‘I have something to say, and I’m not leaving until I’ve said it.’ Glower, close-up, cut to commercial. I used to watch afternoon soap operas which featured pouty-lipped female characters making such confrontational announcements. I have long waited for an opportunity to take up this assertive stance, but my personal and professional lives are amazingly free of drama. So I will have to settle for writing it here. After all, this blog is about self-expression, right? Wrong.
I loathe self-expression, most of all when it is related to art. And here I must confess, with a smug, self-conscious chuckle, that I am an art historian. I mean a real one, not like Dan Brown’s wife. I am not sure how art making became associated with self-expression, though I think certain early twentieth-century hedonistic Germans, angst-ridden Norweigans, and emotional Dutch men with a fondness for thick paint had something to do with it. I also blame current populizers of art history, like that know-nothing nun on TV. I have never actually seen her program because it would likely make me scream and want to stick a knife in my eye. Or else chop my ear off. And don’t even get me started about that fucking Frida Kahlo mythology. That’s right. You heard me. I do not like her work. I do, however, adore her unibrow and moustache.
I specialize in early modern art, particularly that of the seventeenth century, when it overtly served the political purposes of the rich and powerful. So when students think that ‘artists’ existed during this period and made objects to express themselves, I have to squash that idea right away. I actually stamp it to death. And then I turn to the very concept of the ‘self’ and trample it too, using those hefty Fluevog biker boots my partner bought me after he won that poker tournament a few years ago. God they were expensive. I love them. In fact, I am caressing them right now.
The stunning sociologist Norbert Elias was right. The self was invented during the early modern period as part of the madness of court culture. The idea of a homo clausus–a man hidden inside his finely crafted exterior–was produced as part of courtly intrigue, related to such pressing issues as physiognomy and concepts of trust. How could you tell if someone was lying? Was it really possible to see the truth on their faces or in their demeanour? Maybe not. Gradually the notion of an inner self revealed only to an intimate circle of friends and family began to emerge. We still harbour this historical construction, though now that self is produced in emotional confessions to BFFs as well as to audiences watching reality TV. These shows encourage us to cough up personal opinions on a regular basis, without hesitation. Heart-felt revelation is currently associated with honesty and integrity, especially by the marketers who gather up and sell that information. They are probably trolling this site right now.
I recently read a book by Cressida Heyes, Self-Transformations: Foucault, Ethics, and Normalized Bodies, in which she argues that when women pursue cosmetic surgery they are not simply conforming to an oppressive beauty ideal. The standard make-over rhetoric insists that women purchase breast implants and facelifts for them-‘selves,’ as a form of self-expression that makes their exterior match their interior. Grabbing any form of agency at their disposal, women willingly submit to technological interventions in order to refigure their bodies and reveal their true identities. From my point of view this understanding also marks a return to early modern concepts of identity, in a twisted fashion. Instead of anxiously trying to read a person’s interior by means of external signs, cosmetic surgery clients now force their surfaces to conform to their imagined inner selves. This striving toward the visible display of truth is often painful. Here is another link with the early modern period, for back then suffering was conflated with veracity. Want to know if your witness is forthright? Bring out the thumbscrews. The idea was that those in the midst of agony could not lie. We continue to valorize the physical experience of pain, considering illness, for example, to be character building and life changing. In theory we no longer condone torture, but maybe we now pay to have painful instruments applied in the pursuit of ourselves. I do not say this to criticize others because I am doing it too.
Feminist Figure Girl involves pain and I have been thinking about that a lot (and have started to draft that entry). Yet in contrast to what Heyes argues, my body project features the deliberate creation of an exterior that does not match my interior, hopefully casting doubt on both constructions. I suspect that my insides are gray and dank and bloody and shiny with yellow globs of fatty tissue. I am actually rather tough, especially after surviving my abusive childhood. You might think you know something important about me after this admission, but that is false. You know even less about me now. And you will never hear another word about it, nor will you ever see it. For I am cultivating my image as a girly girl who constantly glances in the mirror to see what others might see. At this point I should probably mention Joan Riviere and her theories about femininity as a masquerade, but that is so obvious. My deliberate cultivation of an artificial self is in many ways liberating but in other ways does not feel good. It’s like when I asked my performance artist friend if I could visit her and she said no, Manila is crowded, hot, and awful. She did not realize that I longed to be part of that awfulness. How else could I have an authentic experience?