The exaltation of idealized human bodies was once considered the artist’s highest calling. Think of the taut physique of michelangelo’s david, the softly rounded curves of venus de mito, or titian’s supple venus of urbino. Today, artistic celebrations of bodily perfection are likely to be dismissed as old-fashioned or ideologically suspect. There are many reasons for this dramatic shift. The rise of abstraction among the avant-grade precipitated a temporary demise of the figurative all together. Later, feminist critique of the “male gaze” made the unexamined idealization (or objectification) of female beauty dubious. And performance art has shifted attention from the body as subject to the body as instrument of art material. The rejection of idealized bodies in art has happened right alongside society’s increasing demand for physical perfection, and obsession that is expressed in myriad advertisements and products of pop culture.
Artists today, in reaction to these impossible standards, are often representing not beautiful bodies but ordinary, imperfect ones, and sometimes even downright ugly or mutant ones. But media hype around beauty alone can’t explain contemporary artists’ fascination with deformed, mangled, and even and decaying bodies. Nor does it explain why artists are so willing to highlight bodily secretions and functions normally shunned in polite company. In place of venus de milo, contemporary art serves up the still life photographs of joel-peter witkin, which feature arrangements of rotting corpses and body parts; the catsup, chocolate syrup, and mayonnaise drenched characters in paul mccarthy’s mini-dramas; and the wart-covered hags of cindy Sherman. Wherher presented in graphic photographs, through sensuously surfaced paintings, as humorously offensive performences, or in strangely distorted figural sculptures, works such as these challenge all of our conventional assumptions about order and beauty in art.
Among the primary terms used to describe this tendency to blight the body in contemporary art are the grotesque, the carnivalesque, abjection, and informe (from the French, meaning formless), each of which has its own particular set of meanings and characteristics. The grotesque, for example, can be traced back, in location and inetymology, to the walls of roman grottoes, where renaissance scholars discovered highly ornamental frescoes depicting fantastical chimeras. Artists then, newly liverated from the heavy hand of the medieval church, saw griffins, satyrs, and centaurs as celebrations of the word grotesque has come to describe that which is distasteful, abhorrent, or ugly perjorative judgments that evidence the discomfort we feel when categories are breached and the normal order of nature overturned. As art historian frances Connelly notes, ”the grotesque is defined by what it does to boundaries, transgressing, merging, overflowing, destabilizing them. Put more bluntly, the grotesque is a boundary creature.” The term carnivalesque is more recent but the concept it embodies stretches back to the middle ages. The word first appeared in 1940 in the writings of Russian literary critic Mikhail bakhtin, in his groundbreaking study of the sixteenth-century French writer francois Rabelais. Bakhtin traces the carnivalesque to the folk culture of the medieval carnival, describing how such celebrations allowed the peasantry to turn the tables on the civil and religious authorities who ordinarily held them in strict control. On carnival days, all hierarchies and official orders were suspended, temporarily replaced by a liberating chaos in which priests and rulers were impersonated, mocked and generally portrayed in the worst possible light. Further, the relations of body and soul were reversed, and such functions as breaking wind, defecating, and copulation were put on public display.
The term abjection has come into vogue in…