Art History = Human Nature History


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.]

Art and Science


The last few days Ive been working on a series of blog posts for OvationTv.Com. Theyve got me framing some really interesting video clips related to Bill Iveys new book, Arts, Inc. The book raises some excellent questions about how we understand art.

At the same time, Ive been celebrating publication of my book. (For some excerpts find the Somatic Ecology page on Facebook.) I got a copy in the mail from the publisher today, and found a footnote in my presentation of the Galileo material that I always really liked. The quotation in the footnote is from Galileos father, who was a professional musician. For me his thoughts highlight that Science and Art share an ethos of clarity.

The sentence in the book is, “Galileo, who would spend his entire lifetime fighting for objectivity, was born to a family which supported questioning and intellectual rigor over faith in tradition.” The footnote is:

“Galileos father in particular clearly influenced his intellectual bent. Consider the following from his fathers Dialogue of Ancient and Modern Music which was published at the time that Galileo was in University. It appears to me that they, who in proof of any assertion rely simply on the weight of authority, without adducing any argument in support of it, act very absurdly. I on the contrary, wish to be allowed freely to question and freely to answer you without any sort of adulation as well becomes those who are in search of truth. [in Fermi, Laura and Bernardini, Gilberto Galileo and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1961) 8]”

You sorta gotta understand the stranglehold that Artistotelian philosophy had on the science of the period to really appreciate the quote, but trust that his attitude was not common.

More another time, perhaps, on connections between art and science.

Paul’s Corinthian Letter

peter and paul from the greek orthodox church websiteAs I’ve written about in prior posts, in my forthcoming book I do a wee bit of tracking the history of the relationship to the human body. Of course, one of the highlights is the Christian relationship to the body, and the writings of St. Paul. Here’s a small passage that explains that as founded, Christianity sees sex, and the concerns of the body, as an impediment to holiness. Holiness in human form – Jesus – being the guide for all humans, rejection and denial of the body is inevitable. This has strongly influenced how we today consider our bodies….

Christian writings make a tie to the body as impediment to a higher spiritual calling. The Apostle Pauls famous Corinthian Letter responds to the community in Corinth, which was agitating to create a Utopic society in preparation for the coming of Christ. As Peter Brown establishes in his brilliant text The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, the Corinthians proposed a radical ideal.

[The Corinthians] would undo the elementary building blocks of conventional society. They would renounce marriage. Some would separate from pagan spouses; others would commit themselves to perpetual abstinence from sexual relations. The growing children for whose marriages they were responsible would remain virgins. As consequential as the Essenes, they would also free their slaves. Somewhat like the little groups described by Philo outside Alexandria, men and women together would await the coming of Jesus holy in body and spirit.

At a time when Christianity was just growing, the Corinthians radical notions threatened the inclusion of more mainstream elements, and so Paul wrote to put down this rebellion. That a critical concept within the religious fringe was abstinence is telling. That Paul himself was celibate points directly to early Christianitys troubled relationship to the body. In ministering the Corinthians toward sex, his words expose a very negative conception of the act. In Corinthians 7:36-38 Paul wrote:

If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed [in some versions virgin], if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes; let them marry – it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.

Paul declares that marriage is a negative, undertaken only to ward off the sin of sex before marriage. Second, marriage, and sex, are negatives that are better to be refrained from altogether. Paul states this even more clearly in an earlier passage, Chapter 7 verses 32-34.

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interest are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.

Marriage calls into question the ability to focus on the Lord. Married people lack the quality of what Brown analyzes as “the undivided heart”, and are therefore lesser Christians than those who are married solely to Gd.

[excerpt from Somatic Ecology, copyright R. Bettmann 2009]

The purpose for me in researching this was to document exactly how negative our culture is in relating to the body. That negativity, with ancient roots, has some modern expressions.