Derek Breuckner
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Copyright © 2006
Derek Brueckner

The Body: Aesthetics, Culture, Politics

When Derek Brueckner first asked me a few months ago to contribute a statement to the present solo exhibition of his work, Re/searching the Figural, I experienced a number of contradictory feelings: tenderness, pride, reticence, inadequacy. I sensed that, in many ways, I was an extremely logical choice. Derek and I are the same age, we are the closest of friends, and we are both the products of strikingly similar social backgrounds. Our academic careers have taken parallel intellectual and geographic paths, including undergraduate degrees at the University of Manitoba and graduate study at American institutions on the east coast. I have known Derek for eleven years and have seen his artistic practice develop from a teenage interest in comic books and rock music through a more "legitimate," university-educated visual arts tradition. But the specificities of my academic training differ markedly from Derek's. I have never studied art and know next to nothing about art history. I have seen the inside of only a handful of galleries. I have never written, nor do I even understand the conventions of, an exhibition statement. What could I possibly have to say about a discourse of which I have so little experience?

Actually, more than I initially thought. For my particular background has provided me with a number of theoretical frameworks that are applicable to all types of texts, from the "highest" arts to the "lowest" popular forms. In other words, I believe that the multitude of information that surrounds us everyday - be it visual, aural, or otherwise - arises out of and is deeply embedded in the socio-political contexts that define its possible range of meanings. My job as a critic is to analyze the assumptions underpinning and the implications stemming from all artifacts, including those that have traditionally defined themselves as transcending their cultural contexts. The art world, I would argue, has less to say about art than it does about the world.

What I will proceed to do, then, is to offer a series of contexts that I think may be helpful for understanding some of the current political debates involving artistic practice. Insofar as Derek's work consistently engages the representation of the human form, I will focus my thoughts on the issue of "body politics," arguably the most important cultural development over the last twenty-five years. As a final caveat, I ask you to consider the following as neither a complete nor an authoritative narrative, but rather as a general investigation into the place of the body in contemporary politics.

It is something of a truism to characterize the 1960s as a period of social and political instability. The civil rights and women's movements, the rise of a disenchanted youth culture, the protests over Vietnam, the political assassinations - all of these now serve as convenient reference points for defining a period of history. But it is less of a cliche to assert that these upheavals are what constitute history in the first place, that the sixties were not an aberration in the even flow of cultural life but a manifestation of the struggles that were (and are) always there. What the sixties made clear was how the ostensibly private realm of civil society was not private at all but political; it remained private only for those privileged few for whom life was indeed an "even flow," free from conflict. To those with "invalid" bodily credentials - women, racial and ethnic others, the working classes, the young, the aged - the gates of privilege remained (and largely still remain) closed. Institutions like the university and the art world, then, which claimed to be places of transcendent humanist values (beauty, truth, progress, charity, the human condition, etc.), became actual sites of political struggle. In fact, the humanism underpinning the culture industry was seen by many radical intellectuals as the most dangerous warhorse of them all.

The most sophisticated theoretical challenges in the late 1960s to the intellectual tradition of liberal humanism occurred not in America but in France, where political protests regarding the oppressive nature of the establishment coalesced in a general strike by students, academics, and workers in the spring of 1968. The institutionally sanctioned boundaries between the private and the public spheres collapsed only momentarily rather than permanently. But the residue of that collapse left its mark on many intellectuals who began to see the ways in which their academic disciplines and practices contributed to the maintenance of an oppressive social order. A series of hitherto segregated discourses - linguistics, anthropology, semiotics, Marxism, psychoanalysis - were marshalled to critique or "deconstruct" the bogus claims that art/literature/philosophy were the high water marks of human achievement, that there were universal truths exceeding history or culture or politics. The Romantic conception of the artist, an aesthetic mainstay for almost two centuries, was beginning to be understood as an elitist and exclusive category. The masterpiece approach to art history, with its attendant cult of genius surrounding the figure of the (male, white, Western) artist, assumed that there were a few who spoke to and for all. In short, the humanist tradition perpetuated the socio-political hierarchies that its lofty spiritual claims ostensibly superseded.

A central project of the intellectual movement now known as post-structuralism was to demonstrate how the meanings of all texts, especially aesthetic ones, are contingent, unstable, contextual. The political usefulness of such a project lay in its decentering operation, its laying bare of the codes that confer validity upon the preferred meanings of certain types of texts. Humanist criticism came to be seen by many intellectuals as a specious activity, one that evaluated the formal brilliance of a work and the hermetic genius of its creator; as such, it was deemed politically retrograde. Post-structuralists pressed for transgression at the site of reception: to read texts as symptoms of larger historical and cultural forces rather than as the expressions of outstanding individuals. In fact, the concept of "the individual" was theorized as the lynch pin of dominant ideology, insofar as it attempted to efface a whole series of racial, sexual, and cultural differences upon which Western patriarchal capitalism depends. We are not, post-structuralism argues, free individuals but subjects constructed by our backgrounds and slotted into certain positions in the social order.

A problem with this approach is that it leaves little room for agency, especially for those for whom liberal humanism remains the only available discourse through which they might speak. The North American feminist movement, for example, was striving for gender equality at precisely the moment that critical theory was arguing the need for a politics of difference. Ironically, the point at which women and people of color were making inroads into the exclusively white male aesthetic canon intersected with the point at which theorists were attempting to deconstruct the entire concept of the canon. Post-structuralism thus calls for the destruction of "the artist" while a number of non-white, non-male, non-Western groups continue to struggle for access to the category. In short, the contradictions exposed by this clash between humanism and constructivism have by no means been "solved."

Where does the body fit in to all of this? An assertion of the importance of the body was implicit in the critique of humanism, a paradigm that figures specific bodies in particular ways in order to, contradictorily, transport the viewer to "higher," more abstract realms. As well, the deconstruction of the Western artist foregrounded the exclusivity of this aesthetic category. The history of artistic representation of the body was more explicitly interrogated in the seventies and eighties according to a number of different agendas, among which feminism is arguably the most important. Here the emphasis was placed on examining a whole series of artistic traditions concerning bodily representation in order to demystify them of their universality and expose how they contribute to stereotypes of women as vain, exhibitionist, objects to be desired and/or possessed, etc. The way in which a subject is represented in a piece, then, does not so much bespeak an artistic sensibility about human nature as it scopes out an "appropriate" space for that subject to occupy. The pictorial representation of the female nude for example, long a mainstay of the Western artistic tradition, has come to be seen as constitutive of womenfs historical oppression and needs to be critiqued along precisely those lines. The preferred place accorded to woman within tradition of figurative oil painting was as the object of a male gaze that, at the same time claiming to deify or "immortalize" her, poses her in such a way as to make her responsible for her own nude display - the masterpieces of the female nude all contain women who look coyly at the (implicitly male) spectator/owner. Such a tradition, then, accrues through repetition a conception of femininity as essentially fleshly and passive. The political stakes involved in demystifying this representation are obvious.

But gender is but one of a myriad of categories by which our subjectivities are defined. We are all racial, ethnic, class-based, and sexual subjects as well. All of these positions are differentially privileged or marginalized in Western culture, and the near-invisibility of many of them at the sites of production and representation have finally come to be seen by many artistic and academic communities as part and parcel of their political oppression. A list of the some of the major events or "topics" of the last decade - the AIDS crisis, the New Right's threats to reproductive choice, the hysteria over urban crime and drug economies, and the current reactionary moves to "revise" domestic policies such as welfare and immigration - makes the demonization of certain groups achingly clear. The effects of this demonization are registered quite literally on the body as a matter of life and death. A number of groups such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Gran Fury, Queer Nation, WHAM (Womenfs Health Action Mobilization), and the National Black Women's Health Project continue to collapse the boundaries between artistic practice, media activism, cultural critique, and political legislation. The point of departure for these groups is not the studio, the gallery, or the artistfs private vision, but activism. Such a focus on contemporary political issues has made much of this work unpalatable to many gallery and museum owners. So, although explicitly partisan art is no longer relegated to either the political or the artistic, it still remains on the margins of aesthetic practice, exhibition, and criticism. The body as a site of cultural and political struggle now has clear and specific material consequences. And the oft-stated dictum "I know it when I see it," applied variously by legislators and laypeople alike to both art and pornography, further demonstrates the instabilities of not only these categories themselves but the standards that strive to separate good taste from bad, normality from deviance.

Derek has asked me not to address specifically his work in this statement. I cannot attend his solo exhibition, but I did view a few months ago all of the pieces which now hang before you. It seems to me that Derek's representations of bodies toe a precarious line between the classical humanist tradition of the nude and the contemporary postmodern collapse of the aesthetic and the political, the two discursive positions that I have briefly outlined here. The relations of the bodies, both within the paintings themselves and between the pieces as a whole, may be considered in a variety of ways: as compositions that express a formal unity and a consistent artistic vision; or as a dialectic between the title and the piece, the mythic and the historical, the public and the private, the traditional and the political. Finally, it is my hope that this statement may serve not as a supplement to the exhibition but as another conflictual voice in the dialogue.

Mark Betz
October 1993
Rochester, New York

Essay: Copyright © 1993 Mark Betz