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.]

Hot For Teacher

Well, once again there’s another video taking the blogging world by storm. This one is of little girls (little women?) performing a dance to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. You can see a response on Parent Dish here, one from Babble here, and another from Strollerderby here. Here is the video:

The issue is whether the adults responsible for this performance have a responsibility to enforce more appropriate child-like behavior, and/or model less sexual adult female behavior. Why is it ok for little girls to be made to act “hot”? Isn’t that, like, actually punishable by prison (if it wasn’t on the stage)?

Dance teachers at all levels are responsible for contributing to the healthy maturation process of the child. They’re not just dance students. They’re kids. On the way to becoming adults. Learning and performing the dance in this video these girls learned that if they dress and move that way they get positive reinforcement. That they should dress and move that way. That these kids are being used as sexual objects without their consent (they’re children) is terrible.

This type of performance is not uncommon. It’s not clear what direct effect rehearsing and performing this dance had on these girls, but I can say without a doubt that this is why I was relieved when my eldest niece stopped her training. I love dance. I love it. But when she quit I was honestly a little relieved, because being a professional I’ve seen how twisted the pre-professional world can be with young men and women. The reality is that dancers commonly go professional at age 18, and sometimes even younger. So to prepare them, pre-professional students are made to project like men and women far before they actually are.

As we mature we realize our manhood and womanhood as a reality. To have ones personal identity shoved into a particular box before it fully exists is unhealthy (even though the child may never realize it.) This problem exists broadly in theatrical arts education, but most seriously in dance education. Boys and girls are actually physically told to mimic adult male and female motion (as in this video), and to move and interact in those ways. We are not just making artists with pre-professional training; we are making humans. Teachers have an actual responsibility to help children act like children so that they have time to mature as whole humans.

Religious roots to the modern relationship to the body

Rene DescartesWe generally take it as a given that the body and mind are separate. Whether the reader is conscious of Descartes Cogito, or simply accepts the precepts of western medicine, the modern human is conceived (at best) alongside, but not a part of, the human body.

My upcoming book looks at how conceiving of the human as separate from the natural world influences our relationship to the environment, and the current ecological crisis. As many, I tie the human/nature divide to the development of the mind/body divide.

Chapter Three of the book looks at religious roots to the modern conception. Here are a few thoughts from the first pages of that chapter, in which I look toward the influence of Christianity, considering its roots in Greek culture.

This chapter will focus on Judaism and Christianity and how the body is regarded within those traditions. While both religions carry complex relationships to the body, this chapter will focus on sex as justifying representative and compelling conclusions regarding the body. The writings of the Jewish Kabbalah  will be considered, alongside Christian Gnostic  texts and the writings of the Apostle Paul.

These two religions have carried dominant influence in Western civilization; our modern attitudes toward the body have been shaped by their influence. It would be appropriate to offer the possibility that Christian attitudes were more influential moving into the age of science (as will be examined in the next chapter.)

Understanding how prior centuries regarded the body establishes the roots out of which grew the tree of modern science. As will be seen through this analysis of the Jewish and Christian relationship to sex, humanities relationship to the body has been troubled through-out Western history. It is this understanding which allows for accurate interpretation of the aspirational statement made in Job 19:26,  “Yet in my flesh shall I see God.” The body has been conceptualized at a distance from a moral human presence on this earth.

Many facets of Christianity grew directly from Judaism – most simply the New Testament from the Old Testament. But regarding the relationship to the body, it appears that societal influences had a stronger impact than religious precedent. The Christian mindset appears to grow from The Greek God Hera suckling baby Heracles, wth Athena just out of viewGreek conceptions of the body. The relationship between Greek and Christian understandings is exhibited broadly, including in the following from Clement of Alexandria: “the human ideal of continence, I mean that which is set forth by the Greek philosophers, teaches one to resist passion, so as not to be subservient to it, and to train the instincts to pursue rational goals. [But as Christians] our ideal is not to experience desire at all.”  While many are familiar with the celebrated sensuality of Greek culture, there was simultaneously an isolation of control over the body from within the human conception. As Gnostic writings make clear, early Christians take the isolation of the spirit, exhibited in the Greek ethos, to extremes. According to Greek scholar Jean-Pierre Vernant:

“The body is the agent and instrument of actions, powers and forces which can only deploy themselves at the price of a loss of energy, a failure, a powerlessness caused by congenital weakness.But it is always Death, in person or by delegation who sits within the intimacy of the human body like a witness to its fragility. Tied to all the nocturnal powers of confusion, to a return to the indistinct and unformed, Death, associated with the tribe of his kin – Sleep, Fatigue, Hunger, Old Age – denounces the failure, the incompleteness of a body of which neither its visible aspects nor its inner forces of desire feeling thoughts and plans are ever perfectly pure Thus for the Greeks of the archaic period, mans misfortune is not that a divine and immortal soul finds itself imprisoned in the envelope of a material and perishable body, but that his body is not fully one. It does not possess, completely and definitively, that set of powers, qualities and active virtues which bring to an individual beings existence a constant, radiant, enduring life in a pure, totally alive state, a life that is imperishable because it is free from any seed of corruption and divorced from what could, from within or without, darken, wither and annihilate it. ”

Excerpt Copyright Robert Bettmann, 2008

Greek culture related the human to the divine, through their Gods. The bodies weakness and lack of ability is what separated the human from the divine. In the revelation and development of Christianity, there are some strong similarities. In the way that the Greeks assessed their bodies as a weak link in being ‘god-like’, so too Christian Gnostics constructed the human body as separating the human from the divine.

Human Body SystemsWhile one might say that religion doesn’t have much to do with science, our modern philosophy and science grew from these early, possibly less rational, understandings. The subsequent/simultaneous dividing of the human from the ‘natural’ inevitably followed. A prior chapter documents environmental theories that consider the impact of that division. Subsequent chapters look at somatic training methodologies that validate embodied knowledge.