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BETTY BROWN

DIANE ARBUS AND THE SHATTERED DREAM OF A PERFECTIBLE HUMANITY


“All those delicate feelings which flow together in our joy at the sight of an idealized human body. . .are shattered and profaned. The sublimation of desire is replaced by shame at its very existence; our dream of a perfectible humanity is broken by this cruel reminder of what, in fact, man has contrived to make out of the raw material supplied to him in the cradle, and, from the point of view of form, all that was realized in the nude in its first creation [i.e., in the sculptures of Ancient Greek gods], the sense of healthy structure, the clear geometric shapes and their harmonious disposition has been rejected in favor of lumps of matter, swollen and inert.”
--Sir Kenneth Clark, The Nude, A Study in Ideal Form, 1956

Lord Clark wrote the above in reference to Georges Rouault’s 1903-04 paintings of nude prostitutes. I am interested here in three passages of the quotation: Clark’s reference to “lumps of matter, swollen and inert;” his statement about our feelings being “profaned;” and his reference to “expectations.” I will come back to these, but first I want to add a further provocation from the British scholar’s still-classic tome. A few pages after excoriating the Rouault images, he discussed Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon. Clark proclaimed it “a triumph of hate. . .an engaged protest at everything involved in the conventional notion of beauty.” I think we might argue that the beauty of which Clark speaks is always a conventional notion.


Georges Rouault, “Profil du Pere
Ubu”, c. 1918, oil and ink on paper
on canvas, 8 3/8 x 9 5/8”.
Photo courtesy Jack Rutberg Fine Arts.

Two contemporaneous exhibitions, Street Credibility at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and Diane Arbus: Revelations, at L.A. County Museum of Art, seem particularly to invite queries related to Clark; Lord Clark might very well have used the same terms he employed to criticize Rouault and Picasso had he known the photographic work of Arbus and several of her contemporaries.

1. “Lumps of matter, swollen and inert.”
Clark’s phrases evoke Georges Bataille’s category of informe (loosely, unformed or formless). In the late 1920s, Bataille wrote that the “informe is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense, and gets itself squashed everywhere like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. It is a shared goal throughout philosophy: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.” Clark asserts that images of “ugly” bodies are like swollen, inert lumps of matter, so far from the ideal that they appear informe.



Diane Arbus, “Retired man and his
wife at home in a nudist camp one
morning, N.J.,” 1963, gelatin silver print.
As is well known, Diane Arbus went from photographing high fashion models, the “beautiful people,” for high-end magazines like”Glamour and Harper’s Bazaar, to photographing “freaks.” She left the realm of the ideal to enter the territory of the informe. The Retired man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning, N.J. (1963) hardly have the body types celebrated in magazines devoted to sartorial splendor. They don’t have “hard bodies with six-pack abs;” the flesh of their exposed torsos protrudes and hangs like flaccid, overripe fruit.

2. “Profaned”
The word “profane” comes from the Latin for before or outside (pro-) the temple (fanum). Images of bodies that are far outside the ideal are literally”“profane” because the ideal was established in a religious context. Clark argues that the ideal figural type in Western culture was generated in Ancient Greece, in the nude (or, in the case of females, partially nude) sculptural depictions of gods. Although the full canon for figural proportions has not survived in textual form, we can infer from Greek figures of the fifth century B.C. that the ideal involved a marriage of selective naturalism with mathematical harmonies. Vitruvius wrote that “a man’s body is a model of proportion because with arms or legs extended it fits into those ‘perfect’ geometrical forms, the square and the circle.” (from Clark, p. 15) The Greek canon of proportions and the image of the Vitruvian man in particular had great resonance in the Renaissance. Michelangelo’s David echoes the Greek Apollo, and then there is Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian man.

If Lauro Morales (Arbus’s Mexican dwarf in his hotel room, N.Y.C.) were to get up from his rumpled bed—a dubious prospect, given the empty booze bottle at his elbow—he would hardly conform to the Vitruvian model.

3. “Expectations”
No one is immune to the tsunami of advertising images that floods over us daily. Because advertisers endeavor to persuade us cumulatively and largely unconsciously, we are exposed to the numbing repetition of thousands of commercial images each week. And since one of the purposes of an advertisement is to give the viewer a personal relationship with huge, intimidatingly anonymous multi-national corporations, many ads employ images of individual people, people who are presented as just like me, you, us, the viewers. Yet the vast majority of these people are not like us, or not like this writer at least--the vast majority of people in commercial imagery are professionally attractive. And if they aren’t quite the ideal, well, computers can fix almost anything. (I know this is old stuff. Hang with me, I’m on my way to a point here.)

We see so many images of beautiful people that we become visually trained to accept, indeed expect, that ideal. Which is why some canny advertisers do use people who fall a little to one side or the other of the ideal.

But they never use people too far from beautiful. Lauro Morales would never be hired for a GAP ad. Neither would the Retired couple. Nor the children Arbus photographed in the early 1970s, the children with Down’s Syndrome. They don’t meet our expectations. They are “profane,” outside the temple of capitalism, that economic enforcer of the invented classical ideal.

4. “Conventional beauty”

It is well known that the concept of beauty is culturally constructed, that it varies both temporally and geographically. Clark was correct when he said that Picasso protested “everything involved in the conventional notion of beauty” with the Demoiselles d’Avignon. Gertrude Stein said as much in her book on the painter: “Picasso said once that he who created a thing is forced to make it ugly. In the effort to create the intensity and the struggle to create this intensity, the result always produces a certain uglinesss.” Picasso deliberately violated all the standards of the canon of beauty Western culture inherited, by way of the Renaissance, from fifth century Greece.

In order to do so, Picasso mined the visual vocabulary of West African wood sculpture. He turned a group of Barcelona prostitutes into three females whose faces are carved like dance masks, whose bodies are cut in the harsh geometry of fetish and ancestor figures from Sub-Saharan Africa. He saw such figures in the Paris Musee de l’homme (no comment on the gendering of that museum’s name), not in an art museum, because they weren’t considered art at the time. African woodcarvings were so little valued, in fact, that the artist--who was close to broke--began buying them at the Paris flea market in the first decade of the twentieth century.

Picasso took a formerly devalued aesthetic, ripped it out of its sacred context, and deployed it to make an aesthetic statement. That the African-derived figures were read as “ugly” by Stein and other contemporary viewers indicates that Picasso did not re-value African art, that is, he did not invert the previously devalued material into something respected or honored. Instead, he used it to reify that the high culture equals beauty, primitive culture equals ugly dualsim. ( I am using the term primitive intentionally here, to reiterate his chauvinistic views.) The equation was still resonant enough in the U.S. in the 1960’s that participants in the Civil Rights Movement considered the phrase “Black is beautiful” a revolutionary reversal of standard sentiments. There’s that word beautiful again. Naming as beautiful something previously considered ugly can be a transformative act. Because beauty is socially constructed, we should each of us be able to perform such transformations. But to do so, we have to fight the flood of the ideal, blinding us on a daily basis, and thereby diminishing our capacity to see, accept, and love the full range of humanity.


Pablo Picasso, “Les Demoiselles
d’Avignon,”1907, oil on canvas,
8' x 7' 8" . From the collection of the
Museum of Modern Art, New York.



Diane Arbus, “Two girls in matching
bathing suits, Coney Island, N.Y.,”
1967, gelatin silver print, 16 x 20”.

The question remains: if Picasso attacked conventional beauty in 1907 with Demoiselles, and Rouault created “profane” and informe images a few years before, why do we need to look at Diane Arbus again?

The answer lies, I think, in the fact that while Picasso painted his “ugly” images, Arbus photographed hers. As a culture, we respond to the two media differently. According to British art historian Lynda Nead, “Photography is conventionally imbued with an ideology of realism; the photographic image is believed to represent reality in a particularly direct and unmediated way.” We recognize the constructed nature of Picasso’s images. They are therefore less real, less able to shock and wound us. Arbus’s photographs are, or seem to be, REAL. To look away is to deny lived experience.



Robert Frank, “The Americans:
Movie Premiere--Hollywood,”
1956, gelatin silver print, 13 x 8".
The historic Buddha’s father tried to prevent his princely son from seeing poverty, illness and death. When Buddha finally looked upon the disturbing aspects of life, he was compelled to abandon his position of privilege and seek an understanding of the suffering he had witnessed. I am not saying (surely you realize this) that Arbus was a Buddhist, or that her goal was explicitly spiritual. I am saying that she created images of disturbing aspects of life that, like the Buddha’s father, most of us would rather not see. Her art remains a potent antidote to the images of ideal humanity that crowd our visual horizons. Her “ugly” informe images still have the power to shock, disturb, unsettle--and thereby expand our perceptions.