Otherness can be defined as anything or anyone who is not part of the dominant culture, or the person that they dominance is about. Artists are in collusion with the dominant culture and the rest of the people in the lower culture. Until we reach the Romantic period, there is not a lot of political or cultural dissent in art. This is because art was mainly focused on the patrons who purchased the pieces. The lower classes, rough, unpredictable, violent, excessive, threats to the established order. Facial appearance, body posture, stasis or movement, individuality and details (or lack thereof), paleness vs. tan pigmentation.
Class & Gender.
Pre-enlightenment there was not many artworks that reference individuality. Difference was less noted in art because there was more social isolation simply because of the lack of technologies that would have allowed for diversity. All experiences had to be made through first hand contact. The industrial revolution helped break these boundaries and open the cultures of the world to each of them. Art was part of the small and high elite classes. It could not be viewed, much less enjoyed, by lower class individuals. There were not only marked differences that happened in this artwork, but also a perceived danger. The Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes shows a difference in social class between the shepherds and the Holy Family.
The male sexuality was usually kept at bay by the Aristotelian ideal of balance. Wholeness of man, of humans in general, was very important at that time. Pan & Syrinx is a good example of Greek Mythology, but it represents a resistance to the male gaze (assault). Throughout art history we find many images of women of power. There are many images of women who are in control of their bodies, their minds, and of their sexuality. It was easier to present a nude “character” of a woman, than an actual woman. The wives and lovers of the politicians at Versailles ran the court and were more savvy business practitioners than their husbands. Women of financial means had the freedom to indulge in education and society. The French Revolution, Napoleon’s laws, and the Industrial Revolution stunted this freedom and in many ways completely snatched it away. The woman’s economical contribution was removed with the creation of factories. Then began the two realms that could never cross, the home and society. Women were meant to remain in the home, men were meant to go out in the world.
Many male artists also thought of women as the bringers of death, the carriers of disease, and the dressers of the dead. Edvard Munch noted woman as the “deathly figure.” He always used a woman as the human figure in the three stages of life. She begins as a youth, graduates to an odalisque (standing) and then as a hag bringing death. There is a mystical haunting in each of these images in which the figure is dangerous. Munch is reflecting the story of Adam and Even in The First Kiss. The tree in this painting divides the two of them, and the shadow looms over each of them. Munch’s mother and sister died. Two of his other sisters became psychologically ill. He chose unsuitable female partners himself and came to the conclusion that women were hellish diseased succubus like creatures.
For the ancient Greeks, the male body was best. Females and female bodies were considered abhorrent. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the female body was also considered evil and corrupt because of Eve. Eve was often shown as corrupt, diseased, or seductress. Also, having been made second and having been made from physical means, males (Adam) are considered purer full of intellect. The male is seen as a closed, self-contained body. In contrast the female is seen as fluid, uncontrolled, and messy. Ancient medical beliefs implied that women were corrupted and deformed men. Whether or not women had souls was a serious debate up until the mid 19th century. Women were thought of as demonic and corrupt, insatiable in desire, and filthy in physicality. Pregnancy was considered one of many grotesque and "unnatural" occurrences in the female body. The fact that women's bodies are now understood by science and medicine is a somewhat new convention.
By the 19th century European women were considered objects to be desired and "pure" in comparison to the other racial groups now being discovered throughout the Asian and African continents.. The reclining female is weak, ill, and overcome by worry. This had much to do with the romanticization of illnesses such as Tuberculosis (it was thought to strike young intellectuals).
The female body was was eroticized and exoticized with the expansion of European trade to the continent of Asia. The mystique and fantasies of these lands occurred in the 19th century during the height of English colonialism. Aggressive sexuality and comparison to animals are pulled into these images (the corrupt and demonic image). These women often gaze out at the viewer that is aggressive. There is openness to the body language, inviting and almost friendly. Many times the odalisque is alone, but other times she is accompanied by more women like her. In addition to orientalism, we see slavery Orientalized. There was a cultural acceptance and fascination with the female slave. This happens in another world, not “ours.” These paintings were not abolitionist or in favor of ending slavery, they romanticized it.
Race & Ethnicity.
Phrenology and Physiognomy maps the body as “different,” foreign, and potentially dangerous. Phrenology maps bumps on the skull to show the potential for a person to be a deviant vs virtuous. With medical technology there was a sudden interest in “diagnosing” people’s behavior. Physiognomy scrutinized the visible body to diagnose deviancy. Johann Casper Lavater was the first to use the term physiognomy in the 18th century. Samuel R. Wells published a book titled “How to read character with a descriptive craft.” Dr. G. Duchenne made “scientific” studies in which he shocked the faces of people to show the differences of facial emotions. Late 19th century. The reasoning for these studies was for a rationale to continue literally destroying non western culture.
The idea of the other was embraced by other artists during the late 1980s. David Hammons drew upon the vernacular to make his artwork. He said, “I spend 85% of my time on the street, looking, listening, and gathering.” His pieces that are made from found objects speak of his otherness as a black male in society as a whole. The racial issues that still exist were being used as a point of reference for black artists. The word spade is a derogatory term for a black man; the use of chains refers to slavery, bondage. The materials are crude and not meant for anything outside of hard outdoor labor. Spade with Chains also references African Masks. Through a period between 1978 and 1990 Hammons made elephant dung sculptures. The sculptures, once dried, were painted with the colors of the African liberation flag (black, red, and green). In Western culture, elephant dung is abject and repulsive, however in other cultures specifically African cultures, elephant dung is used as fuel and building material. There is also a reference to the memory of an elephant, the elephant in the room, the ivory trade, etc. Elephants are also very human like creatures, with strong family dynamics and similar grieving process. Free Nelson Mandela references a barbershop, and prison cells. He did a series of works called Higher Goals that are totem poles that have basketball hoops attached at the very top. The poles are adorned with beer and pop bottle tops that appear to be very beautiful from far away. Whose Ice is Colder (1990) references a conflict that occurred in Hammons’s neighborhood. There were three rival stores, one owned by a black family, one owned by a Korean family, and one owned by a Yemeni family.
Doubling & What It Means to Be Human.
Meeting the other in the mirror is fascinating and horrific. To be uncanny is to be reminded of death. Surrealists would suggest that people would not like going to funeral homes because they would project themselves on to the dead person. DeChirico and the mannequin- the mannequin as double, as replacement for the self. In high art, specifically in fine art the mannequin is repulsive and alluring. The mannequin is the ideal body (of the time, that is). The fears of humanity are projected onto the double (this is why so many people are terrified of clowns and dolls). Any way that the body is presented in society, it is done so as an idealized representation of a real human. Even models on a runway are idealized representations of the human body.
Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) was part of the surrealists and the Dadaists. Her father was Jewish and her mother was sent to a mental sanitorium when Claude was a child. Cahun was an anorexic who used restriction of diet to manipulate her body. One of her step sisters became her lover and helped her shoot her images. Cahun felt that anorexia could make herself less womanly and fleshy. She photographed herself as her father and was fascinated by mirrors. She shaved her head and presented herself as androgynous in her photography.
The uncanny overlap and doubling of the self was attractive to many artists. Marcel Duchamp’s character Rrose Selavy was the female alter ego that satisfied his wanting to be both male and female. Rose was a nickname for the name Ruth (a Jewish name) and a lot of women who worked in the fashion industry as seamstresses were called Roses. These women were viewed as slightly dangerous because they had jobs and they were also seeking better jobs (a liberated independent woman). By doubling the r’s in the alter ego’s name, the pronunciation is more guttural and it sounds like “eros” (sex). Paired with Selavy “c’est la vie” (that’s life) the name means Sex-that’s life! Duchamp published and created artwork under this female alter ego. Duchamp developed a perfume under this identity called Belle Haleine (helaine meant breath). The bottle read “eu du voilette” which was a play on the old-fashioned rose and violet water perfume.
Mark Quinn’s Self is created out of 9 pints of the artist’s own blood (frozen into a mold made of his own head). Though very compelling, is not a true double because it is part of him. He questions what does it mean to be a body, what is keeping it intact? Is it a thing in which other things reside?
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
― Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle