staring at you? Not me."

"People are afraid to life their dreams, says the 30 years old. "I want to challenge myself and do different things. I want to inspire someone to creat a masterpeice."

I want him to feel what it feels like to be amodel." she says.

"It's just hard work." she says. "I really wanted to get that intense feeling. There's nothing sexual about it. these people were completely invvolved in painting."

These quotations all come from accounts of contemporary life classes. The first four are from models, and the last is from an artist, herself as unknown as the models. The quotations were all published in popular press or amateur art journals, and reinforce the conventional view of the life class as something slightly risqué, but fairly tame, predictable, and in “I want to inspire someone to create a masterpiece” lamentably banal. Given such a context, it is little wonder that the life class is almost completely ignored by contemporary art theory. The continued prevalence of life classes in training institutions and recreational clubs imply that it is more of a subject for sociology or (at a stretch) cultural studies, than art history and theory. Furthermore, the historical anonymity of models is reflected in the contemporary anonymity of the countless amateur or quasi professional artists who flock to sketch clubs. Successful artists don't hold day jobs and can hire models for their private studio. It is arguable that successful contemporary artists don't even hire life models, but work with collaborators or found images.

The evening life class is indelibly tinged with the doomed aspirational smear of the dilettante. It has, in the past 20th century, been increasingly dominated by women, who are students, models, and teachers, the mainstay of amateur or traditional art schools. In the 19th century and enormous amount of literature was devoted to the threat of women entering life class. in the 20th century, the life class disappeared from Art history and theory, and figurative art itself has experienced various declines.

In any case the fields of critical scholarship around art practices have been mostly based on identifying and describing a succession of `modern masters', significant artists whose individual practice can be explained as exemplifying the historical epoch in which they are situated. Feminist scholarship which sought to revalue the anonymous contributions of women artists, of craftspeople and folk artists have made little impact on a discourse historically tied to the promotion of innovative cultural products. To wade in the murky backwaters of cultural practices which are marginalised, vestigial, anachronistic does not only imply exposure to the immense tedium of critically uninformed idiosyncratic narratives but also to risk being enmeshed in a painfully limited circuit of cultural revisionism.

My argument is based on a suspicion that the phantasm of female spectatorships and cultural agency, the way women look at their own and women's bodies, is profoundly threatening to contemporary culture, and it has also been undertheorised by feminist art historians.

“Sculpting the nude figure”

She wears steel capped boots, denim jeans and a rough shirt. She has taken the other woman by the foot and is twisting her leg, pulling it over her head. The other women, naked and covered in sweat, grimaces, moans, and contorts her other limbs to keep the balance on her remaining foot. Finally the first woman pushes her too far and they both collapse on top of one another, laughing briefly before resuming again. The clothed woman, holding her partner by the foot reaches for a pile of newspapers, which she holds up against the naked woman, twisting and crushing the papers between them, using the tension of both bodies to shape the paper and cardboard mess. The paper is compressed with hands, hips and feet, twisted and turned by both women, folded in between elbows and knees, finally shaped into a form, that seems stable. Eventually they cease this play, and the naked woman gets dressed. The clothed woman continues, sweating in her clothes as she uses all her force, all her powers of movement, flexibility and control, tested against the naked body of her partner, and the pliable strength of paper, against the brute force of iron bars and molten steel.


This description is based on a photograph, not from “Love Bites” by acclaimed lesbian photographer Della Grace, but from an exhibition catalogue from 1985. The photograph is contemporaneous with Della Grace's images, but has been ignored by feminist art historians. This may be due to the images in the same catalogue of clothed male artists, engaged in equally intimate combat with naked female models. The intense physicality of such exchanges leave little space for wry analyses of scopophilic regimes of the artist as voyeur, and from a feminist perspective are deeply uncomfortable to contemplate, as are the macho poses of the male artists in the forge, the ultimate site of phallic mastery.

The catalogue “Have you seen sculpture from the body?” London's Tate Gallery which I have is a photocopy, and the photographic quality is not particularly good, so I have chosen images which show what the exchange I've described isn't. Aspects border on all the areas I've shown, but don't really represent what was happening at all. In many ways, this is analogous to the way women exist in art history and theory. Women's artistic practice continues to be marginalised ignored or trivialised, and women are still largely discussed as or conflated with their representations or phantasmic projections by men.

My research is largely fuelled by level of frustration with existing feminist art history, as well as a firm commitment to its precepts of articulating women's cultural agency. I am doing this by exploring current practices in figurative art made by women, and the use of artists models in life classes, and private studios since the mid twentieth century. Most literature cites the life class as becoming redundant and anachronistic at this point. The increasing amateurisation and marginalisation of the life class was coupled with it being increasingly open and populated by women. What I am exploring is the ambiguous, and largely untheoreised relationships between women artists and female models. This includes the fact that many women artists and artsworkers have worked as models, and many models are women artists.

The feminist project within art history and theory, which has tried to articulate the authenticity of women's cultural agency practice, has largely been based on a disavowal of representations of women. In its attempts at challenging the inauthenticity of representions of women in visual culture, feminist art theory has been fraught with the ontological dilemma of an “:authentic” female subjectivity. Feminist strategies have been bifurcated between an essentialist reclamation of “authentic” female agency (from Chicago to recent psychoanalytic, body writing style analyses) or a deconstructive project of critique and disidentification with phallocentric culture. (Mulvey & Pollock) What characterises both approaches is that neither did or could effectively describe or theorise the encounter which I have just described. Feminist art theory to date has not articulated female agency in spectatorship or participation in cultural production. While thankfully contemporary theories of the gaze, are less iconoclastic than in the 1980's, and female pleasure is acknowledged, this is still arguable according to murky derivations from riviere's theories of the masquerade. Women viewers are seen to be transvestising men, or engaged in narcissistic mimetic plays with the cultural phantasm of “woman”.

In returning to the image I described, of a female artist and naked model, I want to discuss the areas of tension and ambiguity. Is the sculptor “playing butch” is she transvestite? And what is the naked model doing? Such questions skirt around the most obvious and uncomfortable tensions between the two, which is lesbianism. The homosocial grappling between and naked and a clothed female figure, the process of looking, re looking, reimagining, touching etc., are imbricated with the same levels of tension, traditionally ascribed to the heterosocial relationship between the male artists and female model. (show EAKINS SLIDE) Most popular literature is desperate to deny, mediate or reduce this tension. The protocol governing the life class, how the model undresses, the poses, the ban on touching, the taboos against looking, all reflect this presence of sexuality as a threat. Equally the reified language of art classes, Kenneth Clarke style discussions of the nude, the muse, emphasis on drawing as an academic study, the citation off anatomy, the physical schema of easels and donkeys all act to constrain and regulate the physical reponses of the artists who view the model.

What I would insist on, however, is that the sexuality is not only heterosexual. The process of presentation and spectatorship, especially between women, is an enormously powerful aspect of contemporary culture. Women's magazines are full of soft porn eye candy, all designed to stimulate affects of desire, envy which are displaced onto fetishism of beauty products. (Cleo images) Female theories of the gaze have been described as either narcissistic, or transvestic, interjecting the Male gaze of desiring women's bodies as an object to be acted on. I believe that this reduces the male gaze, again to a model of compulsory heterosexuality, which is problematic, and completely flattens the complex aspects of female homosexual desire. I think that the discourse of “narcissism” of transvestism” operates largely to deny the threat of homosexual, or intrasexual, intraphysical desire, fascination, largely to contain sexuality In the life class and visual culture within a normative heterosexual model.

I think that feminist art theory has been complicit with this normative “straight” viewing regime, largely because of the, domination of 1970's and 1980's feminism by straight middle class women, or women committed to a dissimulation of heterosexuality, and who deliberately sought to avoid being caught up in a queer gaze. In my use of queer theory, what I wish to do is to take this further. My queering the canon, is not in order to force lesbian scopic regimes upon definitions of feminine agency. This is totalising in itself, and assumes that there is a definable lesbian gaze, (which is problematic) and also silences the difference in viewing, desiring and representing bodies that exists between straight and lesbian women.

What I'm saying is not particularly revolutionary. Since the 1990's, the increasing pop cultural presence of lesbian desire, and theorised lesbian spectatorship has fortunately intervened in feminist art theory, to challenge disidentification, to insist of pleasure and play in female self presentation and spectatorship, but this is still largely fraught with ambiguity and tension. The “bad girls” moment was probably the best illustration of the effect of this paradigm shift. The other major contributor was queer theory, and in particular, the use of Judith butler's theories of performance and performativity within gay, lesbian and popular culture. I want to distinguish between butlers quite complex and subtle writings on subjectivity by interpellation and the wider citation of performativity. Over the past decade, the citation of performativity and ambiguity as a viably transgressive cultural strategy has been seemingly done to death, and as such, has become recuperated and robbed of its destabilising potential. So I want to be careful in the way that I describe the agency of women artists models as performative, so it doesn't have a totalising smear off positivist affirmation but can be engaged with critically.

My citation of a “queer aesthetic” is not merely to embrace potential instability of sexual categories, and the latent androgyneity or bisexuality of most images per se. I think it is useful to articulate a lesbian aesthetic that is founded on affect, on pleasure and agency. This is quite distinct from the process of subjective identification as a women which, despite the best efforts at essentialist reclamation is not intrinsically by desire or affect, but by social inscription. As described by Irigaray, women are interpellated, not even as woman, but as “not men”. As Grosz, states, to be defined as women is largely to bear the burden of men's corporeality as well. Women exist in representation as metonymic phantasms of men's desires, fantasies projections and fears, having no language by which to articulate our own. In art history this is more obviously seen in the figure of the muse. The muse, the phallus, are all problematic and have been disavowed and deconstructed. But what ontology of women do we have in place of this lack? To be a woman, is to be a non man, if it is not founded on activity, agency, then what is it?

Unlike “woman”, being a lesbian is not only a reactive process to interpellation, but involves an active libidinous process of desire and enjoyment. This notion of affect, of identity through affect, recognition offers the possibility of articulating agency as something more than more than disavowal. It is also analogous to the processes of art making, which is itself grounded in desire, activity and enjoyment. I want to insist of the possibilities for an active female spectatorship. By this I don't mean applying a complex interpretative framework on existing tropes of female spectatorship. Feminist theories of spectatorship have used the phantasm of the “voyeur”, which implies that spectatorship is a seamless, singular act, embedded in corporeal detachment and physical inactivity. What I want to do is insist on the physicality off viewing, not only as a “gaze”, but as a series of glances, glimpses, blinks, flashes, stares and stammers. I want to describe a process of spectatorship that is not analogous to the cyclopean authority of a camera lens, but as flawed, temporal and gestured as that involved in a life drawing. This is the reason why, my research is exploring spectatorship and presentation within plastic media, such as drawing, painting, sculpture. Even slick post-modern pastiches are imbricated with a cultural fascination with mimetic machinery, which is only now being unravelled by digital media.

My critiques of feminist art history and theory, are very close to the critiques of feminist epistemology made by e. Grosz in the 1990's. I also want to use Grosz's ideas on the destabilising of the subject and a preconceiving of women's cultural agency according to Grosz's citation of Deleuzians ideas of the body without organs and subjectivity consisting of libidinous flows. While I am not comfortable with abandoning the depth model of subjectivity to a series of surface exchanges, I believe that the awkward descriptions of interiority characteristic of much art criticism, belies the fact, that our encounter with art images is as superficial cultural phenomena. I think then that it is useful to attempt a phenomenological description of spectatorship as a series of machinic encounters, which are ambiguous, confused, contradictory and deeply libidinous. I want to explore a queering aesthetics of affect and desire, that disrupts the striated schematics of, “heterosexist” scopic regimes, but also any assumption of “masculine”, feminine” in attributing an affective response. In problematising feminist art theory, I try to reimagine how feminist interventions in art history and theory can be reconceived as a way of describing practitioners, and how these can and destabilise phallocentric culture.


To end, I've included a couple of images from Arlene Textaqueen, whose playing card, included naked portraits of 52 heap of Sydney women (ad some boyfriends), including Kerry Nettle, Lenny Ann Lowe, and even me. Textanudes give a completely fresh interpretation to portraiture and have many references to pop art, performativity, transgressive subcultures and general showing off. They are viewed, rightly, as portraits more than nudes, because the subjects of each are identified, in the drawing and subjectified and personalised. Textanudes fit in easily with the feminist project of conveying strong, creative women in a playful manner. The female subjects, like the artist herself function well as role models, more than nude models, showing that ambiguity, performance, play can be fun, and that nudity is a “safe” form of self expression and revelation.

Textanudes do not have the slick bodies of sophisticated digital imaging but consist of wobbly lines that trace all over the bodies and through the rooms of her subjects, and they invite our eyes to follow them. Textaqueen's drawings are characterised by a compelling attention to detail and a distortion of perspectival space as well as the subjects. Reviewers describe the soft flesh or floppy breasts as very real and human, but they leave out the nature of drawing, of distorting the images to fit in each page, of Textaqueens own playfulness in drawing each detail and selecting text. Each texta nude starts as a (larger than) life size line drawing in black texta. Instead of getting her subjects to send in a photo to be copied, Textaqueen sits in front of her subjects (or a mirror) and draws them directly, with no pencil marks or rubbing out. By using indelible ink, she is forced to concentrate and get the mark right the first time. The initial drawings can take from twenty minutes up to a couple of hours to do, and involve Textaqueen and her sitters chatting or reading to each other, rapping or singing, so most of the captions on the picture are from comments made during the drawing. After doing the initial line drawing, Textaqueen makes smaller photocopies to experiment with colour schemes that remind her of her subject, then painstakingly colours one of these schemes into every detail on the original drawing. This process may take weeks to complete.

While Stilettos, Toranas, and Princess Di are barely icons for radical cultural agency, they characterise a perverse and playful strategy for how young women negotiate their identity in an imaginative and proactive manner. As her subjects dress up or dress down to pose Textaqueen spends time drawing with them, and the drawings are a record of time spent together, an imaginative and creative exchange between the artist and her subjects. This experience of intimate amicable imaginative play, is one that is common to many artist studios. The studio ambiance of even more conventional female figurative artists, such as Wendy Sharpe, is very similar to that depicted in Textanudes. In this way the life studio can operate as a seminar of consciousness, a particular theatre of proactive and reactive spectatorial, imaginative and performative agency. I hope my research contributes to documenting and describing this further.

My research seeks not merely to put the body back into art, but to specifically localise and specify the bodies, or the traces of bodies and various circuitous narratives, that are present in the objects and practice connected with visual arts. The epistemological imperatives for this thesis are derived from feminism and queer theory, the scope of this thesis will not confine itself to the marginalised categories as proscribed by identity politics, looking at female, feminist or queer artists, but will explore the potential volatility of a number of practices connected with the visual arts. In “queering” figurative art, this thesis will not confine itself to the cultural studies habits of interpreting images as semiotic elements, but explore the practices themselves which generate images which reflect, represent or invoke the bodies which made them. Like D&G's idea of becoming woman - rather than being defined by exclusion & slavishness, women can and do participate in activities where we negotiate, invent & enjoy our affective relationship to our own and other's bodies.

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