"The visual is over." A dear friend of mine spoke those words to me a few days ago while we were having lunch together, talking about the blessings and (mostly) challenges of life--for her the latter are at present challenging indeed. My heart was sore for her, listening to tales of trials and injustices she is facing.
The comment came when we were discussing my art. I had told her the story of my collaboration with the model above, a model who had worked in the high-fashion modeling industry and experienced its many toxic dysfunctions: ridiculous expectations, an equation of moral superiority with a certain look, the whole abusive trade that exchanges beauty for money--and disordered eating, self-alienation, and shame. This is the reality that my friend was referring to: not, I think, the visual in general but the commodification of the visual within a global capitalist frame. "Capitalism is based on exploitation," remarked a lecturer I heard recently, an offhand comment that took me off guard. It's easy to forget just how true that is, capitalism being the replacement of a slavery system with a wage system. As in slavery, under capitalism, you're always still putting your heart, body, and spirit into the gears for another, to hell with your own will, desires, meaning--the only difference between the two systems is the paycheck.
So I get it--that part of the visual is over, or if it's not, it damned well should be. "That part" equals all the ways in which the beauty of our sacred bodies is bought and sold within a value system that has nothing to do with real value, with the ways we really live, or can best live, in the world. Our beauty is stolen from us, sometimes never to be retrieved. And of course it's very much worse for women than for men. Many commentators have noted the cruel irony of the modern age, that just as women (in the west, at least) are finding a voice, acquiring rights, accumulating wealth and power, they find themselves cruelly self-alienated, caught in a no-win battle with their own flesh. Everywhere I look--and as a college professor, I watch the dynamic unfold with young women every day--I witness this holocaust of utterly needless suffering. Yes, I too wish to end the tyranny of the visual, and I would trade anything, including all my art, if it could be ended.
This model, bless her, came to me from one of the art collaboration web sites, where artists and models meet. She's the first such model I've ever hired. Like my friend, she was a young woman who told me stories of a life spent navigating trials and injustices, not to mention cruel abuse. She had learned to play the game, parlaying her very considerable conventional beauty into profit. Hearing her speak, I was reminded of a line from Ani DiFranco's song "Letter to a John": "I want you to pay me for my beauty, I think it's only right / 'cause I have been paying for it all of my life." She took my money, earning every penny, plus, I know, my care and my friendship to boot. She's a delightful and wonderful person, a dear child of God, and I loved our time together. Indeed, it was amazing to work with, well, a pro. She was obviously very, very good at posing, at settling into the gaze of the camera, at giving her beauty generously. She had down the fashion-model's pout. I felt a sense of keen gratitude at being tutored in the work by such an accomplished subject.
But it was impossible for me not to feel, more and more as we worked, a sense of self-consciousness. I heard her sad life stories, and as I heard them, her face felt to me like it was embodying the sadness that her beauty had brought her. And I found myself wanting her to break out of her habitual, practiced mold, to be "really her." "Smile," I implored. And she would smile, and each time she would blanch and look away, embarrassed. And I realized--I feared--that it was possible that my own gazing and my own request to her to be "really her" were just...more of the same. More objectification, more alienation, more demand to self-abnegate. Certainly I realized, to my shock, that my project, which I have always claimed as a project of celebrating the truth of my subjects, "seeing and celebrating the real her," could very well be just yet another commodification--and this time perhaps a worse one, as for my pictures the model stands not just nude but truly naked. What if I succeed in seeing "the real her"? And what if it's a violation, a deep intrusion of privacy, to see someone so truly?
Can my kind of art redeem the visual, buy back our beauty for our own delight and good living in the world? Can it be the antidote to the holocaust of the visual? As I worked with this model, I so wanted it to be. I wanted my art to save her. I want my art to save the whole world. That's all I have right now--lots of questions and my prayer that my painting might be a redemption song.