The female body as spectacle in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western art

Cronje, Karen (2001-03)

Thesis (MA)--University of Stellenbosch, 2001.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: A spectacle denotes an impressive or deplorable sight, and necessarily involves the power and politics of viewing. The female body exists as a sexualised object of these processes of looking within Western culture, not only in high art, but also in discourses such as medicine and science. In both art and medicine the female body has been treated as a passive object to be studied, analysed and classified. Power relations and patriarchal ideologies have played a great part in the resulting objectifying representations, firmly locating images of the female body within the realm of the spectacle. Bodily perceptions, in terms of the female body, have changed much, particularly through the reinterpretation of sexuality through feminist theory. Modem culture and technology have opened up many new possibilities for the redefinition and understanding of the body. Modem bodies seem to be under as much close surveillance and scrutiny as their nineteenth century counterparts. This study explores these ideas through a wide range of examples from painting, photography and performance art, and non-art objects such as anatomical objects and medical illustrations. Central to the construction of the body as spectacle, are issues of looking and viewing. Chapter 1 examines ideas around the gaze; the politics and processes of vision, objectification and fetishisation are explored in relation to the functioning of the medical and aesthetic gaze. The concept of spectacle is also elaborated upon in terms of ideas around the nineteenth century carnival and freak show, and in terms of societal taboos and transgression. Aspects of aesthetic and medical discourse focus on the display and scrutiny of the female body. Chapter 2 examines the way in which these discourses attempted to reveal the female body by rendering it in highly visual terms. The dominant ideologies informing both discourses played an instrumental role and resulted in representations that defined the female body in normative standards and ideals of beauty and health. Pornography is considered as a modem discourse in which the female body is defined and displayed as an object of scrutiny. Feminist theory challenged exclusively male representations of the female body and the subversion of traditional forms of representation of women is studied by examining the work of Annie Sprinkle and Cindy Sherman. Many representations of the female body by feminist artists are considered highly disturbing and transgressive, precisely because they traverse traditional and acceptable representations of it. The idealised nude forms the epitome of contained ideals of health and beauty, and the work of Orlan and Cindy Sherman is examined within these terms in Chapter 3. These artists' representations of the female body are in direct opposition to such norms, rather settling for an open-ended, unconfined and abject representation. However, such transgressive cultural images produced by women artists are often regarded as pathological acts, and dismissed in terms of deplorable spectacle. The research concludes with a commentary on the candidate's practical work, which in dealing with the representation of the human body explores some issues of visuality, spectacle and fragmentation.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: 'n Spektakel kan op 'n indrukwekkende of betreurenswaardige skouspel dui; gevolglik betrek dit die politiese en magseienskappe van besigtiging. Die vroulike liggaam bestaan as 'n seksuele objek van só 'n proses van besigtiging binne die Westerse kultuur - nie net in kuns nie, maar ook in diskoerse soos geneeskunde en die wetenskap. In beide kuns en geneeskunde, is die vroulike liggaam beskou as 'n passiewe objek vir bestudering, analisering en klassifisering. Magsverhoudinge en ideologieë het gevolglik 'n groot rol gespeel in die uiteindelike objektifiserende representasies, en gevolglik is die uitbeelding van die vroulike liggaam in terme van spektakel vasgelê. Liggaamlike persepsies, veral in terme van die vroulike figuur, het noemenswaardige veranderinge ondergaan - veral deur die hervertolking van seksualiteit deur feministiese teorie. Moderne kultuur en tegnologie bied verdere moontlikhede vir die herdefiniëring en begrip van die liggaam. Die moderne liggaam word onder streng bewaking en betragting geplaas - net soos sy negentiende-eeuse ewebeeld. Hierdie studie ondersoek dié idees deur die bestudering van 'n verskeidenheid voorbeelde vanuit skilderkuns, fotografie en 'performance' -kuns, asook objekte soos anatomiese objekte en mediese illustrasies. Kwessies van besigtiging is sentraal tot die konstruksie van die liggaam as spektakel. Hoofstuk londersoek dus idees rondom besigtiging - onder andere die politiese en magseienskappe, en die gevolglike objektifiserende effek daarvan - in verhouding tot die funksionering van die mediese en die estetiese blik. Die konsep van spektakel word verder uitgebrei in terme van die negentiende-eeuse karnaval, asook in terme van taboes en sosiale oortreding. Sekere aspekte van estetiese en mediese diskoerse fokus op die vertoning en besigtiging van die vroulike liggaam. Hoofstuk 2 ondersoek die wyse waarop hierdie diskoerse die vroulike liggaam in hoogs visuele terme uitgebeeld het. Beide diskoerse is gemotiveer deur dominante ideologieë, wat gevolglik 'n instrumentele rol gespeel het in die uitbeelding van die vroulike liggaam. Sulke uitbeeldings is dikwels gemotiveer deur standaarde en ideale van skoonheid. Gevolglik word pornografie in hierdie hoofstuk bespreek as 'n moderne diskoers wat georganiseer is rondom die vertoning en besigtiging van die vroulike liggaam. Feministiese teorie skep 'n positiewe ruimte waarin sulke eksklusiewe, manlike definisies en uitbeeldings van die vroulike liggaam uitgedaag kan word. Die omverwerping van tradisionele metodes van uitbeelding word hier ondersoek deur die werk van Annie Sprinkle en Cindy Sherman te bespreek. Die herdefiniëring van die vroulike liggaam deur feministiese kunstenaars word dikwels beskou as onstellend; waarskynlik omdat dit tradisionele en aanvaarbare uitbeeldings van die liggaam oortree. Die werk van Orlan en Cindy Sherman word in terme van sosiale oortreding in Hoofstuk 3 ondersoek. Die klassieke naakfiguur stel die ideale van skoonheid en stabiliteit voor. Hierdie kunstenaars se uitbeeldings toon egter 'n doelbewuste verontagsaming van sulke ideale, deurdat hulle eerder 'n oop, onstabiele en gefragmenteerde figuur uitbeeld. Oortredings van kulturele norme deur vrouekunstenaars word dikwels beskou as patalogiese aksies; en dit word dus maklik afgekeur as 'n spektakel. Die navorsing word afgesluit met 'n bespreking van die kandidaat se praktiese werk, wat die uitbeelding van die menslike liggaam ondersoek. Gevolglik word kwessies van besigtiging, spektakel en fragmentasie verder ondersoek.

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