PRINT November 1975

Pygmalion Reversed

To know oneself is to foresee oneself;
to foresee oneself amounts to playing a part.
—Paul Valéry

QUESTION: CAN A WORK of art ever be in pain? Answer: yes, if it is incarnated in a body; if, somehow, the body acts as the ground upon which an art meaning may be inscribed. Naturally, theater and dance employ human bodies, in the sense of being staffed by them. But we would not say a play is composed of people, as for example, a painting is composed of paint. The script or notation, whatever plan that has been decided on or improvised, directs bodies on a stage. It is usually that direction we call the work, interpreted by performers. Actors, of course, may well experience wear and tear, but covertly, in the illusive enactment of behavior represented as other than that of their own lives. A complex alliance exists, however, between some variants of these performance media and a form that has been influenced by dramatic values, but whose premises should be judged radically different, in that the body is placed in overt jeopardy. I refer to a phenomenon called body art, or bodyworks, whose origins are obscured in recent Process and Conceptual art, the Minimal sculpture of 10, the Happenings of 15, and the Dada and Futurism of 60 years ago.

Fashioned out of these sources, some very contemporary work has emerged. It may be distinguished, for the moment, by what I imagine to be a peculiar-sounding hypothesis. Generally speaking, a visual work of art has been bodily executed by its maker. What we see is an artifact that has been put together by certain muscular activities—not the literal sum of those activities, certainly, but a thing effectuated through them. Let it now be supposed that an array of artists construes the “thing” materialized as endowed with consciousness—specifically, that of their own persons. What had earlier been the hidden instrumentality of the work becomes, not so much its visible motif, but the receptacle of the art action, the corporeal base that has been acted upon by the artists’ process.

Their bodies and ours: they’re conscious, animate, sensitive and mortal organisms. The artist’s flesh often gives the impression of having been exposed to damaging conditions, or of having taken into itself something of the work, and possibly the force necessary to have made an object presentable as art. Empathy has been defined as the identification of the self with the other. But we never had to empathize, as we do now, with the physical violence that materializes art because it has become dramatized by the artist who plays the role of its victim. In an environment that puts a higher premium on “activity” than on objects, this mirror-of-process theory is the short route to explaining why one of the prevalent themes—or outright conditions—of such work is self-inflicted pain.

An extended literature has grown in support of efforts that include bodyworks. But we only tentatively understand such art, even at this mature stage in its development, because the criteria for separating it from other forms are not clear. An artist may do an ephemeral “piece” for a necessarily small audience, an event often completely dependent on media transmission for broadcast to the art world. Or the artist may conceive a media-form—photos, optionally accompanied by words—as the prime stimulus for the viewer. In the one instance, the evidence is fragmentary and, in the other, exclusive and sufficient. This reliance on graphics cum literature permits the enlargement of extremely small-scale incidents, such as Dennis Oppenheim running a sliver through his thumb. Photos sometimes become records of occurrences the artist felt no need to have presented to an initially present audience. And they may even be of situations that never existed, such as William Wegman’s and Vicenzo Agnetti’s face mutations. So the literature, heavily contributed to by the artists themselves, invariably reverts to a reportorial discourse. Most typically it carries bibliographical entries, compiled data, scenario descriptions; and it comes in the form of interviews, catalogues, and informative materials published by galleries and museums. To leaf through these documents is simultaneously to be impressed by the richness of their ideas and frustrated by their lack of any felt need to evaluate the convergences of such art. Neutral in the extreme, the tone of this literature would appear detached from its object, until we recognize its characteristic cool as a publicity function. Just as the body is artistically dissociated from the person, so critical regard is isolated from warmth, in a reading too close to serve as cultural perspective.

Bodyworks are international. Aside from a sprinkling of essays in the art press, the American magazine that has most consistently attended to them is Avalanche. A small, hesitant survey exhibition, “Bodyworks,” took place last spring at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Though a first of its kind in the U.S., it skimped on its offerings. In contrast, Europe has developed an enormous and well-organized institutional support of body-art activities. A roster of periodicals has featured the mode: Interfunktionen, Flash Art, Data, and Magazin Kunst. Two large compendia, Kunst als Lebens, edited by Gerhard Horst Haberl, have appeared from Graz, Austria. And serious viewers will know of the quite mammoth “Documenta ’72,” and Kunst bleibt Kunst, the catalogue of the “Projekt ’74” show in Cologne. A recent notable entry into the field is Il corpo come linguaggio (La Body-art e stone simili), a bilingual Italian-English book by Lea Vergine (Giampaolo Prearo, 1974).

This paperback has collected work and statements, accompanied by biographical records and a critical preface. An augmented brochure, it does not pretend to give a historical account of evolving forces, nor does it situate them within the cerebral and technical context of avant-garde theory. It is a product of an almost manically radicalized European artistic and intellectual milieu; it shares some of the jargon of this ambience, but finally not all the remoteness, the concern with the generalities of political right-thinking over the health of people. If, for Lea Vergine, a socio-cultural unity depends on the stable psychology of individuals, body art is seen as an inevitably divisive, but compelling index of breakdown. Except for some Austrian work of 1965, the period covered dates from 1968 to 1974. This moment opens in France with a revolt of Parisian students exasperated with Pompidolian oppression, and “concludes” when plans for the Centre Beaubourg, a highly ambitious and state-financed museum of experimental arts, staffed in part by quasi-Maoists, is shortly to open. In 1972, artists made the old official nationalisms and corrupt marketeering of the prize system at the Venice Biennale so uncomfortable as to finish them off, but they also staged, in 1974, a gigantic, populist and polysyllabic Biennale of their own, while tolerating the Basel art fairs.

II corpo . . . does not knowingly detect the ironies of this background, a serious flaw, but it is sensitive to the alarms that a reactive art expresses. “At the basis of body art,” writes Lea Vergine, “. . . one can discover the unsatisfied need for a love that extends itself without limit in time . . . for a kind of love that confers unlimited rights.” This need sounds disturbing, and the text, as it proceeds, wrestles less and less successfully with what it perceives to be the emotional twistedness of its subject. For its attack against deceitful, bourgeois culture, its accent on self-knowledge, and the liberating exposure of personal shame, the author gives credit to body art, or rather, thinks it credible. She goes further, too, in praising its aim to “communicate something that has been previously felt but that is lived in the very moment of communication.” She makes a case for this standard ethic, but at the same time leans uneasily toward the idea that, in practice, it represents a vivid symptomatology of the damned. Familiar with the work, she is impelled to list the illnesses with which much of it is absorbed: hysteria, autism, paranoia, fetishism, sado-masochism, delirium, schizophrenia—an endless, sad list of mental disorders, inadequately described by labels. Just the same, one must honor those artists who resist being alienated from what they produce in the capitalist scene by making the integrity of their own bodies, which no one else may possess, an artistic barrier against the social disease of the economy. On the other hand, the body seems “liberated” only to be coiled by a raving consciousness. Presumably on the far side of that malaise, viewers are brought into complicity with it, and do not know whether the esthetic context secures them against its lumpen terrorism. We engage in a war of nerves, and wander in the realm of berserk caperings where accidents are encouraged and someone could get hurt. Yet, as if this fear weren’t enough, Vergine strongly suspects that the attraction of exhibiting the self has overmastered any political animus and thrives well as a commercial instrument. Bad faith is one sickness, then, that would weaken the authenticity of the others, though whether that is a relief or not is hard to tell. “And so it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut says in Slaughterhouse 5.

If the art can inspire such schematic ambivalence in a close observer, it must be especially open-ended in the way it exposes conflicting values. Let me describe some examples of it in ascending order of flagrance. Arnulf Rainer, since 1968, has been defacing, with wriggly marks, photographs of himself cutting up, sniveling, retching, shrieking, being spastic, posturing ataxia, etc.—Facefarces, he calls them. Joseph Beuys, lying face down for three hours in a Naples gallery, rubbed his oil-smeared hand over copper slabs until, as a writer has described it, “his body vibrated loaded with energy like a body charged with electric current.” The most recurrent sentence is: “I am a transmitter, I emit.” John Baldessari, in San Diego, made an unannounced visit for 15 minutes to an instructor friend’s art class. After his departure, a police artist was called in, and the students were asked to describe him, as they would any suspect, so that a “wanted” sketch could be drawn. A photo documents the body artist standing next to his completed portrait. Gianni Pisani took a morning shower, inflated a cow’s gut with an air pump, attached this piled-up “umbilical cord” to his stomach, dressed normally, and went out among people. Herman Nitsch and Otto Muehl, of Vienna, strewed their naked bodies with brains, blood, feces. Bas jan Ader rode his bicycle into an Amsterdam canal. Vito Acconci has bitten as much of his body as he could reach, stuffed his hand repeatedly into his mouth so that he choked, poured soapy water into his eyes, pulled out the hairs around his navel, and burned them off his chest. Under close video scrutiny, the face of Dennis Oppenheim showed “apprehension” as rocks were thrown at him—hard. Running at breakneck speed, Barry le Va slammed himself against the walls of a large room over and over again until he collapsed in exhaustion and agony. As for Chris Burden, he has had himself stigmatized with real nails, set on fire, wounded by a bullet in the arm, and imprisoned, foodless, in a small locker for five days.

In his pamphlet Museum of Mott Art, Inc. Les Levine offers to perform various jobs to assist careers in the art world. One (No. 17) reads:

A special service for the older “body artist.” After you’ve been doing it for a few years, you may feel the necessity of our body re-surfacing service. Bite marks removed, excessive sunburns treated, plastic artificial replacements for severed limbs; we match your skin and hair color.

Missing from this satire is any prescription for medicating the audience for body art.

I submit, without any claims to originality, that we are quite capable of being embarrassed by the body when its private functions or extreme states are exposed in public. Erotomania, though contested by alien lifestyles and legal codes, has been enlarging its hold on the affluent industrial cultures, wherever it is understood that the pleasure of the body can subdue the anxiety of the mind. (From China, of course, it must all look like one vast pornotopia.) But if art in the West is a symbolic means for more rigorously testing the permissibility of certain sensations, then the body, sooner or later, would be advanced as the most sensitive motif for such a trial. Physical health, which no one thinks about when one has it, becomes the initial target through which the illusion of mental well-being is probed. In other words, art would explore the experience of the body in which anxiety conquers pleasure, or in which pleasure itself is guilty. (That it goes so far without comparably examining the body-politic is a loss.)

Of course, this theme is hardly new in literature, theater, and painting. From Mirbeau’s Torture Garden to the Story of O, from Artaud to Arrabal, from Van Gogh to Francis Bacon, and in the present day in each medium, the theme picks up its converts. But in visual art, the representation of the figure has suffered from the ravages of modernism in a far more extreme way than its equivalent in any other form. For a complex of reasons, paint has been weakened in its ability to act as carnal stimulus. Body art might be thought of as an effort to vitalize the pathos of the body image by escalating its claim upon us through actual conduct. The risks the artist accepts in this area evince the desire to bare the incriminations of the flesh. He or she would shed metaphor as one sheds clothes, the better to endure that ritual of self-consciousness ideally suited to private vulnerability.

Naturally, I do not mean “self-consciousness” in the paganized humanist sense at all, although something close to sin, in the Christian one, could not help being alluded to in the martyrology of bodyworks. Dominating a contained environment, the body, with maximized attention given its features, gestures, potentials and roles, has been the main subject in homocentric Western art. But the values of that tradition are usurped, since bodily events, though now self-enacted, are deprived of the confidence and integral sufficiency associated with them. The body, a spotlit organism in an alien world, is so thoroughly impinged upon by a merciless voyeurism which it assents to (or rather, sets up), that it becomes an object even to the consciousness of the one who possesses the body. The artistic search for indecency has often been justified by the need to lacerate the repressions that numb genteel order. But I believe that the urge to dissociate and depersonalize the body, to split it from awareness, flirts with a more profound indecency—since it leads to considering others as less than human. Crimes that violate bodies depend, in one degree or another, on our propensity to turn people into things. It is by no means certain that some bodyworks even pretend to such derangement because they are directed inward. But at times the aura of it seems incipiently there, in reserve.

Still, this is to confuse a possible effect with artistic rationale. A photographer needs to be unfeeling of others when “shooting” them at close range; a surgeon requires a certain desensitized bearing when cutting with the scalpel. Their skills, and those of countless others, could never be activated without the distancing mechanism peculiar to their aims. Art in the 20th century deals with psychic transmissions and occlusions, in covert, internalized forms, constructed for their own sake. Bodyworks show great impatience with the elliptical canons of those forms, but are still aligned with their basic self-reflexiveness. Compared with the earlier Happenings, they are far more ascetic and essentializing fruits of the Minimalist experience that had intervened between them.

One should say of a number of them that they are interested in exposing the root conditions of self-regard, and of providing contemporary metaphors of that classic modern theme: consciousness rounding upon itself.

So, for instance, we have Dan Graham’s Time-Delay Room, a mirrored room with video camera and monitor whose delayed (8-second) playback does not slow the live action of visitors but gives us a sense of the camera’s charming disobedience in refusing to let imagery catch up with the behavior it records. The artist’s device as such is known, but there still hovers in the air a question as to whether it is ourselves or a machine that imitates gesture in a fixed regress. Graham has done another piece, Body Press, in which two naked filmmakers in a mirrored cylinder rotate on and around their bodies, back and front, running cameras that they exchange behind them. When the films are projected, writes the artist, “the camera’s optical range is the skin—there is no space . . . kinesthetically, the handling of the camera can be ‘felt’ by the spectator as surface tension . . .” The effect of being on the “other” side of a body surface which is elicited as our own seems intended as a simile of ourselves sensing ourselves sensing. From another angle, Eleanor Antin’s month of daily photographs of her nude figure on a sluggishly working diet is called Carving, as if she herself, rather than a natural process, were a sculptress of her own form. What appetite, restraint and metabolism fail to accomplish is left risibly to the artistic will.

Between this wry conceit and the scary fasting of Chris Burden lies the large area of bodyworks as social manipulators. If the affirmation of ego is expected to color art, the artist’s body would surely be a prime conductor of ego. But if we keep with the Freudian terminology, the logic of the new art often enforces intense superego restraints on the body, which communicate outward, toward the audience. One is made aware, then, of the contempt for spontaneous, pleasure-tropic, or even impulsive behavior in a mode whose very point would seem to be the encouraging of it. The artist teaches, perhaps involuntarily, that exemplary control of one’s physical being requires a deadening of its instincts and needs and nerves. This can only be demonstrated by putting the body under stress (bestowing it with “form”). We note the coincidence of this procedure with theological disciplines and ritual, jarred though it is by the public context of self-exploitation. (Burden, for example, says, “I’m always pissed off if I don’t get good photos.”) The possibility of the artists being gratified by their chastisement would, of course, subvert the stoic tone of their address, but only at the cost of making viewers involuntary collaborators in a perverse onanism. “There is a sexologist’s chestnut,” writes Weyland Young, “about a monk who used to masturbate. After that he would flagellate to punish himself for yielding to the temptation. Flagellating made him come again, so he had it both ways.”

“Now,” he continues, “that is only funny as long as we confine ourselves to the orthodox view that religion and orgasm are incompatible.” If we disbelieve this, “the story becomes richly symbolic. And then look how God rewarded him!” People will continue getting their kicks (it is hoped) in any consenting way they want. But if my presence before the work is needed only as a party to kinky exhibitionism, then the social contract of art is turned into a rip-off process—and I would rather go elsewhere. There are, though, two reservations about this caveat. One suggests that we are dealing with a formula under which we are recontracted to deal with an allusion to scandal, coupled with an underlying appeal to known prurience whose exposure points to content. The other qualification contradicts this, since it insists correctly that to speculate about the motivations of artists is not, in any sense, a response, nor can it attempt a cause-and-effect account of a work.

So, how do we treat the iconography of narcissism with which bodyworks abound? Narcissism, in this case, is the emotional correlate of the intellectual basis behind self-reflexive modern art, although we do not generally think of it as an ironic device. On the social plane, it marks the individual who does not relate to people because they are perceived as having status only as an audience. Male and female narcissism derive from our culture’s patriarchal system, with the men phallically oriented, and the women objectifying themselves as the target of that orientation.

Carolee Schneemann (in her recent publication Cézanne She Was a Great Painter) relates how she was discriminated against by her fellow happeners when she expressed her female sexuality in her own naked way, an act that would have to wait several years before being affirmed by the women’s movement. Hannah Wilke and Lynda Benglis have played with this change of attitude on an ambivalent note. Involved with notoriety, they’ve styled both their persons and their art, collapsing them together, to conform to the image of the glamorous sex object—with the usual glorified epidermis. But it is not clear if Wilke is actually parodying the star system, in and out of the art world, or if Benglis’s idea of sex is heterosexual—a charade that rebounds unpleasantly on the “buddyism” of her male colleagues. Her color videotape Female Sensibility enacts lesbian gestures accompanied by radio trivia, including a “lecture about the story of Adam.” These artists have it lightly, many ways.

We would expect bodyworks to say something on the theme of the war between the sexes, if only because it is a perennial conflict, exacerbated during the season of the art itself. Putting it differently, sexual role identification is charged with overt political resonance as it never was before. Klaus Rinke bluntly shows the masculine and feminine types next to each other, padlocked and in chains. Eleanor Antin fantasizes herself as a tutued ballerina of the old school, the eternal female about to make it in the world of refined feelings (the art world?). Far less playful, male stances on this question are, in comparison, obtuse and powerfully morbid, exactly because they are either not awakened to the afflicting aspects of macho behavior, or revel in them. As long as their auto-critique expresses itself in physical violence, or eggs it on, the consciousness of male body artists remains stereotypically low.

An exception to this is the Swiss artist Urs Lüthi, whose photo self-portraits sing an inventive paean to transvestism or trans-sexualism. (Curiously, Lüthi is one of the very few artists of his kind to exploit dress, ornament, and headgear: the more popular staples of body art in fashion and ritual throughout the world. For the most part, it is as if visual autobiography occurs in a social void, neutered of its communal locale.) Lüthi’s camp format and accoutrements relate to the ’60s as the women artists I’ve mentioned do by their theatricality. But he rarely grimaces, unlike the artist he otherwise recalls here, Lucas Samaras. Looking at Lüthi’s epicene photos, I react to them as evocations of seductive mood, sometimes melancholy because consciously nuanced away from the self-absorption that is their motif. That is, Lüthi’s narcissism is imperfect, if only since he appears to be looking upon himself, in studied, hypothetical guises, and is, therefore, capable of being among us—in the audience. “I treat myself,” writes this intelligent artist, “as a stranger.” And, “I am suspicious of belief without illusion. My illusions can give me distance. And it often happens that my belief coincides with my illusions.”

This is far from the myth of supreme androgynous power, upheld, say, by Camus’ Caligula. And it also inhabits a different world from Burden’s. “I’m setting up situations to test my own illusions or fantasies about what happens. . . . How can you know what it feels like to be shot if you don’t get shot? . . . I know that after each piece I feel different . . . on top of things. . . . It’s like having knowledge that other people don’t have, some kind of wisdom.” No doubt there is pathos in an artist’s need to achieve “wisdom” at such cost to himself, but it is canceled by the alienating spectacle made by the attainment of it. Because narcissistic sensationalism does not equate with a creative act, we want to know what Burden’s art consists of. It seems to me that he has isolated the element of “daring” in vanguard ideology, personified it in an utterly cold way that is yet extremely primitive, and then relies on the liberal tolerances of the art context to ratify the attempt to demean them. If you interfere with the passive-aggressive number he does on himself and the audience (out of the reasonable fear that he might assassinate himself), you run the danger of seeming a philistine. One might say, then, that his art materializes in his employment of the principle of double risk, underlined by a negative reinforcement: he would blackmail the viewers (or perhaps only the photographer) into sophistication. In his Deadman, Burden lay down on La Cienega Boulevard (the Los Angeles gallery street), and was covered completely with a canvas tarpaulin. “Two . . . flares were placed near me to alert cars. . . . Just before the flares extinguished . . . I was arrested and booked for causing a false emergency to be reported.” The police may not have known anything about art, but I think they got the point of his piece far better than esthetes in supposing it a misdemeanor.

It is a pity that in its more extreme reaches body art seeks to invert a humane enlightenment into moral cretinism. But that potential always exists in modern, “with-it” esthetic attitudes. As a matter of course, such attitudes install such elastic boundaries of permissibility that they offer too much slack to test anything very conclusive. The Western art ritual simply does not convey so much honor on its actors and its viewers that they should consider themselves exempt from the excesses to which it alludes. It may be in covert recognition of this that our artists have often reverted to religious poses in which fantasies of death and regeneration are pseudosanctified by assumptions of omniscience, the Adamic demi-urge.

In that art area where sexual and political neuroses masquerade, the most revealing images or presences are of males transposing themselves into females.

Many of my theatre actions are like births. And a birth is like a crucifixion and resurrection together. There is blood, and meat, and pain, and then comes the newly born child, and he cries, and begins to live. . . . I want to celebrate existence. (Herman Nitsch)

This “birth envy” (of the female) was recorded long after the Surrealists pondered it in their art, as Whitney Chadwick shows in this issue. The myths of Narcissus and the androgyne, once made to intersect forty years ago, ride again, from Duchamp to Acconci, in more atomized form, among artists who do not have altogether the same historical experience. The chief difference comes out of what happens to Pygmalion. Instead of the fable of the stone statue that changed into a living body, we now have the story of the animate body that doubles back into inanimate art. The religion of quiet has supplanted the religion of movement. An artist (Alan Sonfist) shows a photograph of himself as a naked corpse lying on a mortician’s couch, and titles it Last Piece. He thereby appropriates Minimalism, if you will, to a continuous chain of thought whose hopefulness—the immortality of art—frankly foresees the denial of life.

Max Kozloff