Citizenship, the body, and the ethics of exposure

Cultural Criticism, Essays

I. The ethics of exposure: our virgins and our whores

In May 2016, Chloe Sevigny shared an Instagram post of herself at the Met Breuer picking out a piece of cellophane-wrapped candy from Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) (1991), which is often understood as a representation of his lover’s body weight before his eventual death from AIDS-related illness. In all installments of this work, audience members are allowed to take a piece of candy diminishing the weight in the process. The post has 11,600 likes.

Sevigny occupies a unique place both on the fringe and at the center of American fame, and is for that reason an interesting representation of societal (double) standards of beauty, exposure, and self-possession. The story of her rise to stardom is the quintessential virginal origin story: She was merely walking down the street when she was discovered and thrust into the limelight. She never searched for fame; it found her, uncontaminated by aspiration. She was first labeled an “it girl” in a 1994 article in the New Yorker by Jay Mclnerney. The piece spends a lengthy paragraph breaking down her physical imperfections, ending with astonishment that people still can’t get enough of her.

Screenshot: Chloe Sevigny on Instagram; accessed 11/10/2016

But more recently, in the film The Brown Bunny (2003), Sevigny lost her virginal archetype by agreeing to give director/actor/writer Vincent Gallo an unsimulated blow job in the film. During the fallout from the film, in part stirred up by Gallo, a rumor circulated that Sevigny’s management agency William Morris dropped her as a result. Sevigny has since clarified that she left the agency because she no longer felt their representation was a good match, and refuses to recant her participation in the film. But the rumor continues to circulate in which Sevigny becomes the sacrificial lamb for the aesthetic vision of the auteur.

There is always an implicit or explicit narrative being constructed in the act of baring.

Sevigny has chronicled the harassment she has received in Hollywood in various publications. In an interview with Variety, Sevigny recalls a director telling her, “You should show your body off more. You shouldn’t wait until you’re as old as this certain actress who had just been naked in a film, you should be naked on screen now.” Yet, when she chose to do so on her own terms, her image was called into question.

Sevigny’s image and Gonzalez-Torres’ work are both wrapped up in the desire and mutability of bodies. The content of Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) allows viewers to become consumers in the literal sense, complicit in the continual disembodiment of Ross. It is symbolic of the complicity required for the HIV/AIDS epidemic to reach the levels that it did. The candies are transubstantiation, begging the ability to understand the complexity of the pleasure of taking, viewing, exposing within an unjust system.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres. “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991; Candies individually wrapped in multicolored cellophane, endless supply; Overall dimensions vary; Installation view: More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing Since the 1990s. Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 1 Feb. – 31 Mar. 2013. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York. © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation

 We live in a society that relishes exposure—see nude photo leaks; the Kardashians; interest in diaries and private correspondence cloaked with the pretense of literary or political interest—and that does not value privacy equally for all. On top of the inequity, unmediated exposure does not exist. There is always an implicit or explicit narrative being constructed in the act of baring. We still have our virgins and our whores; the complication is in determining how much of their internal lives or bodies have been offered up, and how much we get to take. The draw of exposure is in the desire and the power to bare, but we cannot—and should not—ignore the ethics of exposure.

II. Bodies and boundaries: citizenship and violation

Exposure, with its relation to self-assertion and to the violation of bodies, is then inextricably linked to the granting or withholding of the rights of citizenship.

Physical bodies, bodies of work—the thing that makes a body is a boundary. It is a matter of this is or is not that. We know, in theory, that many boundaries are illusions (mind/body, subject/object, private/public, us/them). Yet we live in a political system that generates and perpetuates power by controlling the autonomy of bodies—especially people of color, queer bodies, and female bodies—and in which boundaries are therefore a matter of survival for many.

Not all bodies are consumed equally.

Not all bodies are consumed equally. If your body isn’t White, or isn’t male, we as a society constantly remind you that it is ours to consume regardless of your desires. The most acute violation of boundaries happening in our time, which has been happening since the birth of the nation, is the violation of Black and POC bodies and the looting of Black intellectual and artistic production, which goes hand-in-hand with the devaluation of Black lives.

Exposure can be a tool of this violation. In “Black Bodies, White Cubes: The Problem with Contemporary Art’s Appropriation of Race,” author Taylor Renee Aldridge discusses “a new wave of contemporary work influenced by racial injustices, one that…is decidedly more sensational, predominantly focusing on pain and trauma inflicted upon the black body.”

She begins the article with a description of Sanford Biggers’ Laocoön, which is a large, inflating and deflating Black man who looks like Fat Albert from the animated series Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. The position of the body, lying face down on the ground, mimics images of murdered Black men circulating widely in the media.

Both works are representations of bodies that symbolize the violence of the state

There are similarities between what Biggers is doing in Laocoön and what Gonzalez-Torres is in “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). Both works are representations of bodies that symbolize the violence of the state, an affront to the rights of citizenship resulting in the loss of life. However, whereas Gonzalez-Torres’ work can be seen as replacing the literal body with a symbolic act—an offering highlighting the give-and-take between the work and the audience—by Aldridge’s reading Biggers’ very literal representation of the Black male body, especially in the voyeuristic context of the white cube mostly filled with White people, verges on victimization, yet another exposure of a Black body in the process of destruction.

Questions of exposure, at least in media coverage, often come down to this question: Is the benefit of viewing or consuming greater than the harm caused? With the rise in citizen-shot footage of the murders of Black people by the police, White audiences have been exposed to new levels of images of brutality against Black people. Laocoön echoes this dynamic, and Aldridge’s questions about modes of consumption and context strike at the heart of the difficulty with many forms of representation. What is the line between bearing witness and re-brutalizing? Or, to use Aldridge’s distinction, between “enlightening or degrading”? Given the reality of the distribution and circulation of these images, the ethical burden lands on contextualizing the images and aiding in the creation of anti-oppressive, anti-racist narratives.

III. Privacy as power

In the last ten years, with the rise of social media and internet culture, our society has undergone a massive shift in how we view and value privacy, in terms of the boundaries of the body as well as the boundaries between what is considered personal and public life. Core to these shifts are issues of private or public representation as a powerful political tool.

In I Love Dick, published in 1997, Chris Kraus chronicled her obsession with acquaintance Dick Hebdige—albeit identified only by first name. Much of the book was written in the form of letters from Kraus and her then-husband Sylvère Lotringer to Dick about Kraus’ feelings and desires. When the book was initially published it was hugely divisive. Many felt it was an invasion of Dick’s privacy. Kraus received a cease-and-desist from Hebdige’s lawyers. Hebdige’s public objections effectively outed him, whereas Kraus had attempted to protect his anonymity.

Chris Kraus. Photo by Daniel Marlos.

While women have been the subjects of much of the canonized Western tradition of art (many times without their permission), men don’t seem to be as generous as subjects. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Kraus says that she was surprised by the backlash I Love Dick created. She goes on to tell the story of artist Hannah Wilke, who for a time lived with artist Claes Oldenburg. Wilke was eventually offered a major museum retrospective at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, but some of her work included polaroids of her life with Oldenburg. Oldenburg successfully sued and blocked from the retrospective the images that included him. Kraus asserts that this was outrageous considering how frequently art of the time involved a bleeding between the personal and private. This can, in part, be attributed to the greater validity afforded to the private lives of men.

Kraus believes that I Love Dick’s current resurgence and quickly rising popularity (Jill Soloway made a pilot for an Amazon Prime show based on the book, starring Kathryn Hahn, Kevin Bacon, and Griffin Dunne) is due to a different contemporary relationship with privacy. She states that the tendency of women to “take a vow of silence to patriarchy to never speak about the men that they are involved with. That is over. Women completely claim the right to speak about their experience.” While this is a step toward valuing the work and expression of women, we need to remember the difference between self-exposure and forced exposure, and why the latter devalues experience and the creation of personal narratives that many women have struggled so hard to establish.

Revelations in private life have been instrumental in feminist thought

“All intimate letters share a seductive function, with words in place of gestures and images in place of bodies,” says Matias Viegener, the executor of Kathy Acker’s estate in the introduction of I’m Very into You, a collection of Acker’s email correspondence with McKenzie Wark between 1995–96. Viegener is referring to the absent body of the lover. But what do these gestures and images take the place of, once they are published and opened to a different audience? A body still? Whose?

The collection was published posthumously for Acker, who died in 1997 from breast cancer. In his introduction, Viegener notes that Acker would not have wanted or allowed her emails to be published if she were alive. But Viegener chose to do so “less in the spirit of total revelation than total text.” He argues that “perhaps we will know her differently now…” But what is this difference, and what does it add to or mar in Acker’s legacy? Revelations in private life have been instrumental in feminist thought and the progress of women in political life. But when we expose the private lives of others, we need to think about whose narrative we are changing and why, and what power dynamics are being invented, or perpetuated.

They talk about the difference between public and private discourse

I’m Very Into You is captivating, to be sure. While both correspondents express tenderness, the emails are a seduction of the mind. Acker and Wark discuss their current projects, intellectual influences, private feelings, and public opinions about their respective queerness and where they fit, or don’t fit, into gender and sexuality politics. Within this private correspondence, they talk about the difference between public and private discourse, and demonstrate an awareness of what should be said publicly and what shouldn’t based on its political implications. Wark says to Acker:

Yeah, I always “identify” with the “gay and lesbian community,” express my solidarity with them—so they have to do the same in return! What do they think, I’m gonna get half queer bashed ’cause I’m half gay?!

Acker responds:

The mistake is to make a fetish of what differentiation produces: gay/straight; butch/femme; top/bottom, etc. Whenever these get hardened into something “natural,” into the law, I get suspicious. Even when our friends do it: the gay community, etc.

The very idea of a public persona assumes a choice, or at least friction, between what is shown and what is hidden, what is said and what is left unsaid. The idea of a public is inseparable from exclusion, from drawing boundaries. A public is a form, like a body.

Wark told Acker (with emphasis mine):

…irony, but that something can disrupt that detachment that it will nevertheless be unable to reject: the return of the innocent. The unmediated relation of the body to itself as innocence. Which is for Pasolini I think the significance of Christ crucified. The body as pure exposure. That the return of the sacred has to do with the body as uninflected presence. But why.

The body as pure exposure echoes, in some ways, Viegener’s conjuring of the total text when referring to his decision to publish Acker and Wark’s emails. They both circle the idea of unmediated presence as the most sacred presence. Unfortunately, unmediated presence does not exist; what we have are intensely inflected narratives.

“They seemed to make a fetish of the unsaid, rather than simply letting it be contained in the sayable.”

The compulsion to bare, and the violent privacy violations that many women face, complicates our feelings when a withholding of information is made obvious. “Recently I received in the mail a literary magazine that featured an interview with Anne Carson in which she answers certain questions—the boring ones? the too personal ones?—with empty brackets [[ ]],” recalls Maggie Nelson in The Argonauts. “But the more I thought about the brackets, the more they bugged me. They seemed to make a fetish of the unsaid, rather than simply letting it be contained in the sayable.”

Nelson is contrasting her compulsion for oversharing with Carson’s intentional and proclaimed withholding. But defiantly not speaking is powerful, an assertion of the right to choose if and how you want to bare yourself.

Feminism has fought for and successfully leveraged the destruction of the hierarchy between public and private realms. But this does not necessitate the offering of a total text, or excuse the violation of privacy. Women must have the ability to construct our own narratives about ourselves and our work, rather than having them constructed for us.

Methods of exposure influence narratives of power; they create the virgin or the whore, the citizen or the other, the person deserving of rights and life and the one who is not. These various modes of exposure or resistance confirm the complexity of representation for female, POC, and queer bodies. This complexity is the line between “enlightening and degrading” that Aldridge discusses in the work of Sanford Biggers and other artists working with representations of Blackness. It is the compulsion to see more of Chloe Sevigny’s body, but only in certain image-affirming circumstances. It is the many ways in which women and POC have to fight for social and cultural legitimacy—for equally valued citizenship—because they are denied equal control of their own bodies and representations. We can better value these representations by not assuming a right to them and by working to understand our role in creating or consuming them.

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