Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Art History and Ugliness: Bodily Abundance as Subversion (part 1)



One of the questions my research seeks to explore is how the supposedly ugly body can in fact produce delight, how “disgusting” and “repulsive” images of abjection can also be received with pleasure, and how the transgressive body can be subversive. I have proposed elsewhere that the viewing of the abundant body could effect an embodied sublime experience, combining uneasiness, disorientation and repulsion with aesthetic pleasure, with a sympathetic visual caress. What it is about the abundant body, what fears and horrors it stirs up, that produces such a transgressive sublime experience?

The abundant body is not classically beautiful; it has been more readily described in terms of the ugly. The quality of ugliness that images of such bodies possess comes from their transgression of boundaries, rules and norms. In their presentation of really lived and functioning bodies, that age, decay, seep, expand and swell, they positively subvert the notion of the body as a fixed stable and socially controlled entity - a notion that denies the reality of human existence as perpetual flux.

Beauty has held the same privileged position in art as it has in society, yet there have been instances where the trend for the beautiful has waned and artists as well as writers have turned their attention to depictions of the negation of beauty. During the Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th century, there was a shift towards what Umberto Eco has termed “the redemption of ugliness”. Writers such as Victor Hugo, Matthew G. Lewis, and J.-K. Huysmans etc expressed fascination with, pleasure in and excitement about the repulsive and ugly. At this time, art was also taking up these themes; the Symbolists in particular were interested in the macabre, gruesome, grotesque and abject. Yet when women were depicted, it was in the guise of the hag, the wanton, the diseased prostitute and the femme-fatale of monstrous sexuality. Thus this turn towards the undesirable, this rejection of the beautiful, did not provide alternative ways of representing being for women, but rather revealed an inherent misogyny in the “redeemers” of the ugly.


My research is concerned with art works which attempt the negation of the negation of the Western beauty standard; with images that transcend the often misogynistic presentation of the ugly woman, through a subversive, transgressive representation of bodily abundance that could provoke delight and visual pleasure for all. First of all, however, we need to understand the negation itself: what is the ugly, what does it stand for, how do we receive it, and what does the avoidance of ugly images in art and visual culture ward against?

Contemporary art historians and aestheticians have attempted various theorisations of ugliness, linking it to the appearance of dirt, and abjection: the ugly is often described as being in the wrong place, an unwelcome presence that must be disavowed; as something to protected ourselves against, as if an encounter with the ugly could corrupt and infect. For example, Mark Cousins's essay The Ugly describes the ugly as, “an excess which comes to threaten the subject”. Similarly, in a catalogue essay on ugly art Nausea: Encounters with Ugliness, Mark Hutchinson hypothesises that, "Ugliness is close, threatening and exciting. Both obscene and fascinating, the ugly is a trope of contradiction and excess: it is too much...Ugliness is relentless. It threatens to dissolve distance. It is apocalyptic. In ugliness the subject sees the end of distinctions; the end of difference; the end of space; the end of time; the end of everything. As such, the ugly both threatens death and promises to fulfil utopian longing".

In these terms the ugly is framed in much the same way as the sublime, as an encounter with the horrifying-yet-fascinating that threatens as strongly as it attracts. As this is an ethical approach to how the ugly functions, it is worth thinking not just about how we may take pleasure from the encounter, but also about the wider issues of ways in which the ugly may possess subversive potential. As Cousins points out, “if ugliness is to become an object of inquiry, this inquiry will have to be conducted outside of the scope of aesthetics”. Therefore, theories of the ugly body also have to be thought about in reference to the context of cultural conditioning and the regulating powers of society.

Representations that show the workings of the body as viscerally abundant, that physically and metaphysically spill out of the confines of the ideal, neatly sealed, controlled body that visual culture asserts as the norm. As argued in the first chapter, the ideological norm of beauty holds that the beautiful is smooth, sealed and tight, such that any body falling short of these requirements is treated as ugly and in need of correction. In Vile Bodies, a study of photography and bodies received as ugly, freakish or grotesque, Chris Townsend proposes that the uncontrolled body holds great fascination for audiences, as it represents an aspect of the socially invisible, and the therefore unknown bodily realities of ageing and corpulence. He comments, “What a fascination the interior of the body holds for us! What a fear too. The human being is a paradox, simultaneously container and contained, a vessel that unless brim-full is meaningless. We are recognised, we derive our identity, from our surfaces”. The ugly body is not a sealed unit but rather a body of “seepage” (as described by Elizabeth Grosz): as the unknown insides of this body are not contained, its breaching of borders threatens our own. Townsend elaborates on this: “The threat that the ugly, abject condition poses to the maintenance of the category of the body means that it is always made the object of confinement and containment”.


The idea here is that images of the ugly or uncontrolled body tap into a human need to come to terms with our bodies as vulnerable constructions of flesh, blood, skin and organs, and that viewing this aspect of being is both frightful and fascinating. The display of bodies out of bounds firstly creates through vicarious voyeurism a visual pleasure in experiencing the novel, then secondly allows for knowledge-gathering by giving access through art to a bodily reality that the smooth, airbrushed bodies in the media deny. The ugly image forces the viewer to acknowledge issues surrounding the body that western culture in general is frightened by: to confront the fears of losing control of one's own bodily integrity, of ageing and finally of death itself.

Images of the “ugly” aged and corpulent body that deviates from idealised beauty, are confrontational: the viewer's reaction of fear and disgust reveals the way such bodies have been as socialised as “other”. In Ageing and Agency, Mike Hepworth states that, “The decaying body is one where the contained or 'boundedness' of the body breaks down and internal bodily secretions can no longer be contained within but leak out and contaminate the self of the sufferer and those around”. This expresses the way that Western culture is afraid of others' realities that are found to be undesirable: the fear of those viewing depictions of ageing bodies is that the decay of the old body will invade the viewer. Yet such images are important for this very reason: they force the viewer to take note, and give visibility back to older people.

As Celia Hartley states in Letting ourselves Go: Making Room for the Fat Body in Feminist Scholarship, in terms which apply equally to age and corpulence, “women who do not maintain rigid control over the boundaries of their bodies, allowing them to grow, to become large and 'unfeminine', are treated with derision in our society, that derision is tied inextricably to the personal freedom of women”. One would hope that when the old and young are treated with equal affection, desire and respect in art as in life, that the images of ageing female bodies would cease to be shocking, frightening or repellent and instead be seen as a different kind of beautiful.

Images: Jacqueline Hayden, Figure Model Series, 1991-1996.

Part Two: Powers of Pleasure and Disgust, Jenny Saville
Part Three: Abject Art and the Aged Body: Learning Self-Delight in the Photography of Melanie Manchot

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