Saturday, December 8, 2012

Body references in art

The claim that all art refers to the body is odd at first. After all, it seems we search in vain for the bodily reference in things like Ad Reinhardt’s (nearly) solid blue canvases, Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, or Kazimir Malevich’s squares.

But however odd this appears, the various explanations of how these artworks refer to the body actually make perfect sense. After all, who can deny that Pollock’s drip paintings captured the gestures of his body as he laid the paint down… or that Malevich’s squares were coded by their size and color to represent social groups (of bodies)… or that Rheinhardt’s (nearly) solid blue canvases somehow challenge the visual acuity of our bodies. 

There are other examples. Bodies can be referenced due to their absence, such as when we interpret a bed not simply as a bed, but as being an empty bed, that is, a bed without a body.  Performance art uses the body as a medium. Depicting any object that humans create or utilize is also a reference to the body, and so any still life painting probably refers to the body as well. We also require bodies to make or view art… and of course, there are always actual depictions of bodies (yawn).

This type of analysis is gratifying. By expanding the concept of body reference beyond simply representations of bodies (as subject matter), we are able to explore the non-obvious relationships that the body brings to the production of art. The body as the subject matter becomes a subset of body references within art, multiplying the power of art to reference bodies. Given the crucial role that the body plays in life, it appears that the ability to consider its expanded presence in art is of considerable value to artists and viewers alike.

HOWEVER… When we scratch the surface of all this newfound wisdom, things start to get weird.

The general idea behind expanded body references in art is the awareness that anything man creates or affects will bear evidence of the man… and since the man is a body too… all things created or affected by man are references to the body. The difficulty here is that this includes not only convenient things like paintings, artistic constructions, and performance art… but also less convenient things, like lead pipes, shoehorns, and cornflakes. It might strike on as disturbing to have vested so much significance in the ability of art to reference bodies, and then to turn around and find out that cornflakes share in this virtue, perhaps even more than Malevich’s squares.

If we take our time, and are not too dismissive, we can deconstruct the simple cornflake, and discover literal and symbolic references to the body. Corn flakes are not naturally occurring objects. Cornflakes are created by man. Cornflakes are made to the scale of the human body, so that they can be readily ingested. The energy they provide allows one to conduct the business of their life… and multiplied across the many boxes of cereal that power America, these simple flakes take on not only the literal meaning of providing energy to run the country… but also ascend to the symbolic importance inherent in every Kellogg’s Cornflakes television commercial… the sociology of convenience, the decline of nutrition, and the marketing of consumer foods. This exercise only scratches the surface of what body references can be inferred from a box of corn flakes.

All sarcasm aside, the point here is to show that underlying the expansion of body references in art seems to push art closer to cornflakes than previously thought possible… a situation (let’s assume) that most would want to avoid.

Whether this cornflake conundrum is relevant requires that we examine the nature of body reference more closely. This analysis will examine body reference using the following sets of parameters;

1. Intended vs. Unintended
2. Perceptual vs. Conceptual


Previously, the only similarity between a painting and a cornflake would have been that both are composed of matter and both take up space. To spend time talking about a painting as composed of matter and taking up space tells us nothing about the painting as an art object.  Existing and taking up space are not seen as necessary or sufficient properties of a painting, but rather, are an inevitable requirement of their physical existence… a condition they share with all paintings, all art, all man-made things, and all matter existing in the universe. There is nothing artistic about the temporal and spatial aspects of a painting.

In general, any characteristic of an art object that is a precondition to its physical existence, or its existence as a man-made object, is not necessarily a property of its artistic identity.

Body reference is just such a characteristic. As has been argued and conceded, it is inevitable that any man-made object has a body reference in it (as we have seen)… and this does not rely on the maker of the object either intending it, or even being aware of it. 

Given that art requires intention, unintended aspects of its construction do not necessarily have artistic relevance. Therefore, though all art objects inevitably contain a body reference, it is not necessarily true that those references have any artistic relevance. For instance, any body reference that results only from the physical requirements of constructing or viewing the art object can be considered unintended, and therefore not necessarily relevant.


Of those body references that we grant intention to (and therefore artistic relevance) there are those that are perceptual, and those that are conceptual.

Conceptual body references are such things as empty beds, still life objects, and canvas size. They are conceptual because their artistic import is a function of inferring a relation to an absent body, rather than reacting to a body directly. They are indirect, which is the nature of concepts.

Perceptual body references are such things as actual images of bodies contained in the art object. They are perceptual because they are perceived. Perception is an automatic function of the mind, whereby the visual field is integrated into a coherent collection of things that we see as distinct objects. This perceptual awareness feeds subconscious processes, including emotional reaction. Art exploits this automatic functioning to arrange and represent objects, allowing perception to feed the subconscious.

The difference between perceptual body references and conceptual body references is that the former evoke emotional response from the nature of the image, where the latter requires an inference from the image. Inference is an operation of the conceptual mind, and its presence indicates (in the case of a conceptual body reference) that the perceptual mechanism has not necessarily been engaged.

This distinction between the perceptual and the conceptual leads to the following idea… that although a body reference may be found in a work of art, it does not mean the work of art is about the body. Only perceptual references can be about the body. Conceptual references are not about the body. Empty beds are about the absence of a body. The about-ness of a work of art is a function of what is perceived in the work… and only the perception of a body can make an artwork about the body. Conceptual references, being indirect, are (at best) about being about the body.

In fact, perceptual body references are not references at all… they are perceptual bodies. They don’t refer to anything. They are the thing itself. One can argue that all images are simply signs, and therefore references to other things… and this is generally true… but the context of art IS the context of visual signs… in which the distinction between a painted figure and a body is non existent. A painted figure is not a reference to another body… it is a body considered unto itself. A painting of an empty bed is a conceptual reference… not to a body (a particular body that is perceived visually).. but to the body (the body in general, which is conceived of  in the conceptual mind).


Whether these arguments and distinctions are correct (and even matter) depend on one’s view of the nature of art, the nature of the mind, and the nature of concept formation. But then again, everything we say about art depends on such distinctions, or (the usual case) their absence.

It is disturbing to consider that so much is spoken about art with so little foundation. We live in a world where it is totally acceptable to say things like “everything is art”… or “who can know what art is”… or “art is what artist’s make”. These statements deny any meaningful identity to art, and provide no foundation for critical analysis of the issues that arise there.

It doesn’t take much prodding to drive most people to claim, “Everything is art”. After all, to deny artistic identity to a cornflake requires the radical act of judging and excluding… both anathema in our  “I’m Ok, You’re Ok” world. The moral relativism inherent in this point of view… this refusal to identify and judge... is an aspect of a more general skepticism, which I refer to as the  “Everything is Everything” mentality. Deny identity and everything is the same, and everyone is right, and everyone is good… and we don’t have to judge or be judged, and we can never be wrong.

The idea that all art contains references to the body seems generally correct, but as this analysis has shown (hopefully), it is not so cut and dry. Distinctions exist that might allow the rejection of certain references, and that differentiate perceptual references from conceptual ones.

The claim “All art contains body references” is potentially a variation of the general claim “Everything is Everything”. It all depends on who says it, and why, and what they mean by it. When I see others accepting body reference as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth… and do so without critical debate… I suspect a motive beyond reason… I see the emotional motive of embracing yet another variation of “Everything is Everything”… and the relief that brings them…. which gives yet another sad meaning to the oft cited conjunction “Art and Fear”.

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