photography, writing, fine art... stuff ... other stuff ...
The female nude remains my central interest, and the material presented here builds on
earlier essays. These earlier pieces are still available as Reflection on Practice, May 2003, and
are linked to from the more recent essays as appropriate. They can be considered
as appendices to the present discussion.
The material presented here for the first time is organised into five separate pieces, as follows:
1. The figure and the panorama
2. The Interrogator, the Mouse and the nature of gaze
3. The nude in time of war
4. Gender & the human: Irigaray and Kristeva
5. Pornography, relationship, consent
Of these five pieces the first, the figure and the panorama, is the most substantial. It represents the primary element of my submission for the dissertation element of the degree assessment at Duncan of Jordanstone College, 2004. The remaining pieces, along with earlier pieces, function as appendix and excursus.
My intention is still to focus on the work of two photographers, Helmut Newton and Willy Ronis, who provide reference points at opposite ends of a spectrum. I have called one end of that spectrum 'the agonistic nude', and the other end I now prefer to call 'the eirenic nude' (from the Greek work eirene ... meaning 'peace'). Previously I used the term 'domestic'.
While recognising the importance of a range of issues surrounding Helmut Newton's work in particular, there are areas which I do not believe can be usefully addressed within the compass of a short dissertation. These areas include: High Art versus Popular Culture (Newton is primarily a commercial photographer working for fashion magazines and corporate advertisers), and Art versus Pornography. I will comment on both art and pornography, but the debate is too vast and multipolar for anything worthwhile or original to be produced by attempting to summarize it. Of course, I will assume a broad familiarity with that debate among my readers. Likewise, feminist theory is too broad for it to be meaningful to attempt any sort of survey here, but again, I will consider particular feminist writers, and feminist critique of particular artists' or photographers' work, and I will also assume an awareness of feminist theory in general, and of gaze theory in particular, as part of the cultural background. Finally, the issue of narrative is unavoidable but, once again, too broad to survey. I will draw on literary texts, and will touch on issues relating to narrative in film, but again, I will simply regard them as providing part of the broad cultural context.
My central agenda remains essentially as it was in my third year Reflection on Practice: to consider the female nude as NOT primarily erotic, but instead to attempt to reinstate a reading of the female nude as a Heilmittel. I use the term Heilmittel as a simple, concise signifier, with a primary meaning of 'means of healing', just as in modern everyday German. However, I use the term conscious of its connotation of Heilgeschichte , a technical theological term for biblical narrative bearing on the redemption or salvation of the people of God, or relating the sacred to the historical.
I am conscious that my personal agenda is to some extent the product of my own theological beliefs. However, I am not in the business of evangelism here, so much as of attempting to demonstrate a major stream in the production and reading of images of the nude. That religious imagery of many sorts has been in the mainstream of images of the figure, including the naked figure, is of course beyond question, and the ambiguity of many religious images is likewise clear ... the homoerotic content of images of the martyrdom of St Sebastian provides a useful example. And I do want to set modern images of the nude against that historical background. I also want, however, to look at the non-religious nude, and to consider it as readable within a salvific framework, arguing that the salvific, or the eirenic, or the character of Heilmittel is as intrinsic to the female nude as is the erotic.
Alongside this interest in the nude as Heilmittel, I am interested in the nude as human . I will argue, therefore, that to consider the female nude apart from the male nude is to guarantee a misreading of it. Aspects of the nude, and of gaze theory in particular, need to be considered in relation to both genders. So, for instance, the nude as an objectification of the subject is an issue for both male and female nudes. Both male and female subjects may be involved in relationships of power which are unequal or exploitative. Both male and female nudes may have characteristic iconographies, which may or may not be gendered, and there may be iconographies of the nude which are sexed, but also common to male and female figures.
It will be clear from the above that issues of gender are central to my dissertation. So too are issues of eroticism and violence. It will also be clear that theological and philosophical issues are important elements of my own 'hinterland'. The range of material on which I therefore feel it important to draw was a major reason for choosing a website (a multimedia, interactive object) as the vehicle for my work.
It will be equally clear, on examining the recent material, that this reflection remains open-ended. The essay on the panorama and the figure has a beginning, a middle, and an end, but the end does not contain any decisive analysis of the work of Newton and Ronis, for instance. Nor are the beginning, middle and end at all determinate; there are stepping off points along the way. What the reflection on practice amounts to is precisely a reflection, or series of reflections, it is not a thesis. I expect to return to Newton and Ronis in the future, but I do not expect to reach an end point. A website is a nexus. Although I offer here a main essay and a number of supporting pieces, the excursus itself is an essential form, not a peripheral.
Although this may all seem vague, I would argue that there is an important issue here and it concerns the question of precision. This remains, I suspect, one of the few genuine cultural differences between the academy of the arts, and that of the sciences (law is perhaps an exception). In the sciences, precision remains a positive value and, consequently, imprecision has an honoured place. In the arts, a phrase such as 'weigh out exactly approximately two grams of substance A' still, after a couple of generations of postmodernism, has an absurd ring. In the sciences such language is commonplace; it is understood as unavoidable. In some points, precision matters, in others it doesn't. It doesn't really matter if we have two grams, or two and a half, or something in between; it does matter that we know. And when we weigh out the substance, we express the weight in a way that makes clear the degree of precision with which it was weighed; that is to say the imprecision, is expressed. Without a record of the imprecision there is no precision at all.
So, in this reflection on practice, where we are weighing what amount to ethical claims, or attempting to summarise cultural traditions formed over centuries, and where we are touching on issues such as gender and identity which have divided scholars and fools for millennia, it strikes me as inappropriate to claim very much in the way of finality, precision, comprehensiveness or clarity. The idioms of academia favour a discourse in which these sorts of claims are made (in the subtext, of course, which is the most important text) but for the most part the claims are false. For this reason I repeatedly prefer to express a vague notion, because that is what I have, when convention would suggest that I formulate a proposition which is at least defensible as precise. If you like, I prefer vagueness because it is more scientific; it is more accurate.
Ultimately, of course, a conclusion is something which forms, if it does form at all, in the reader's mind. A film doesn't happen on the screen, and it doesn't happen in the narrative space created by the screenplay or the filmography. It doesn't happen between the actors or on the stage. It happens in the heads of the audience. And if it doesn't happen there, the whole thing has been a waste of time.
Harry Smart, January 2004