Male Artist’s Body: National Identity Vs. Identity Politics

As has been convincingly shown by the exhibition “Body and the East,” since the 1960s, in East Central Europe the art of the male body has had quite a number of adherents.(Body and the East. From the 1960s. to the Present, ed. Z. Badovinac, Ljubljana: Moderna Galerija, 1998.) There are many relevant examples: Tibor Hajas, Via Lewandovsky, Petr Tembera, and others. Most of them were interested in the problem of physical and mental fitness, that is, the limits of the confrontation between the body and external stimuli. As usual, the body was defined by these artists not just in terms of subjectivity (my body), but also as a universal phenomenon (human body). Sometimes it played a purely instrumental role, functioning as an almost transparent surface that contrasted with the opaque artist’s “interior”. Ultimately such undertakings reinforced, rather than subverted the traditional duality of body and soul with its hierarchical order. The recognition of one s own corporeality was often combined with more universal conclusions about corporeality as such or the human condition in general. The process of the corporeal/’psychic’self-recognition was often expressed in action – through popular happenings and performances which also epitomized the traditional male role of the active subject. Paradoxically, the problem of the sexual definition of the male body was addressed quite rarely, as it was considered predominantly in terms of the traditional parameters of male sexuality. Thus, in many artistic presentations the male body confirmed its traditional functions rather than becoming an instrument of critical practice that would challenge the social foundations of traditional identity politics. Of course, that rule allows for certain exceptions, yet the most interesting works which appeared in this context touched upon the political dimensions of male body art. Every act of self-recognition, every challenge to conventions that defied official ideological doctrine and accepted morals, particularly in those countries where the enclaves of tolerance were either marginalized or eliminated, acquired a political meaning that deserves analysis.

The exposure of the nude male body in the art of the recent past relayed different meanings than that of the female body. In most cases, the latter was approached under the pressures of heterosexual eroticization, the dominance of the male gaze, and the proximity of that gaze to desire and pleasure. Contemporary studies of visual culture, drawing on psychoanalytic theory, have explored this problematic quite comprehensively. By contrast, the male body has never been turned into an object of perception. In classical European culture, the male body therefore retained its subjective status which was related to power and heroism, concepts associated with activity and action rather than with being shown and seen. That order, it is true, was upset by medieval Christian culture in which, according to Mario Perniola, the naked body (not only male) was interpreted in terms of humiliation and degradation, the loss of dignity and the ability to act. Early modern times, however, returned to the classic valorization of the body as either the topos of pleasure/ passivity (the female body), or that of power / activity (the male one).(M. Perniola, “Between Clothing and Nudity,” in Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part II, ed. M. Feher (New York: Zone Books, 1989); cf. also M. Walters, The Male Nude. A New Perspective (New York: Peddington Press, 1978).) Significant changes in the modern meaning of the male body came only with the rise of the neo-avant-garde and the cultures of sexual minorities. By systematically focusing on the male body as a combination of both elements, artists such as Robert Morris (Waterman Switch, 1965), Robert Mapplethorpe, or Andy Warhol reversed the relations that existed among the gaze, desire, and pleasure in classical European culture. The background of these efforts were the gay margins of culture between the world wars, while their immediate context was the sexual revolution after World War II.

In East Central Europe, such a revolution did not occur. There, if at all, the male body–particularly in official visual culture of the 1950s–was represented in a heroic manner. Usually, it was not stark naked–the genitals were camouflaged in one way or another. Conservative and prudish societies of that part of the continent (perhaps with the exception of the GDR, where the culture of nudism was quite widespread), rarely allowed for any nudity and would preferred the attitude of the male heterosexual voyeur to the search for subversive models of sexual orientation. The Eastern European male spectator was aroused by naked female bodies in photographs or films. In fact, such an attitude was not exceptional–his Western counterparts often reacted in the same way. Amelia Jones has proven that the postmodern rhetoric of the identity of the female body easily turned towards the tradition of phallocentrism, dominated by the culture of the male gaze combining desire and pleasure, which has–in her opinion–effectively prevented feminists from approaching body art in terms of identity politics. Paradoxically, feminism–particularly in its later incarnations of the 1980s–rejected body art as too vulnerable to the domination of the male gaze. Jones critique, however, does not turn against the male heterosexual spectator to whom (at least in this case) she is quite indifferent, but against the inconsistency of feminism which, in JonesÕs view, all too easily falls into the traps of the culture which it rejects, and which is overly cautious in its approach to the truly revolutionary proposals of body art.

This kind of art has been not only radically challenging the Cartesian idea of the subject but, focusing on the thoroughly subversive problematic of the subject and its body, it has deconstructed the metaphysics that has turned the (female) body into an object.(A. Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 21 ff.) Yet in the countries of East Central Europe, where feminist theories and gender identity politics were developing under the communist regime without much success (if at all), such practices were particularly susceptible to phallocentric recuperation. A good example is the work of the Polish woman artist Natalia LL who would envelop her visual representations, definitely seen in feminist terms, in a modernist, if not outright formalist discourse. Her Sztuka konsumpcyjna [Consumer s Art] from the early 1970s consists of a series of photographs showing the face of an attractive woman eating a banana or a hot dog in a manner evidently imitating oral sex, suggesting the experience of sexual pleasure without the participation of a man. What is more, contrary to the tradition of sex and gender representation, it is the man whose status is here reduced to that of a fetish. His fetishization and deprivation of sexual activity and initiative (he is the passive provider of sexual pleasure to the woman)–his obvious ironic objectification by means of trivial consumer goods–can be interpreted in the context of feminist theory and politics, largely based on Lacanian psychoanalysis.(A. Jakubowska, “Kobieta wobec seksualno¦ci – podporz1dkowana, uwik3ana czy wyzwolona? O kilku aspektach twórczo¦ci Natalii LL z perspektywy psychoanalizy Lacanowskiej” [Woman and Sexuality – Submission, Involvement or Liberation? On Some Aspects of the Art of Natalia LL from a Lacanian Psychoanalytic Perspective], Artium Quaestiones, No. VIII (Poznañ: Adam Mickiewicz University, 1997).) In its ideological and critical aspect, Natalia LL s work underminines the masculinist representation of woman and man. Yet, paradoxically, her work is accompanied by theoretical texts that have nothing to do with the gendered definition of visual representation or with the subversion of the codes used to represent the female. In fact, these texts have nothing to do with the female at all. Rather than to feminism, Natalia LL refers to the discursive practices of conceptual art, particularly those which, paradoxically, belong to the formalist tradition of modernist art. This is in fact a wider problem in East Central Europe where artists routinely combined a postmodern visuality and poetics with a modernist discourse.(Cf. Nowe zjawiska w polskiej sztuce lat siedemdziesi1tych: teksty, koncepcje [New Developments in the Polish Art of the Seventies: Texts, Conceptions], ed. J. Robakowski (Sopot, 1981), pp. 60-73.)

Regardless of the specific side of the iron curtain, the difference between the male and female body art consisted in their starting points – different status of the man and woman in European culture. In the phallocentric culture, the man is associated with action, hence the male body art refers to active body; to the body which creates circumstances itself, while in the female body art the reverse is the case. Amelia Jones (following Craig Owens) claims that the female body expresses itself in the “rhetoric of the pose,” since because of its conventional social roles it is passive and acquires its meaning from the outside. In other words, the meaning of the male body is created, as it were, immediately; whereas the female body means something only in relation to the images imposed by the masculinist culture, conditioning the “existence” of the female only in the perspective of the “other s” desire. This is the cause of differences both in strategies and in meanings of body art produced by male and female artists respectively.(Jones, 121, 149-50.)

Yet, the subject matter of my talk is not the female body, but the male one. Theformer has been mentioned only to indicate the limits of tolerance of East Central European societies or, more precisely, the character of their tolerance, namely, the heterosexual eroticization and objectification of the female body in the male gaze of the voyeur. The appearance of the male body causes other problems. Because of an evidently homophobic orientation of these societies (which is still quite widespread). The nude artist, performer or sitter shown on a photograph, in a film as well as in other means of expression, particularly exposing his genitals, definitely challenged a taboo of visual culture.

As I have said, in East Central Europe there were relatively many male artists exploiting their body. Yet, there were only a few who would turn their sex and gender into a medium of expression – who, to coin a somewhat paradoxical term, would “genderize” and “sexualize” their bodies in their artistic practices. In this short paper, I would only like to mention two completely different artists who used two different strategies, frames of reference, and – as we will see – ideologies. One is a Polish artist, Jerzy BereÏ; the other a Romanian, Ion Grigorescu.

To begin with, I will give a short description of some performances of BereÏ.(Cf. Jerzy Bere¦: zwidy, wyrocznie, o3tarze [Jerzy Bere¦: Phantoms, Oracles, Altars], ed. A Wêcka (Poznañ: Muzeum Narodowe, 1995).) An extremely significant series of events included his performance Przepowiednia I [Prophecy I] in the Warsaw Foksal Gallery in 1968, followed by a related Przepowiednia II [Prophecy II], performed several times in Cracow in 1968-1988, and concluded by Przepowiednia II spe³nia si [Prophecy II Comes True] shown in 1989 in Cieszyn. During Prophecy I the artist, with the help of the audience, dragged to the gallery from a nearby park a fallen tree, and then, wearing only a red and white piece of canvas, assembled a “work” crowned with a bow whose red and white string was made from his “garment.” Prophecy II was his response to violent attacks in the press, which appeared in a very tense political situation early in March 1968, during mass demonstrations of students and a brutal anti-semitic campaign of the communist authorities. BereÏ s performance was actually provoked, as it were, by a journalist of an influential Warsaw weekly, Kultura, who, under a penname of “Hamilton,” published preposterous and arrogant feuiletons on various aspects of modern culture. In the middle of the Cracow Krzysztofory Gallery BereÏ placed a cartful of timber, and then, once again clad in red and white, helped by the audience, lighted some fires, using the copies of Kultura. After a while, he ascended the high pile of timber, made on its top a huge bow with a red and white string, and next, having asked for a burning chip from one of the fires, blew off the flame and signed the whole structure with the word “work,” written with the charcoaled tip. During the final Prophecy, also shown at a turning point in Polish history, right after signing of the so-called “round table agreement” which put an end to the decades of the communist monopoly of power (April 1989), BereÏ, having first repeated some gestures known from the previous performances, finished his presentation by writing on his body the words “spe³nia si” [“comes true”] and putting a red and white dot on his penis.

Another relevant performance of BereÏ was Obraz z Polski [A Picture from Poland] shown in London in 1988. Its plot was quite simple, yet, particularly for the foreign (mostly British) audience, it proved very meaningful. On his naked back, the artist painted red stripes which looked like traces of flagellation, and then on his torso he painted a white question mark, completed with a red and white dot on the penis. Thus, BereÏ asked a question about the sense of Polish suffering for freedom and national independence, lost after World War II under the Soviet domination.

In the Prophecies and Picture from Poland the artist called himself (his body) a “monument”. The same motif appeared very distinctly in another performance called Artist s Monument (Warcino-Kępice, 1978). The artist, wearing a wooden perizonium with an inscription “the artist s body,” with a flag on his arm (with an inscription “the artist s soul”), pulling a tree trunk like a wheelbarrow, walked a few kilometers from Warcino to Kępice in the north of Poland. Getting to end of his way, he made a circle with his white paint footprints, placed there his wheelbarrow, burned in it his perizonium (“the artist s body”), and put on a long robe (the flag) bearing the inscription “the artist s soul.” One may realize that in all his performances (not just the ones which I have mentioned) the nude artist seemed to touch upon two different realms: the politico-historical reality of Poland, and the problem of the artist involved in history and responsible for the shape of reality – the past as well as the future – the artist-prophet.

The national paraphernalia (that is, the colors of the Polish flag) significantly demonstrated his engagement in the history of the country. Their connection with the prominent role of the artist as the one who knows the meaning of history and sacrifice for the sake of future salvation – the restoration of national independence – referred to the Polish romantic tradition. In the 19th century, when Poland was occupied by the three neighboring empires (Russia, Prussia, and Austria), the artist (usually the poet) created (discovered) the meaning of history, prophesying that eventually the sacrifice of the people would bring about salvation, just like the sacrifice of Christ resulted in the salvation of the humankind. BereÏ consciously referred to those grand narratives of Polish culture, using their authority in his confrontation with the usurped authority of the communists. Hence, the naked body of the artist was a vehicle of authority confirmed not only by the metaphysical sense of history, whose end would be salvation, but also by the phallocentrism of European culture which was referred to in a positive, not a critical sense. The artist’s penis, with a red and white dot, would become a phallus – a symbol of the authority of genius and prophet, but also of that of culture in general. It was the source and historical legitimation of resistance against the communist power.

The body, which was the main medium of the artist’s expression and the realm of the constructed ideology, paradoxically underwent a kind of “disembodiment,” being at the same time a symbol of authority and, like in the mystical Christian tradition, an expression of the “spirit.” Humiliated and mangled, it died for the “spirit,” or the soul to be reborn. Thus, under the circumstances, the exposure of genitals had an exclusively symbolic function – it was the phallus, the sign of authority and spiritual power sanctioned by tradition and the metaphysical sense of history, opposed to the par excellence material and usurped authority of the communists. The Romanian artist Ion Grigorescu, counted by Ileana Pintilie among the “post-happening generation” and more eager to use photography and film than “live” action, started from quite different premises.(I. Pintilie, “The Ulysses Masks. An Introduction to Ion Grigorescu’s Visual Mechanics,” paper delivered during the Congress of Kultura Czasu Prze3omu – To¿samo¦æ Kulturowa Europy ‘rodkowo-Wschodniej/Culture of the Time of Transformation – The Cultural Identity of Central/Eastern Europe (typescript). Cf. also documentation of the artist’s achievement in Soros Center for Contemporary Arts, Bucharest.)

I will focus on his two interrelated works: a 1976 film called Masculine/Feminine and a series of photographs from 1977 (Delivery), elaborating on the idea of sexual identity. Generally speaking, in both cases the artist exposed masculine genitals in the positions imitating childbirth and next to the attributes of womanhood: ovaries and a coiled umbilical cord. No doubt, Grigorescu posed a problem of sexual transgression – of feminization of the male body, open to biologically alien experience. At the same time, however, the sexual difference, highlighted by taking on the role of the female, was defined in his images not in terms of biology, but of culture. If, following Amelia Jones, we assume that in the tradition of European culture the male body has been associated with action, while the female one with exposure, adopting a pose superimposed by the phallocentric culture, then the strategy of the Romanian artist consists precisely in taking over the position assigned to the woman. The most significant are neither the natural attributes of womanhood (ovaries and the umbilical cord), nor the female function (giving birth), but the way the body is exposed to the camera eye. Simply, the artist posed, made poses, which has been traditionally (sic) assigned to the female body. A radically anti-masculinist manifestation of Grigorescu pointed to a conventional character of sex and gender roles, which implied that the authority was conventional just as well.

The phallus – a symbol of power – was degraded because its role turned out changeable and ambiguous, disrupting the functional stability of power. By the same token, the destabilization of the sexual difference became politically subversive, indicating conventional legitimation of every authority, all of a sudden questionable and precarious. In fact, quite important was the historical context of such art. After a short period of liberalization in the late sixties, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau¼escu, called also the “Genius of the Carpathians,” in the early seventies made a distinct move towards strengthening the grip on social life, while his being “elected” president of the Socialist Republic of Romania in the middle of the decade was interpreted as the beginning of the end one of the most authoritarian regimes of East Central Europe. The police system of control was parallel to extreme prudery and stabilization of patterns of sexual behavior. Incidentally, until today Romania has one of the most restrictive laws criminalizing homosexuality. Under such circumstances, the art of Grigorescu, revealing sex and gender, their function and meanings, acquired a par excellence political character. In a conservative society, the very exposure of the naked male body violated the prevailing norm, while the merger of phallic and vaginal representation aimed at questioning the very foundations of the social and political order. What was actually undermined, was not just the (phallocentric) legitimation of authority, but the stability of the subject itself which turned out not to be established once and forever, as a result of some metaphysical verdict, but negotiable in the context of meanings imposed on sex by various social practices, including those of visual representation. The Cartesian cogito was supplanted by a dynamic construct whose meanings could be defined only by way of constant, endless confrontations. In the traditional order, sex and gender identity is fixed, allegedly determined by the biological functions of the body which constitute the sexual difference and its hierarchical character. In the post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory, and particularly in the works of Jacques Lacan, such naturalistic determinism has been questioned, and – as we know – the sexual difference has been defined in terms of culture. According to Lacan s commentator, Jacqueline Rose, the anatomical difference does not translate directly into the sexual one, but is its “figure,” a representative which lets it surface on the level of speech.(J. Rose, “Introduction II,” in J. Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, trans. J. Rose, eds J. Mitchell and J. Rose (New York: Norton & Company, 1982), 42.) Thus, the sexual difference is symbolic and cultural, not biological or natural. The stable, necessary or ultimate character of the construction of subjectivity is questioned, giving way to a collapse of the hierarchy of genders.

The identity politics formulated by various minorities, including feminists, has taken advantage of this chance to develop critical instruments of analysis aimed at authoritarian social and political structures. Ion Grigorescu also situated himself in this context – because of the essentially totalitarian character of the Romanian regime, his art became particularly radical and subversive. Any authoritarian system – or its extreme, totalitarianism – can function safely only with stable and hierarchical social structures whose foundation seems to be phallocentrism. Therefore all the Stalinist and post-Stalinist political regimes adopted definitely anti-female policies, often under the disguise of spectacular gestures: women could have their own organizations (which were, of course, official and fully controlled by the central committee of the communist party), or “even” become high-ranking party and state officials. Perhaps their paradoxical ally was the traditional conservatism of the societies under the communist rule – it was paradoxical indeed, since at first sight tradition appeared to be a perfect antidote to the “proletarian revolution.” Yet, when we take a closer look at the functioning of the societies of Soviet Europe – reaching beneath the level of class struggle, state control of the economy, and the transformation of institutions – we are quite likely to discover that the conservative models of social behavior, for instance as regards sex, favored the stability of the system. Hence, questioning the social principles was actually aimed at the very basis of the totalitarian regime.

BereÏ and Grigorescu adopted two different strategies of resistance – I have put them together somewhat arbitrarily to illustrate a wide range of artistic practices and theories of the male body art, as well as to provoke a question about the critical functions of their art under the communist regime. No doubt, the very use of the male body and the exposure of the genitals must have had, in the context of heterosexual and homophobic societies, a subversive significance. This is, however, the only link between the Polish and Romanian artist. The former made references to tradition, to the grand narratives of Polish culture which is the heritage of romanticism, which became an authority of the strategy of resistance; the latter, on the contrary, questioned the traditional sexual politics – the core of conservative society – suggesting that its destabilization was a radical challenge of the very essence of power. BereÏ opposed the totalitarian regime with the authority of tradition – in other words, he pitted one authority and hierarchy against the other. Grigorescu, in his critical identity politics, rejected the principle of authority based invariably on hierarchy; he rejected hierarchy as such, for if it forms the foundation of all authority, the Romanian artist repudiated the very principle of authority, opposing it by means of his critical practice of subversion aimed at its cornerstone. Both the Prophecies of BereÏ and Masculine/Feminine of Grigorescu were determined by history. They were created in specific places and at particular moments in time, although, as it seems, the strategy of the Romanian artist implies a more general perspective, reaching beyond the local frame of the East Central European communist regimes.

Let us, however, ask a question about their function now, in the present context of both countries and the whole former Soviet bloc. Let us ask about the critical tradition (or traditions) of the present political debates as they have been determined by art, by different artistic practices. The answer does not come easy and simple; to a large extent, it depends on the definition of the present or, more precisely, the present dangers (ideological, rather than economic) faced by the post-communist societies. Taking the risk of oversimplification, I will point to two apparently different perils haunting not just the post-Soviet, but all Europe: on the one hand, it is nationalism,with its xenophobia and socio-political obscurantism; on the other, globalism, with its totalitarian uniformity. These two dangers are indeed only seemingly contradictory, since one is to a certain extent an effect of the other. Stuart Hall writes that the return to the local is often a response to globalization.(S. Hall, “The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity,” in Culture, Globalization, and the World System. Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity, ed. A. D. King (Binghampton, N.Y.: Macmillan & Dept. of Art and Art History, State University, 1991).) The local can, however, be expressed in various forms: through nationalism or through the defense of the identity of margins. Nationalisms can be more or less closed, more or less defensive, surrounded by the walls separating them from all the “others.” This way goes straight to an ethnic (or supra-ethnic, religious) fundamentalism. On the contrary, margins function within the global culture; even though they do not make its mainstream, they still remain parts of the whole so that their defense can only take place in the open. One cannot build walls around them but, on the contrary, develop channels of communication, for only in such space, in confrontation with the “mainstream,” the local can be successfully defended.

In such a context, identity politics, practiced either for the sake of nationalism or the margins, may take quite different forms. In the former case, subjectivity is stable and well-defined; in the latter, its definition can never be completed, since it is constructed during permanent confrontation in a channel of communication with its round-trip traffic between the center and the periphery. This kind of identity politics is processual and ambivalent, while in the other case it becomes categorical and unambiguous. The margins are always moving, for it is impossible to pin down the essence of the relationship between them and the center. In contrast, national identity is based on a metaphysical “presence” – it is constructed on the basis of a well-defined and stable kernel. Now, to return to our examples, it seems that the art of BereÏ would be closer to the national identity. Referring to the grand narratives of Polish culture, the romantic myth of the artist-prophet and the sense of national mission, he did not put tradition into doubt or propose any kind of critical discourse. Quite on the contrary, BereÏ explored the national heritage as a source of authority to criticize the reality of communism. Will this tradition and its related identity politics match the danger of globalization? Will it resist the temptation of nationalism, trying to defend the local against global cultural developments? This is perhaps an open question which, in addition, brings us to another one: how can we defend national (and not marginal) cultures against the process of globalization? Theorizing within the framework of psychoanalysis, one may assume that the defense of identity put in such terms becomes possible only if the collective subject (nation, people) has been defined in confrontation with the outside (inter-national culture), and not on the basis of some metaphysics of history. This is not, of course, a case of Jerzy BereÏ. Another open question, however, is whether global culture is indeed inter-national, that is, if it belongs to the same paradigm as national culture. If not it means that any defense of national identity may not be effective, and should be made, if any, in a different paradigm than the opposition of a national/ inter-national, In such a context, let us take the last look at the identity politics founded on the deconstruction of sex and gender, presented in the art of Ion Grigorescu. No doubt, in his case the definition of subjectivity is both dynamic and, in the first place, critical.

It seems, then, that the destabilization of authority favors the margins of the “mainstream.” Apparently, permanent tension which constitutes this strategy gives chancesto all minorities trying to defend their identity. Yet, does this kind of art not imply the danger of speech which belongs to no one; the threat of dissolving the margin in generalized theoretical discourse? In other words, does it not – paradoxically – suggest the danger of recuperation of critical strategies by globalism? This is, perhaps, the last open question here. However, feminist, gay, and ethnic (not national) minority cultures, which create their identity politics in reference to the deconstruction of the imperial subject, point to distinct places from which they speak and to specific values which they affirm, formulating a distinct identity politics. This place seems to be definitely on the margins of the global imperialism. Consequently, the tradition inherent in the art of Grigorescu seems to offer a method of criticism which can be used against the threats of global imperialism and nationalism alike.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *