Wednesday, March 30, 2005

2005 Introduction

Over the past thirty years, contemporary theory has become increasingly preoccupied with the body, both as a subject for representation, and as a field of experiences and desires. In much contemporary philosophy “the body” has become a generic term denoting the deconstructed subject of contemporary anti/post-humanist discourse, however the precise qualities of “the body” are largely left undefined. This thesis 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. This thesis is critically concerned with contemporary art practices of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries which involve representations of human bodies. This includes a wide range of practices from performance art, or performative interventions involving the bodies of artists, to images derived from such practices, and images made by artists of the bodies of the human subjects, models and audiences of their work. In developing a critical theory of contemporary figurative aesthetics, this thesis will focus on practices involving artists' models. Regarded in the nineteenth century as obscene and dangerous, the use of artists' models in the last century became ob-scene in an entirely different sense. Since the mid twentieth century, the life class has been described as increasingly redundant to contemporary art practices or ignored altogether. The perceived anachronism and coyness of practices involving artists models have has shifted these practices away from the arena of critical cultural theory into the marginal zones of journalism and social history.

This thesis does not seek to ameliorate or challenge the perceived anachronism of the life studio, but explore its potentially volatile elements in order to articulate a reactive cultural agency in contemporary figurative practices. This involves a perverse fascination with elements of contemporary social culture that are perceived as obsolete, anachronistic or inept. This approach is inspired by Jacques Derrida's writings on the importance of the margins and parergons as deployed by Nead in “Art, Obscenity and Sexuality”. Nead cites Derrida's ideas on social discourses which “frame” a subject as being central to the way that the subject itself is constituted in and by cultural discourse, and links this to Mary Douglas's writings on the role of filth and abjection in “purity and Danger”. Cultural taboos around corporeal concealment and display have been central to most academic discourses on nudity and embodiment, and the ideas of abjection in Douglas and Kristeva offer fecund explanations for social preoccupations with corporeal hygiene and discipline. Under such an approach the life class can be reconceived as more than marginal to contemporary visual culture, and more than a vestigial remnant of mythologised artistic tradition, but as a specifically abject remnant of a number of social and cultural exchanges. The life class, particularly in its contemporary formation, falls somewhere between cultural studies, art history, gender studies, sociology, biography, aesthetics and social history. Its relative sitelessness offers considerable potential to destabilise contingent boundaries between disciplines, and also to challenge the apparent seamlessness of the virtual economies of social and cultural exchange which characterise much contemporary cultural studies. Arguably, locating alternative possibilities for how bodies can be represented, experienced and communicated, requires a genealogical approach which is implicated with what Michel Foucault described as “the vast and tender freemasonry of useless erudition”. .

The spectre of the artist's muse has been central to Western European aesthetics since the Renaissance, with its origins being cited in Greek antiquity. Many of the central questions of European aesthetics concerning presentation, mimesis and representation, have revolved around the mythical triumvate of the muse (or model), the artist and the image produced. In grappling with some of the questions of aesthetics, this thesis will refer to a historical practice where this triumvate can be legibly traced, described and situated within social relations. This historical tradition can be legibly escribed as the employment of artist's models, for private studios and largely for the “life classes” within art academies that emerged in Western Europe in the Seventeenth century, and has continued into the present, increasingly in vocational training and recreational centres.

This thesis will consist of two major areas of research and discussion. One area explores literature on artists, models and figurative representation, and the other area explores the practices and experiences of contemporary artists' models as well as students, teachers and practitioners. This thesis has involved an original research project “The Use Of Artists' Models In Figurative Art In Australia Since 1945”. (see appendix).This research involves interviews with contemporary figurative art practitioners, as well as arts workers who have extensive experience of the life class in its latter formations. The inclusion of an oral history project in this research is largely to ameliorate for the absence of any empirical or descriptive information on practise and teaching of visual arts which characterises most art history literature.

The first chapter of this thesis discusses literature on artists' models and social practices connected with the life class. This describes contemporary practices involving artists' models in artists' studios, training institutions and recreational centres and clubs, and is contrasted with its absence in literature on contemporary art. Academic studies on the life class and life models have been largely based in social history, sociology and cultural studies, with some art history research covering biographies of famous artists' models. This is in contrast to an enormous amount of literature within art history and theory on figurative art, the nude, obscenity, pornography and contemporary performance art which articulates aesthetic and philosophical aspects of these practices. While the critical vacuum surrounding literature on artists' models and the contemporary life class suggests that life drawing is an anachronistic social activity rather than a critical cultural pursuit, this chapter argues that the literature which would dismiss the life class should itself be interrogated. This thesis is motivated by a curiosity into how certain socially lived practices, certain forms of cultural information and informal knowledge become incorporated into academic research, and why some are included and not others. What types of wider cultural agendas are at play and how does intellectual property gain wider social currency, and whose interests does it serve? While academic research within art history, develops languages by which “new” or even “old” genres and art works can be promoted to museums and buyers, ideally theoretical research would contribute to articulating a critical language by which dominant interpretations of visual culture can be contested by practitioners as well.

The second chapter consists of a historical survey of the use of artists' models, linking contemporary practices to the history of anatomy and the changing social cultures around death, nudity and sexuality in which the life model is implicated. This chapter will describe many of the conventions of the life class and the life studio and how these arose in the context of European academies and training institutions within Australia By exploring the historical volatility of practices and discourses on the body in areas such as medicine, law and art, this chapter will articulate the volatile aspects of the apparently benign contemporary life class, particularly the aspects of the life model which are reminiscent of death.

The third chapter deals with the more conventional aspect of obscenity, in the realm of sexuality and nudity as it has pertained to the life class. This chapter explores more thoroughly feminist interventions into art history and theory which have sought to challenge practices involving marginalising or degrading representations of women's bodies. This chapter challenges the heterosexism implicit in early feminist criticism of the use of artists' models, and seeks to explore performative strategies for critically engaging with ambiguous representations of female embodiment. This chapter cites the slippery rubric of `Queer Theory” principally as a destabilising strategy, arguing that the potency of critical strategies derived from identity based social movements, has not been to successfully plead for an inclusiveness in what are narrowly defined and controlled cultural discourses, but to challenge the ontology of subjectivity itself. From the post humanism of Michel Foucault to the performative iterability of Judith Butler “Queer Theory” has challenged cultural philosophers to articulate the contingent specificities of the subjects which they are describing. As Grosz argues, queer politics and sexuality is not formed from a reactive, regressive condition of marginalisation but from a proactive, libidinous activity. For this reason the critical engagement of “Queer theory” is fuelled by a dynamism, akin to the types of libidinous play engendered in creative activities such as dance, song and art making.

The fourth chapter will develop a comparison between the life class, as a specific situation of figurative presentation and representation, and theatre. The life class has often been described as a theatre in perjorative sense, invoking passive theatrical “staged” elements of the model, the dias, the timing which have their affinities with “tableux vivants” which were a brief craze in music halls in 19th c England. The picture that emerges is of a rather false environment that is both coy and eccentric. To describe the life class as theatre is potentially meaningless in a discursive milieu where almost every social setting is now described as “theatrical” and all states, acts and intentions, the very condition of being is also described as performative. So apart from describing the obviously “staged” aspects of the life class; the dias as proscenium, the easels and donkeys as confining architecture by which to restrain and separate the audience of artists, and the model as a performer, this thesis will explore what theatre is or could be by utlising Artaud's writings in “Theatre and its Double”. Artaud is attractive to contemporary cultural philosophers and art historians, especially the aspects of the theatre of cruelty, in its condition of impossibility By exploring ideas of theatre as an explosive site for metamorphosis and as being that which vanishes at the point where it arrives, it can be argued that the volatile elements of any pedagogical site of mimicry and exchange can be reimagined and harnessed as a socially dynamic force.

The fifth chapter argues that aspects of the contemporary life class, or the life studio still resonate with the tension of unresolved corporeality of the artist and the subject as well as the depictions generated. These aspects are probably more easily articulated according to theoretical models derived from contemporary writings on phenomenology, particularly in performance studies, as well as Michel Foucault's social theatres and Judith Butler's ideas of the self as inscribed through performative repetitions. By calling for a theoretical approach which attempts to articulate the temporality and materiality of embodiment, mimesis, gesture, and representation, this thesis argues that life class, or life studio generates a set of exchanges that are very relevant to the dilemmas of representation which continue to plague contemporary theories of embodiment. This chapter explores further the fraught nexus of imitation and gesture, which has plagued contemporary feminist writings on visual art. Sidestepping ideas of gestures as the Kristevan semiotic, this chapter explores a phenomenological approach to how the body of the artist is controlled (or otherwise) in the life class or studio and how the gesture can be a type of docile reiteration of these conventions or a disruptive, transgressive or incompetent response. By exploring notions of iterable incompetence, this chapter hopes to articulate the volatile aspects of gestures, and stammerings in an Artaudian sense as a challenge to the potential for bland positivist assertions of agency which characterize many contemporary invocations of Butlerian queering performativity.

By exploring a notion of performativity that is fraught with the threat of failure and incompetence this section will discuss the tension between expression and representation which has characterised aesthetic criticism since the emergence of photography. The chapter will explore the Artaudian notions of gestures, and define the nature of the mimetic artefact or trace as a relevant concern to contemporary art criticism.


The final chapter explores spectatorship, in `theatres” of figurative representation as the multiple, fragmented and reversible. This chapter aims to articulate a critical discernment of various facets of spectatorship and how they interplay within the theatres of figurative encounter. This chapter addresses the nature of viewing as involving a complexity of responses from voyeurism, imitation, witnessing, looking away, absent staring, and argues that the nature of looking is fundamentally grounded in the type of corporeal affective response which it engages. The contingent nature of spectatorship is at the heart of this thesis, which explores the nature of metamorphosis, and the point where mimesis and metamorphosis intersect, and art, “the arts” challenges spectators to become witnesses and participants. By articulating a spectatorial strategy of witnessing, this chapter argues for an analysis of figurative interventions that evoke possibilities for spectatorship as metamorphosis.

This thesis embrace notions of spectatorship and participation in visual culture founded on a profoundly pluralistic imperative. Such a theoretical commitment to articulating cultural agency founded on inclusiveness, may appear to be incompatible with a critical project which is necessarily imbricated with privileging some cultural strategies over others. This tension between a positivist embrace of cultural agency and a critical discernment between socially grounded cultural activities is not easily avoided. In invoking “queer theory” as an epistemic methodology, this thesis does seek to align itself with the disruptive, slippery and ambiguous facets of queer interventions in cultural production, spectatorship and critical theory. One of the most disturbing of these, especially to structuralist feminist analyses has involved the positivist assertions of identificatory enjoyment of visual phenomena as seductive. This thesis insists on the importance of identification practices as central to active spectatorship, and asserts that they do not have to be divorced from a rigorous critical analysis of the social relations in which they circulate. The notions of “camp” which are employed by queer theory, fundamentally involve a playful, ironic, ambiguous engagement with culture. Implicit to such “queering” accounts is the threat of suppression, repression or elimination of the types of affective responses located within sexually marginalised spectators. “Queer” spectatorship is fundamentally grounded in it's own sense of danger and risk, and for this reason offers a reminder that identificatory elements of viewing regimes, such as seduction and affect, can and need to be articulated as problematic, difficult, disruptive and potent social phenomena.

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