These notes are from the Tate Modern course Mind-Body-Art (course now finished)
Sorry for the delay in posting these notes for sessions 4 and 5. Look out for further courses at Tate Modern or possible Tate Britain.
Picking up on the previous week's discussions about power and sexuality in relation to particular images, we began Session 4 by discussing Thomas Nagel's ideas on sexual perversion. His view that 'normal' sexual desire involves escalating reciprocity (in a kind of interaction which gets its power from the individuals' arousal at being found arousing as well as from the arousing caused by the partner) gave a way of thinking about the relationship between artist and subject in some of the more overtly sexual paintings and photographs we had examined the previous week.
Nagel's paper is included in his book Mortal Questions.
It is important to recognise that Nagel was not using 'normal' and 'perversion' as moral terms, but rather as descriptive: just as someone who preferred to eat pictures of food above eating food itself could be said to exhibit a perversion, so someone who engages in forms of sex that lack the recriprocity that he thinks normal may not be doing anything immoral.
In the exhibition A Bigger Splash we looked at a range of images that involved expressive bodily movements in various ways, from the film of Jackson Pollock in action ('I want to express my feelings rather than illustrate them'), rhythmically applying paint in his trademark style through to Yayoi Kusama's 1968 hippy film 'Flower Orgy' in which a group of naked young men and women covered in painted spots cavort and squirm together. The film was part of her deliberately provocative protest campaign to stop the Vietnam War on the grounds that human bodies were 'too beautiful to be killed in that way' (see a recent interview with Kusama)
For the final session of the course we began by considering some of Erving Goffman's (1922-82) insights about role playing and the self. Goffman, a social psychologist, is famous for giving a dramaturgical account of human interaction - one that takes seriously the idea that 'all the world's a stage'.
People give performances. They act roles to each other, idealized roles that in part embody how they think others want them to behave, sometimes using props to draw attention to their roles. We read non-verbal cues very quickly and accurately. We look for symptoms, the impressions people give off, and we are sensitive to anomalous role playing. For Goffman, in his classic 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life there is no underlying 'true' self, just a series of masks or roles. (There are brief notes on the key features of his work here)
Returning to the Bigger Splash exhibition, we focused on a several images and videos in the room Transformations, including a series of self-portraits by Cindy Sherman. This review of a retrospective of Cindy Sherman's photography draws attention to an important feature of her approach: although she is taking on a series of roles, and implicitly commenting on the expectation of roleplaying for women, she is never so far into the role that she herself is unrecognizable - she combines being in the role with drawing attention to th fact that she is playing a role in a manner akin to the eager student in the front row of a lecture that Jean-Paul Sartre describes who is so intent on giving off the sense of being a good student that it actually interferes with listening. With Sherman's work, there is an uneasy sense that she is both in role and directing our attention to the roleplaying itself. If you are interested in Cindy Sherman, there is a superb online catalogue of her images on the MOMA website here (you can scroll through images from the retrospective and click on individual ones to enlarge them).
There is an interesting video here of Cindy Sherman discussing roleplaying in her self-portraits: