Art History = Human Nature History

naked-woman-painting569x270

I was at an art event last night with some friends and we wandered into discussion of sex and dating and the human relationship to our animal selves. I’m particularly interested in this conceptual divide between our human and animal selves. I chimed in with a simple central premise from my book, which is:

Separation of the empowered from the object sanctions subjugation

In history, subjugation of women, Africans, and nature have all been/are all sanctioned by “our” understanding that “we” are not “them”. This is not my insight. I stole it from the Ecofeminists (including at least Carolyn Merchant) and am applying it to body theory. In my book I explore how our human concept separate from nature developed within western culture, responsive to religious and scientific influence. There are relationships between our self-conception, self-expectations, cultural constructions and behavior.

My book is not a work of philosophy. It’s an academic treatise relating the human relationship to the body to the human relationship to the natural world. To write the book I had to marshal research into evidence. There are several areas of research that could have been used (and can be used) toward the same argument, and one is art history.

Images from Western art history display cultural constructions of deviance, and beauty, inside artists relationships to the form. What is hidden? What is displayed? What is partially covered? What is central, and what is on the edge? Within these constructions, visible in our artwork over centuries, are displayed the evolving human relationship to the human body. This video for example, is a visual compendium of cultural interest in the naked human body. The special interest in the naked body relates to the very human relationship to the body, and conceptions of beauty and deviance that we project onto that conceptual field. In an abstract, natural, or scientific sense, the human body has no particular interest for our experience of it (as in the ape’s experience of its body.) Our personal and cultural constructions are part of how we’ve constructed our humanity, and are captured in their evolutions in art history.

By understanding the human conception, and the ways we exist within our own constructions, we can free a whole relationship to the non-human world. With this greater self-awareness we may be able to find the human not separate from the animal, but whole-ly inclusive of the animal. [For the whole story, read the book.]

Kathe Kollwitz and Communal Memory

Artists are individual, but we are also representatives of communities. Eventually though, artwork becomes simply part of human history. Art and art forms are shared.

For some reason this makes me think of Kathe Kollwitz (July 8, 1867 – April 22, 1945.) The current Kollwitz wikipedia entry says she “was a German painter, printmaker, and sculptor, whose work offered an eloquent and often searing account of the human condition in the first half of the 20th century. Her empathy for the less fortunate, expressed most famously through the graphic means of drawing, etching, lithography, and woodcut, embraced the victims of poverty, hunger, and war.” Here is a small gallery of her work:


I saw her work as a child in the home of my paternal grandparents. They had two of her prints in the hall of their home. The met in New York having fled the Holocaust, and as a child, and a generation removed, I had no idea what that really meant. That reality, their reality, was told to me, but it was so far removed from my experience (blessings) that of course I couldn’t understand it. One of the ways that I did consciously, in my childish way, relate to it was through the memory I experienced in the Kollwitz images. Art is like that; it eventually becomes unhinged from the personal and communal associations that fed its creation.