art theory and philosophy

Archives and Absorption for the Historian-Spy

Tonight I have been reading an article by Lois Marie Fink about museum archives as scholarly resources. I was particularly struck by her word choice for one particular sentence, in which she explained that she used an archive “to spy on a discussion” found in certain archival records.1

I’ve never considered historians as individuals who spy before, but this word does seem appropriate. Many things in archives are letters or documents that were passed between individuals, without any thought for how the documents would be read by a third party in future generations. In a way, historians are able to “see” into the past without being “seen” by those who have originally wrote the documents, which places the historian in a position of power that is similar to that of a guard in the Panopticon, a 19th century prison. In essence, through this act of seeing without being observed, the historian-spy is empowered through the archive.

Chardin, Soap Bubbles, ca. 1733-74. Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 7/8 in. (61 x 63.2 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art

It has occurred to me this evening that archival texts and correspondences contain “absorption” (to use Michael Fried’s term). These texts are written without expressly acknowledging the historian-spy who reads the documents in the archive. Instead, historical writer(s) seem to be singularly involved in the process of recording or exchanging information pertinent to his/her time. This can relate to the 18th century paintings that Fried explored in his seminal book, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Such paintings, like Chardin’s Soap Bubbles (shown above) are created to give the impression that the viewer does not exist. The subjects do not gaze outward to directly acknowledge the viewer, but are intently involved and absorbed in their own actions (in this case, forming and/or watching a bubble).

For circumstances in which archival records are created expressly for archives, the element of absorption has even more parallels with this kind of 18th century painting. Even though such paintings want to stress the fiction that the viewer does not exist, these paintings also presuppose a viewer through their very existence as painted objects. Likewise, such texts are created with the intention of being seen and utilized as records in the future, but they do not directly address or acknowledge the intended audience.

When I was sharing these ideas with my husband this evening, he mentioned that he thinks paintings are more approachable works when they contain an element of absorption. He personally prefers to not be confronted by subject matter when he approaches a work of art. Instead, he likes paintings which are construed so that one seems to “happen” upon a scene that is taking place. I imagine that a lot of historian-spies feel the same way in the archives. As long as the presence of the historian-spy is not directly acknowledged in the texts themselves, then the historian-spy can truly feel like the information he/she encounters is a singular “discovery” that no one else has seen!

1 Lois Marie Fink, “Museum Archives as Resources for Scholarly Research and Institutional Identity,” in New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction by Janet Marstine, ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), p. 295, emphasis added.

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Damage = Ancient “Cropping”

Aphrodite Torso (after Praxiteles), 2nd century BC. Seattle Art Museum

I just had an ancient art student leave my office. She is writing a paper on how a sculpture of Aphrodite seems like a sexual object to the modern viewer, especially because of the damage which the piece has incurred over time.

I think that this is an interesting argument, and I couldn’t help but think about Laura Mulvey’s discussion of how women in film have been sexualized (and turned into fetishes) by “cropping” women with the film camera. (I’ve written more on this subject HERE.) In this case of the Aphrodite torso, I think one could argue that that damage is an ancient version of the “cropping” which takes place in film. Because the face and limbs are missing, one is forced to look at (and arguably fetishize) the reproductive organs which remain. This is no longer a representation of a woman, but an object.

Can you think of other damaged works of art which “crop” – and therefore further sexualize – the female form? I’m sure that there are lots of them which exist.


The Transient Experience with Art

Last week I met a woman who told me about her trip to Rome. Before learning that I am an art historian, this woman explained to me that she loved her trip to Italy because she didn’t go to any museums. (You can imagine my surprise – I spend most of my time in museums when I travel!) Instead, this women and her husband spent the whole trip relaxing and eating delicious Italian food.

While listening to this woman, I couldn’t help but think in my head, “Why would you want to have your whole vacation revolve around something as transient as food? Once you eat the food, it’s gone.” But as I thought about our conversation afterward, I realized that experiences with art are just as transient. (And really, aren’t vacations based on the premise of transience as well?) A person’s physical interaction with a work of art, especially in a museum space, is limited by time. And as much as we “consume” either art, or food, or any experience, we are only left with the memory of that interaction afterward. Perhaps that’s why reproductions of art are so popular in museum gift shops: people want to try and recreate (or remember) their fleeting interaction with a certain work of art.

A visitor looking at gilt-framed paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

As I’ve been thinking about this idea of transience and art, I’ve realized how much art (especially historical and academic art) tries to disguise or resist this transient nature by emphasizing mass and physical bulk. Historical paintings are traditionally placed in heavy gilt frames. For centuries, paintings were prized if they were painted on a grand, monumental scale. Sculptures are often weighty too, traditionally made in heavy mediums like marble or bronze. It’s almost as if art wants to assert its physical presence as much as possible, so that the viewer won’t realize that his/her interaction with the object will later become a memory. Perhaps historical pieces also want to assert their physicality in order to make their subject matter seem less-distant to the contemporary viewer, too.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, first built April 1970 (as seen in March 2003)

Although all physical interactions with art are transient and finite on some level, I do think that art from the 20th and 21st century is less deceiving when it comes to transience. Many modern and contemporary artists embrace the idea of transience, and even highlight that feature within their piece. I’m particularly reminded of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake, which is supposed to interact and change with the environment over time. It’s easy to see the transient nature of the Spiral Jetty when comparing my photograph (shown above, which was taken in 2003) with a 1970 film still of the piece.

My college friends at the Spiral Jetty in March 2003

I remember in 2002 there was a lot of hype about the Spiral Jetty, because it was visible for the first time in several years. The spiral was above water level for almost a year, so in March 2003 some friends and I decided to make a trip and see the piece for ourselves. I remember being struck with how the earthwork appeared really “ghostly” – just a shadow of the 1,500 foot-long spiral I had seen in my art history textbooks. Despite the sheer size of the piece, the salt-encrusted rocks traced a rather whimsical outline in the water. The work of art seemed transient, just like I remember this experience at the Great Salt Lake as transient (especially when I look at this photo and think of the time that has passed since I went on this trip with my friends).

It’s interesting to contrast the once-bulky Spiral Jetty with the large, gilt-framed paintings and historical statues in an art museum. For me, the Spiral Jetty brought about more awareness of myself (as a viewer) and of the physical time that I was spending with the piece. Perhaps I also had more awareness of transience (and the passing of time) because I was able to physically touch and interact with the Spiral Jetty, too. And I think that even the setting (nature vs. a timeless museum space) can affect the viewer’s awareness of their transient experience with a work of art.

Although a work of art (and the experience with a work of art) can make a different impression on each viewer, it is a little bit depressing for me to realize that physical experiences with visual art are not made to last forever. There comes a point when any viewer of art needs to walk away, close their eyes, or simply just blink. But luckily, even though physical moments with works of art are finite in terms of time, we can have multiple experiences with the same work of art. Perhaps the multiplicity of transient experiences leads to something somewhat lasting and permanent in the human mind?


A Meaty Post

I belong to a really fantastic book group. This month we have been reading The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-Vegetarian Critical Theory by Carol J. Adams. This book is really fascinating to me. It explores how meat consumption is related to patriarchal values; meat has longstanding associations with power, strength, virility, and wealth. Adams makes some interesting parallels with how the “masculine” consumption of meat is related to the sexual consumption and objectification of women, too. (You can get a sense of the parallels made between meat and women-as-meat in Adam’s slideshow.) There is a lot more to this book too, and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in theory, literature, or the history of vegetarianism.

While reading this book, I continually thought of how meat is represented in art and visual culture. Although I have yet to read Adam’s other book, The Pornography of Meat, I feel like I’ve already come up with a substantial list. In many ways, the following representations of meat can also be related to patriarchy and power. I find it telling that the majority of the depictions of meat (that I have come across, at least) were created by men. And I also think it’s interesting that male artists like Rembrandt and Snyder (see below) decided to include women with the carcasses of dead animals. Are these artists merely referencing the fact that women have been delegated the responsibility to prepare meat (for male consumption)? I think we can we make deeper associations between what objects are construed for “the male gaze” in these images, especially from our modern-day perspective.

Rembrandt, "The Slaughtered Ox," 1655

Frans Snyder, "The Pantry," c. 1620

Along these lines of sexuality and male consumption, it is especially interesting to consider how Snyder depicted the maidservant with birds on a platter. The Dutch word “vogelen” (which means “to bird”) not only refers to fowl, but also to the sexual act. This painting, therefore, seems to reference worldly temptations or physical love.

Artists in the 20th century also were interested in exploring “meaty” subject matter. One work of art that immediately comes to mind is Francis Bacon’s Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef (1954, see below). As an air raid warden in London during WWII, Bacon saw many of the horrors of war (a grisly enterprise which, I think, can be interpreted in many respects as a “masculine” endeavor). With two slabs of meat flanking the sides of a ghostly figure, Bacon explores parallels between meat and death.

Francis Bacon, "Head Surrounded by Sides of Beef," 1954

Other 20th century artists have made some interesting parallels between meat and male consumption, including the Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim. Her work, The Governess (see below) depicts a pair of stilletto heels (objects which can signify female sexuality and arousal). The heels are tied together and decorated with paper crowns – the type of decoration sometimes found on a leg of lamb or chicken.

Meret Oppenheim, "My Governess," 1936

One of the most influential works of art involving meat is Carolee Schneemann’s performance Meat Joy (1964). This performance, which is very aggressive and controversial, involved men and women who danced, rolled on the floor, and played with a mixture of raw flesh (e.g. partially-plucked bloody chickens, raw fish, and raw sausages). The sexual connections between meat and “pleasures of the flesh” are quite clear in the performance.

I also think that it is unsurprising that audience members would squirm during Meat Joy. After all, Schneeman is including bloody and partially-plucked chickens, something that relates to what Carol Adams calls the absent-referent. When people consume animals today, the flesh is usually cooked and modified (and sometimes given a different name than the actual animal, like “veal” or “beef”) to help obscure the reality that a once-living creature has comprised the meal. So, in essence, animals are absent-referents on the dinner table. They are there, but they are also not there. Schneeman’s aggressive reference to flesh and blood in her “happenings” performance restores the absent-referent, which undoubtedly contributed to why viewers squirmed.

Many artists have been influenced by Carolee Schneeman. In fact, in 2008 exhibition titled Meat After Meat Joy brought together the works of various artists who have explored different meanings between meat and flesh. (You can read one blogger’s take on the exhibition here.) One of the videos on display in this exhibition was Zhang Huan’s performance, My New York (2002, see below).

Zhang Huan, "My New York," 2002. Video still from performance.

Many of Huan’s performance works involve endurance and masochism. In this particular performance, Huan walked through New York wearing a heavy suit with actual pieces of raw beef. Looking like a “beefed-up” body-builder (which alludes to masculinity and virility!), Huan would occasionally release doves during the performance.  It was interesting to interpret this performance in a political light, given the recent 9/11 attacks.  The small figure of the artist (within the powerful, beefy costume) was a reflection on how America (and New York itself) were vulnerable – as a nation and as a city.

And finally – I can’t finish this post without a pop culture reference. Lady Gaga has clad herself in “meaty clothes” a few times, once in a meat bikini on the cover of Vogue Hommes Japan. Soon after, Lady Gaga also appeared in a “meat dress” at the 2010 Video Music Awards, complete with a steak on her head (see below).

Lady Gaga's "meat dress" at the VMA music awards, 2010

Although Lady Gaga said in an interview that her dress was a statement about fighting for rights (and asserted “I am not a piece of meat”), I can’t help but see how her dress just reinforces the associations with the masculine consumption of women (which other feminists, including Carol J. Adams, have observed). In this outfit, I think Lady Gaga is suggesting that she is available for consumption on two levels: to satiate sexual and physical hunger. And because of the associations with animals and meat, Lady Gaga seems to reinforce her sexuality by suggesting that she, too, is animalistic.

Any thoughts? Have I spoiled your appetite? (Sorry!) I’m curious to see what other depictions of meat are out there. Do you know of any more? I’m also reminded of Pieter Aertsen’s two works The Butcher’s Stall (1551) and Cook in Front of a Stove (1559). Another example is Van Gogh’s Still Life with Apples, Meat, and a Roll (1886).


Titian, Mulvey, and Lacan

I’ve been on a Renaissance kick lately, haven’t I? For several weeks I have been wanting to write a post about Titian’s Venus with a Mirror (c. 1555, shown left). I think this painting is so interesting, especially because it can be applied to a few theories that are popular in art historical analysis.

I often feel a bit unsettled when looking at this painting, and it has to do with Venus’ mirror reflection. The reflection of Venus’ eye captures my attention the most. For one thing, only one eye is reflected in the mirror, causing goddess of love’s reflection to look a little bit like the Cyclops! Ha! The eye also seems to stare out of the picture plane towards the viewer (perhaps as a way to invite the viewer into the painting, as was suggested by Obridge in a comment for an earlier post of mine). This direct gaze makes the viewer extremely aware of his (the pronoun is intentional) voyeuristic gaze. (And although I don’t bring a “male gaze” to the painting, perhaps I feel unsettled because I’m a heterosexual woman; I don’t want to be accused as a voyeur while gazing at a female form!) One perceives that Venus is completely aware that her nude body is on display, since her reflected eye acknowledges the viewer’s presence.

But it’s not only the direct gaze in the reflection that captures my interest. It’s the fact that only part of Venus’ body is revealed in the reflection. Through the “cropping” of the mirror frame, Venus’ eye and shoulder become fetishized for the viewer. This reminds me so much of Laura Mulvey’s discussion of women in film. Mulvey discusses how the film camera crops and fetishizes the female form, particularly with camera close-ups on specific parts of the female body.1 It can be argued that Titian is doing the same thing, by having the mirror highlight certain parts of Venus’ body.

I wonder what psychoanalyst Lacan would say about Venus with a Mirror. Lacanian theory discusses how the mirror stage is the most important stage of development for a child (and the child’s ego) – it’s the point in which an infant recognizes himself/herself in the mirror.2 Lacan also is interested in the idea of the gaze, particularly how one develops awareness through looking.3 Given the usage of a mirror (and gaze!) in this painting, can anything be related to the mirror stage? Does the viewer feel compelled to recognize his own eye (and, perhaps by extension, his role as a spectator) when gazing at the reflected eye? Perhaps this is one reason that I feel a little unsettled; I am accustomed to seeing my own eye when I gaze at a mirror, and not the direct gaze of another person’s eye.

Lacan discusses how a young infant experiences elation during the mirror stage, for the child imagines the mirror image to be more complete and more perfect than the child experiences his own body. Obviously, the viewer can’t get a sense of completion and perfection in the mirror image that Titian has created, since Venus’ body is fragmented from the viewer’s perspective. The viewer expects to see (and anticipates that Venus also sees) a more complete reflection of the goddess in the mirror, but in actuality the more complete image of Venus (for the viewer, at least) is displayed on the left side of the canvas. Hence, I feel unsettled; the mirror has failed my expectations, yet paradoxically I am still given a “complete image” of Venus within the picture frame.

Does anyone else feel a bit unsettled by looking at this painting? Why or why not?

1 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn, 1975): 21-22. I’ve written a little bit about Mulvey’s ideas in a previous post.

2 Ibid, 17. See also “Lacan: The Mirror Stage” for further information and resources.

3 Jacques Lacan, The Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981), 67-78.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.