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Thoughts on Body Art

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

I´ve currently been reading Amelia Jones´s Body Art: Performing the Subject. What is the difference between Body Art and Performance Art? They share many similarities, but a main distinction for Jones is that Body Art includes works which were not necessarily performed in front of an audience and specifically emphasize the body “with all of its apparent racial, sexual, gender, class and other apparent or unconscious identifications.”

What interests me so far is the discussion on the “disinterested” reception of art, which relates to Kant, as in “Kantian disinterest,” and the way art is received in the past, particularly in modernist practices (Formalism), whose practice is perhaps unconsciously still dominant today. Body art is on the front lines, as it were, of challenging notions of objectivity. To consider:

“This reigning model of artistic analysis [modernist formalism] protected the authority of the (usually male, almost always white) critic or historian by veiling his investments, proposing a Kantian mode of “disinterested” analysis whereby the interpreter presumably determined the inherent meaning and value of the work through objective criteria.” (Amelia Jones. Introduction in Body Art: Performing the Subject.)

An important effect of postmodern work, which is embodied by body art, is challenging the idea that certain forms, mediums, or practices, contain inherent value. One way this is performed is by challenging the supposed objectivity of the culture which appreciates such practices. The position of the critic´s neutrality, but no less that of anyone within the culture - the historian, the student, the journalist -, the idea that this person judges the work based on criteria of value rather than on personal subjective bias is called into question.

“…as I explore in this book, the Kantian notion of disinterested judgement requires a pose of neutrality on the part of the interpreter as well as…a regulation of the objects of art analysis…While we will surely always fail in his project, we are motivated to veil the desires driving our judgements and interpretations in order to maintain the illusion of disinterestedness such that our judgements seem inevitable and `correct´and the qualities we assign to practices seem “inherent” to them rather than interpretively negotiated.” (Notes on Introduction, ibid.)

Aside for later: What is the parallel in contemporary composition or new music? In european new music, what are the reasons certain practices are favoured above others? What makes something “new” and what makes something not “new” in terms of "new music"? Eventually, I would make an analysis of the subtle separation which takes place between the word “new” and its own meaning. That which makes contemporary music, Neue Musik, itself, is not that which is appearing for the first time (as in the literal definition of new) but perhaps that which best fits the community in which it is found´s best desires and expectations.

The work is judged foremost by that which is wanted to be seen from the indoctrinated judge. Elfriede Jelinek writes in her novel, The Piano Player:

“Für die meisten besteht der Hauptreiz der Kunst im Wiederkennen von etwas, das sie zu erkennen glauben.”

Rough translation:

“The main allurement of art for most is the recognition of something that is believed to be recognisable.”

- Elfriede Jelenik, The Klavierspielerin

To challenge the praise of forms and languages which are held as valuable may not only be to expose subjectivity in the so called objective, but perhaps to begin to value the subjective. To find the circuits of desire and not to hide them. Yet let them be aware.

Body art is specifically antiformalist in impulse, opening up the circuits of desire informing artistic production and reception.” (Amelia Jones, pg. 4).

Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneeman is one of the first works mentioned in the introduction of Jones´ book..


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