art,  modern art,  The nude

The Nude Ascending

Ever since she descended Duchamp’s staircase in 1912, the nude has had trouble climbing back up. With one destructive dictatorial gesture, Duchamp undid the beauty she had in antiquity, and, even more nihilistically, her body: Duchamp turned her into a cubo-futurist wind-up toy, a mechanical doll he sardonically manipulated at will. The divine nude of antiquity, her body at once graceful and seductive—an astonishingly seamless merger of the ideal and the real, the transcendent and the erotic, the dignified and the desirable—was gone forever in modernity. No more Aphrodite of Cyrene, ca. 100 B.C., or Aphrodite of Melos, ca. 150-100 B. C., but Archipenko’s 1918 Walking Woman, with a large hole punched in her flattened torso, wounding and hollowing her, and Picasso’s 1930 Seated Woman, her body also a hollow construction, not to say a malfunctioning contraption. They are just a few of the female monsters—the avant-gardized woman’s bodies–that seem the sadistic rule in modernity: the female bodies brutally sacrificed on the altar of so-called art.

These avant-gardized females are sad excuses for femininity, and suggest the male artist’s troubled masculinity. They convey what the psychoanalyst Wolfgang Lederer called the fear—and finally hatred—of woman. Perhaps her misrepresentation is an attack on the omnipotent phallic woman—Magna Mater—or an expression of castration anxiety. The violence done to her body may be revenge for her power—the power of the model–over the male artist: a way of empowering himself by disempowering her—empowering his art by de-eroticizing her. Or he may be envious of the creative power of her womb—the power to give birth innate to her body–and try to rip it out of her or spoil it with his art, a secondary creativity compared to her primary creativity. Whatever the unconscious reasons for it, the hateful misrepresentation of woman in modern art can be traced back to Baudelaire’s view, in his Intimate Journals, that “she should inspire horror” because she’s natural rather than artificial, that is, “artful.” Projected into her, this horror made her look horrible—altogether inhuman. She became a container for what Baudelaire acknowledged as his “horror of life.”

The massacre of the female nude was carried out by an art that lost its innocence when it decided it was more important than human beings—when it abandoned what Harold Rosenberg called “the tradition of the human being as ultimate subject of painting,” more broadly, of art. This “liberation”—for so it was thought to be–made art “modern,” more particularly, “avant-garde.” Privileging art above humanity–severing art’s ties to everyday human life, a declaration of independence from human affairs suggesting a certain contempt for them (thus the avant-garde critic Clement Greenberg’s contempt for politics and religion)—is the gist of avant-gardism. The purification of art was a grandiose act of self-inflation disguised as an assertion of autonomy. It was a self-deception that led to self-defeat: uprooting itself from human experience, art became vacuous and futile, finally only able to “tell the story of its own barren soul,” as Zbigniew Herbert said, “gesticulating in a void” and forfeiting “the possibility of interhuman communication.”

The avant-gardization of art came to mean its heedless aggrandizement of the lifeworld for its own artworld purposes: they seemed more important than those of the lifeworld. It is no doubt why Duchamp felt free to ride roughshod over the nude, degrading her body into a mechanical device. Programmed to descend the staircase, she is incapable of ascending it again, becoming the goddess she once was, a higher being worshipped by all of humankind as a symbol of its own aspirations. Duchamp’s mechanical nude—emblematic of the de-organization of the human body in modern art in general—belongs in the junkyard. Duchamp’s artistic practice, which involved junking the human figure by dehumanizing it into a machine—confirming his admiration for American plumbing, which is what the Large Glass, 1915-23 is all about (and more broadly for technology, as the Rotary Disks, 1920 show)–indicate that when he spoke of enlisting art in the service of mind rather than instinct he meant using instrumental reason to eliminate instinct from art). It is emblematic of what Adorno called the indifference that pervades modern society, a climactic manifestation of its much acknowledged alienation and dehumanizing effect. (It is worth noting that Greenberg thought that “Courbet, the first real avant-garde painter…paint[ed] only what the eye could see as a machine.” Duchamp, it seems, only had eyes for machines, and saw everyone as a machine, preparing the way for Warhol’s remark that he wanted to be a machine. Maybe he was. )
“For me,” Léger wrote, “human figures, bodies, have no more importance than keys or bicycles.” The folly of modernism—its degradation of the human being into just another “plastically valid object…for handling as I choose,” in Léger’s words–is epitomized in this statement. It endorses what Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the founder of General System Theory, called “the model of man as robot.” It has its uses, but it is a fundamental error: man is not a “living machine,” that is, a closed system, automatically functioning in pseudo-autonomy, its mindless insularity creating an effect of self-sufficiency, but a “metabolizing organism,” that is, an open system, inseparable from his environment, which he mindfully and constantly metabolizes in mutually influential intimate interchanges, and thus with no pretense of self-sufficiency. For von Bertalanffy, “the image of man as robot” bespeaks “the zeitgeist of a mechanical and commercialized society.” Its goal is to make “humans ever more into robots or automata,” “engineering” them to serve “pecuniary and political interests.” It is “metaphysics or myth, and its persuasiveness rests only in the fact that it so closely corresponds to the mythology of mass society, the glorification of the machine, and the profit motive as sole motor of progress.” Duchamp misread—wishfully?, ironically?—automatic as autonomy, and Warhol turned himself into a money-making machine, making art–what he called “business art”—to make a profit. It is no doubt why he seems the perfect living machine.
As though in repudiation of the robot model of human beings in modernity and modern art, the Neo-Expressionist figures of Baselitz, Clemente, and Cucchi, among other painters—noteworthily German and Italian, that is, from countries that had experienced the disastrous consequences of the robotization of human life under Fascism—convey a freshly organic vision of human existence. The figure also returns in the United States, in the imagery of Robert Longo and Cindy Sherman, among others, although it still has a certain robot-like—mannequin-like—appearance, as though it was indifferent to its own humanness, even as their imagery engages the dehumanizing and de-individualizing effect of mass media society by more or less deconstructing and ironicizing it. There is no beauty in the figures of the European Neo-Expressionists or the ironic American “social realists” (as I see them)—or, for that matter in the Neo-Expressionist figures of Eric Fischl and Julian Schnabel (also “socially critical,” if more openly engaged with the all too human pathos in the American lifeworld). The figures of Alex Katz and Philip Pearlstein have what I would all a tendency to beauty, even a certain abstract beauty, a consequence of what might be called their descriptive formalism, that is, their use of modernist means to articulate the figure. All too human beauty had to wait for the post-apocalyptic human beings of Odd Nerdrum. Nerdum is among the key New Old Masters—artists who integrate and re-interpret traditional and modernist methods and iconography to renew and re-assertwhat the sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson calls the “human aesthetic” grotesquely mutilated by modernism. The figure has once again come into its own.

In sum, the nudes in this exhibition repudiate the machine model of the human being and of the human body. They inaugurate a return to the “human aesthetic” that prevailed in art before the modern period, when the mechanical model of the body took over, artists being fascinated by machines that seemed to function more efficiently—and automatically–than bodies. The body is not merely a “plastically valid object” but subjective in import—its “plasticity” is innately subjective: convincing art is not merely a matter of plastic—formal—engineering but of subjective validity. The nude reveals the body ego—the most fundamental and indispensable ego, as Freud said—in all its expressive glory, conveying its unadulterated sensuous and sensual power, in contrast to the clothed body, which is emblematic of the socially controlled and engineered body ego—the body as a social robot, its innate sensuousness and sensuality muted, indeed, denied. The nude cannot be engineered into social conformity, but always remains uncannily nonconformist however ideal and beautiful its form: indeed, idealism and beauty are always nonconformist, even when they seem to conform to reality, as the ideal and beautiful bodies of the ancient Aphrodite do—not despite themselves, but because the ideal and the beautiful always contain the real and ugly, like the piece of dirt that irritates and stresses the oyster into producing an artistic pearl, uncannily irregular and regular at once, and thus dialectically poignant, like the body, which is both raw and refined, instinctive and proportioned, like the human mind. Many of the nudes in this exhibition are amazing pearls of art and life.

“Life,” von Bertalanffy writes, “is not a comfortably settling down in pre-ordained grooves of being: at its best, it is élan vital, inexorably driven towards a higher form of existence.” The same can be said of art–at least before it lost its élan vital, that is, became Duchampian and Warholian, and forgot that its purpose is to celebrate life, overcoming our fear of it by making it seem less strange, and so unconsciously estranging and hateful. The nudes in this exhibition do not comfortably settle down in pre-ordained grooves of art, but convey the élan vital of the body, promising the aesthetic perfection of ideal beauty—the sensuous and sensual subtlety of the body sublimated in epitomizing form–without denying the vulnerability of the all too human living flesh. In other words, they are as full of mind as they are ripe with matter.
By Donald Kuspit
written for The Great Nude Invitational, NY, NY, May 2010
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