PRINT January 1978

Bodyworks and Porpoises

MODERN ART REINTERPRETS THE LEONARDIAN knowing-how-to-see in post-Euclidian terms. Some even came recently to believe that with the coming-of-age of photography and readymades, sculpture and painting were finally superseded. Two years ago John Perreault, for instance, assumed that all that was left of art was the idea.1 By idea I take him to mean that the perceivable part of the artist’s expression is suggestive enough for the viewer to appreciate its concept. When applied say, to the work of Sol LeWitt, the term “conceptual” suggests a relation between his skeletons of boxes to the ideal (or image) of a box. But, by the same token, it is equally understandable that a fragment from a wall painting in the palace of Knossos could have led an archaeologist to reconstruct the whole picture. Or, on the strength of another process of association, we can understand how Alexander Marshak was able to correlate notations on an antelope’s bone, found in a paleolithic cave, to a lunar calendar.2 In other words, the design on the fragment of the wall painting and the pattern of perforations on the bone contain sufficient information for the intelligent investigator to reconstruct the message of either the Cretan painter or the paleolithic record-keeper.

Ira Licht claims that the most significant artistic development of the 1970s stems from those who use their own body as their primary means of expression.3 What kind of information can we expect to obtain from the performances of artists such as Vito Acconci and Joseph Beuys? According to Cindy Nemser, bodyworks are undertaken by artists who pursue man’s “never-ending dialogue between himself and the world around him,” by exploring “the primary source material, [ man’s] own body.” Nemser points out that artists such as Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim and Vito Acconci “would concur with psychologist James J. Gibson’s basic thesis that man can only know his environment through the perceptual systems of his own body . . .”4 In The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, Gibson discusses the theory according to which our primary source of information comes from the senses, rejecting as totally unfounded the belief that the retina registers images. He claims, on the contrary, that the distinction between objects and images could not have been made before man started to draw figures. Man’s “never-ending dialogue with himself and the world around him” could never have taken place before he had received valuable information about the world and the self from dialogues with others.5 To assume, therefore, that one’s body is the primary source for understanding facts would be as naive as to believe that our knowledge of the world comes from spirits.

Licht interprets bodyworks in terms of the cult of the self. He believes that in art this cult “may have begun with Courbet’s egocentric paintings, his radical political activities, and his public posturing, which included the cultivation of a singular Assyrian-style beard.” He also thinks that “the Romantic idea of the artist as an extraordinary being—genius, rebel and prophet—has descended through Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Gauguin and van Gogh to Pollock and Beuys.” We are indebted to Salvador Dali for presenting us with a substitute for the Romantic cult of the self. By embracing the Freudian schema of the castrating father, he was able to exhibit freely a megalomania that he consciously related to preoccupations with masturbation, castration and feces, as in Lugubrious Game and The Great Masturbator both 1929—obsessions which he finally overcame through the love of a woman.6 In the late ’30s, having turned aggressively anti-Surrealist, Dali depicted himself as the Crucified Savior on a cross reduced to four wooden cubes. He thereby proclaimed that he had been chosen to save art from the horrors of Cubism. Seen in conjunction with The Great Masturbator, the Salvadorian Crucifixion is a reminder that Christ said, “There shall be men who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” After Freud and the Surrealists, a return to the cult of the self in the name of the Romantic genius would mark a cultural regression, as it would imply that the ego seeks to subject itself to a castrating superego.

Furthermore, I fail to comprehend how one can view Jackson Pollock as a forerunner of bodyworks for having painted by means of gestures generated by movements of the whole body. Why not claim that Martha Graham’s dance anticipates Eleanor Antin’s transfigurations? Pollock’s “chanson du geste” expresses a state of mind in the language of pain corresponding to Joyce’s work-in-progress, the way Martha Graham’s movements of the curved body echo the Dancers of Matisse.

Marcel Duchamp, the Conceptualists’ spiritual father, never produced a work that can be adequately described in terms of a cult of the self. Licht elegantly overcomes this hurdle by shifting his attention from Duchamp’s art to his career. It is the latter, according to Licht, that “certified the possibility that the artist himself has an aesthetic reality,” adding shortly after that “in his Readymades, in which he designated with a signature certain commercial products . . . , Duchamp renounced the physical creation of art.” But Duchamp’s last work, Étant Donnés, is just as much a work of art as is his Large Glass; in a literary sense, it is even more so, since it was inspired by Mallarmé’s “Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire.”

Contrary to Jack Burnham, I do not think that Duchamp’s well-known division of artists into the cerebral and the retinal justifies calling the Conceptual artists cerebral artists. Duchamp admired artists who developed a strategy of perspective. Most Conceptualists, however, neglect strategy for short-sighted tactical advantages. Duchamp’s tactics were derived from Jarry. From The Passage of the Virgin to the Bride to the Readymades and Étant Donnés, the oil of automobiles is mixed with the bile of humor. The photograph of Duchamp’s head shaved in the shape of a star shows that he preferred astrology to theology, while his photo as Rrose Sélavy is too ironic to be read as meaning that even unconsciously he wanted to change his sex. To the obsessive redundancy of the bodywork artists, Duchamp, Picabia, Man Ray and Tzara oppose a world of parody, of Baudelairian dandyism bristling with black humor.

Francis Bacon is perhaps the most significant of the immediate forerunners of the bodywork artists. To a song of love carried through the sophisticated pictorial writing of Toulouse-Lautrec, Kokoschka, Soutine and de Kooning, Bacon opposes a face that he has disfigured because he despises it.

That cult of the wounded self is basically onanistic was overtly expressed by Vito Acconci. who volunteered to masturbate (hidden from view) in the presence of visitors in a SoHo gallery. Natural products of the body become substitutes for mental activity, extreme examples being Piero Manzoni’s cans of excrement. Samaras crossed his head with twine tightly enough to deform his face, in a demonstration reminiscent of a torturer’s endeavor to transform the body of a woman by cross-lacing her so tightly that she becomes a bulging bundle of flesh. Inspired by the documentary photo of this victim, Hans Bellmer transformed erotic visions into images wherein horror is distilled by means of an exquisite metamorphosis of the victim into a complicated anagram of breasts and vaginas, of spheres and eyes.

Chris Burden’s cross is his own flesh. Some years ago he locked himself up in a locker two feet high, two feet wide and three feet deep, for five days. True enough, the locker above him contained a five-gallon container of water, and the one below held an empty one, but his salvation was still in the hands of a friend who had the key to the locker. In another act, Burden narrowly escaped death during the bodywork show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. There Burden’s performance consisted of lying motionless on the floor, covered from head to foot by a sheet of glass. From this position he saw numerous visitors peering at him, waiting for something to happen. The most curious waited until closing time, and then left disappointed. Burden remained on the floor from Friday until the following Sunday, when the nervous curator called for a doctor. What apparently never occurred to this artist was that at closing time the staff of the museum would not search his pockets to find instructions for removing the glass that he had left there.

Vito Acconci has explained that when he puts a match to his chest, burning off the hair, he is acting in a performance that produces “reflexive information (turning in on myself––turning on myself).” He sees performance as “a scheme for splitting oneself in two, with one self reacting to the inclinations of the other.”7 For Acconci, the other self seems to belong to the opposite sex. One of his body acts consists of “extending the sex change (removing my penis), hiding it between my legs.” If the purpose of some of the bodywork performances is really to provide reflexive information, why don’t these artists perform in private and inform their public about the content of the reflexive information?

Terry Fox helps us understand the mental climate which led to the development of this new art. Through operations performed on him (for a serious illness), he came to see his body as an object: “I was a piece of meat that people were acting upon. That’s what you are.” But he also learned how to acquire information from his body the way doctors do: “Someone from the U.C. Hospital told me about microwave transmitters and I now have access to one. If you hold a live wire connected to it in one hand and a lightbulb in the other, the lightbulb will light up; your body conducts the electrical current.” From experiences in hospitals, from accounts of astronauts, and from works such as William Burroughs’ Nova Express (1964), an artist of Fox’s generation learns to consider his body as a thing (a pitiful one for Terry Fox). That would tend to explain his plan to perform on the Pont Neuf in Paris, for “that is where the clochards sleep. Clochards are doing theatre all the time, and their kind of theatre is what I want to do there.”8 I surmise this to mean that the theatre of the clochard is that of Samuel Beckett; who may also have inspired Chris Burden to hide himself in a box. Fox’s performance was to be called Soluble Fish, which is the very title of André Breton’s famous piece of automatic writing with astonishing sexual connotations.

Fox devised a happening in which he, Acconci and Oppenheim simultaneously performed their individual work. Fox’s private act was communicated to him in the form of the amplified sound of his breathing, which was simultaneously transmitted by a tape recorder. Acconci communicated with the functions of a clock for an hour: while his body was tracing the perimeter of a circle, his mental self concentrated on the minute-hand of the clock. Oppenheim communicated with a tarantula used as “an ongoing force which could be persuaded or dissuaded from going in one particular direction.”9 The void created by the absence of interpersonal communication, so poignant in Waiting for Godot, has been filled in Terry Fox’s happening by humorless parodies of hospital tests that reduce patients to a state of thingness.

Noting, with sadness, that so many performances of bodyworks seem to be related to well-known states of mental disorder, Max Kozloff proposes “to 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.”10 In our economy surplus value is accumulated by the capitalist at the expense of the worker’s earnings, which is tantamount to saying, as Marx does, that the worker becomes alienated from the fruits of his work. However, I fail to understand how an artist who “works” with his body for art’s sake provides a barrier against what Kozloff labels “the social disease of the economy.” Capitalism, based on competition, periodically generates crises that force workers to strike in defense of their interests. In advanced capitalist countries, the intelligentsia has sufficient self-confidence for its purveyors of cultural goods to include Earthworks and bodyworks in their inventories. It is self-confidence that the bureaucracy lacks in the workers’ states. Imagine a bodyworker in Moscow or Peking!

The amateurs of bodyworks fail to realize that these stillborn performances require the cooperation of sadist partners. (Perhaps a day may come when such events could be tolerated in the name of euthanasia!) We must not forget that Rudolph Schwarzkogler went further than any other masochist bodyworker, for he proceeded inch by inch to amputate his own penis, while a photographer recorded this art event. The bodyworker’s attempt to zero the distinction between a live and a dead body should not be met with indifference by those who, like myself, believe that art is for the sake of life. The body is for movement. But in what context does the Conceptual artist evaluate the body’s mobility? Joseph Beuys, perhaps the most visionary of bodyworkers, places his body in a political context. Beuys is outstanding for reviving shamanism. He believes that the social function of the artist is to develop man’s “sensorium.” In a statement of disarming candor, he asserts: “Only art is capable of dismantling the repressive effects of a senile social system that continues to totter along the deathline: to dismantle in order to build a social organism as a work of art.”11 To achieve this we have to reach the threshhold

where the human being experiences himself primarily as a spiritual being, where his supreme achievement (work of art), his active thinking, his active will, and their higher forms can be apprehended as sculptural generative means . . . This is the concept of art that carries with itself not only the revolutionizing of the historic bourgeois concept of knowledge (materialism, positivism) but also of religious activity . . . Every human being is an artist who, from his state of freedom . . . learns to determine the other positions in the total artwork of the future social order.

Beuys’ attitude is that of a son of Hitler who repudiates father-figure for having exchanged the vocation of a painter for that of a Führer. Beuys reverses the fascist salute by holding his hand stretched horizontally under his chin. He replaces Hitler’s Wagnerian rites with slogans derived from the remote Rheinische past to reinforce today’s aspirations. His first bodywork was Show Me Your Wounds; he exhibited his head still bandaged from trephination. “Show me your wounds” became a slogan often repeated.

On the occasion of his performance in New York entitled I Love America, America Loves Me, Beuys revived the German legend of the wolf-man, while Americanizing it by substituting a tame coyote for the wolf of the Black Forest. Cloaked in felt, Beuys would start the performance by striking a triangle with his typically upended cane. This was followed by a loud engine noise to alert the coyote to the beginning of a “Pavlovian” experiment which included driving the animal toward, alternately, two heaps, one of hay and the other of copies of The Wall Street Journal.

The Pavlovian experiments with dogs dramatized the behavioral character of learning. However, by ignoring the problems of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, the behavioral sciences were unable to catch up with the cybernetic revolution of our times. By an application of Russell’s Theory of Logical Types to the concept of learning, Gregory Bateson is able to develop a theory of learning in terms of atomistic logic.12 Bateson assumes that learning takes place in a context that can be repeated and that the order of this repetition of context is hierarchical. Thus “Learning I,” dealing with stimulus, is superseded by “Learning II” dealing with stimulus context, which is superseded in its turn by “Learning III,” dealing with the context of contexts. In Learning I the elementary stimulus can either be external, as in the case of the Pavlovian buzzer, or internal, as with learning by rote. In the history of behavioral experiments with animals, what the dog is to Learning I the porpoise is to Learning II.

First, the porpoise, upon presenting a certain conspicuous type of behavior, such as raising her head out of the water-tank, learns to accept the trainer’s whistle as a “secondary reinforcement,” preceding the reward of food. In a subsequent session the porpoise will not hear the whistle when she raises her head, but only upon presenting another type of conspicuous behavior, such flapping her tail. In the next performance this flap of the tail will not be rewarded, but a new piece of conspicuous behavior will be. In the Learning II phase of the porpoise’s training the stimulus consists of the complex: performance, reinforced signal and trainer.

It seems to me that the distinction between Learning I and Learning II could be applied to the arts. Thus, learning to paint according to certain standard rules, whether Egyptian, Greek, Chinese or Gothic, is a form of Learning I. Learning to paint with differences of scale in mind is also a form of Learning I, although painting in perspective introduces a new dimension into painting. Works of modern art include marks signifying that the process of painting is an integral part of the completed image or pattern. This mark could be the conspicuous Impressionist brushstroke, the post-Impressionist division of colors, the fragmented forms of the Cubists as well as of their forerunner Cézanne, the collaged piece of paper, etc.

Contrary to what is generally believed, Surrealism does involve the process of making in the completed image, but with this difference: the processes of the Surrealists are linked directly or indirectly to the language of the unconscious. In contradistinction to the binary order of scientific propositions, which are ultimately for predictions, analogical language’s primary function is to recall metaphorically a past event. Bateson describes a striking example of metaphorical behavior in wolves: to punish a young wolf who, by establishing coitus with a female, infringed on the prerogatives of the pack leader, the latter pressed down the head of the offending male four times and walked away. As Bateson explains, the leader made it clear that he treated his rival as a puppy by recalling metaphorically the mother who, to wean her pup from her milk, crushes him to the ground by pressing her open mouth on the back of his neck, repeating this performance until he stops asking.13

The modernists who form patterns for the sake of process limit art to a game in which repetitions and minimal variations produce a pictorial order whose purpose is to dazzle the viewer with the artist’s virtuosity. The language of modern art differs both from the process language of science, which is tautological, and from statements about empirical events, which are in principle verifiable. It is instead a language reflecting states of mind that can only be expressed in terms of analogies. When Mondrian substitutes equivalence for symmetry, the replacement is a model of perfection unknown before him.

Bodyworkers placed high hopes on the videotape as a vehicle for conveying their message, in the belief that it could become a lyrical counterpart to cinematic spectacular. But video merely follows step-by-step progress in movement, which does not automatically make of such recording a significant artistic event. Interestingly, Nam June Paik pointed out that he understands time better than those videotape artists who come from painting and sculpture, for music is the manipulation of time.14

Recording movements of the human body by video is interesting only when the gestures and movements are ritualized. In Female Sensibility Lynda Benglis orchestrates the heads of two young women, contrasting the whitened lips and white teeth of a round mouth with an elongated red mouth and its glittering teeth. The delicate gestures of a female hand lingering over the contours of her friend’s ear or nose sing a tune of delay. The turning of the two heads to expose well-groomed heads of hair—one dark, one light—reminds one of contrasting monochrome oval paintings of Leon Polk Smith, while the cold appearance of the faces recalls Warhol’s cold approach to his portraits.

To turn the body into a mass as cold and insensitive as clay is the unreachable goal of bodyworkers. Man was made of earth, and the bodywork artist returns to the earth. The well-known photograph of De Maria lying face downward on a vast stretch of desert land anticipated, as it were, the immaculate conceptions of bodyworks. Dennis Oppenheim worked the fields of Pennsylvania for the sake of an earthwork before making bodyworks. The myth of Pygmalion reveals that the Greeks believed sculpture was for the sake of life. The slogan “Art for Art’s Sake” implies that life is for the sake of art, when art should be for the sake of life, as André Breton had pointed out long ago.15



1. John Perreault, Tri-Quarterly, May 1975.

2. Alexander Marshak, The Roots of Civilization, New York, 1972.

3. Ira Licht, Bodyworks, catalogue of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. 1975.

4. Cindy Nemser, “Subject-Object Body Art,” Arts Magazine, September–October 1971.

5. James J. Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, Boston, 1966.

6. Elena Calas, “Dali, the Mythomaniac, the Perverse Polymorph,” Coloquio (Lisbon), February 1975, pp. 33–42.

7. Statement, Avalanche, Winter 1971. pp, 87–90.

8. Ibid., pp. 70–72.

9. Ibid., pp. 96–98.

10. Max Kozloff, “Pygmalion Reversed,”Artforum, November 1975, pp. 30–37.

11. Joseph Beuys, “I am Searching for Field Character,” Art into Society, Society into Art, catalogue of the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, 1974, p 48.

12. Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York, 1972, pp. 27–308.

13. Bateson, pp. 364–368.

14. Nam June Paik, “Abstract Time,” Arts Magazine, December 1974, p. 52.

15. Robert Hughes, writing on the occasion of an avant-garde festival of the early ’70s in “The Decline and Fall of the Avant-Garde,” Time, December 18, 1972, reminds his readers that “to keep renewing the contract of language, so that it could handle fresh and difficult experience—such was the hope of the avant-garde from Gustave Courbet to André Breton.”