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D-Cups, Groin-guards & Supermodels: Writing the body into history (continued)

Beth Spencer

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Terry Goldie has responded to this article.

There was something about the male breasts conspicuously absent from Yalom's book turning up on the cover of George Hersey's book, The Evolution of Allure, that appealed to me (the missing link, perhaps).

Hersey's book maps the distance as well as the affinity between the rounded marble breasts of the Medici Venus (known as the "modest" Venus, her hands at once hiding and signalling the hot spots), and the rippling bronze pecs of the Incredible Hulk. Both being part of the "complex continuing dialogue between sexual selection and the visual arts."

The Evolution of Allure is a kind of post-modern historical detective story, tracking through art history, mathematical formulae (measuring bodies in "heads" - so that a particular body is 7 heads high, navel at 3 heads and so on), evolutionary theory, Social Darwinism and racial eugenics, and the history of clothing as "genital maps", across to the "biocultural decadence" of the current body sculpting culture.

The author's "gently offered thesis" is that a particular kind of "canonical body" has developed in Western art from around c450BC up until the end of the last century that has engendered in the wider community a preference for certain body proportions. Through the steady process of mate selection, reinforced by the proliferation of such bodies in the guise of gods, saints and heroes (thus strengthening a conviction of the superior nature of those inhabiting such bodies), he suggests that we have gradually evolved towards a smaller range of body shapes and, in particular, a smaller range of body shapes considered attractive.

One of the things I liked about Hersey's book was that you never quite know where he's taking you. All the twists and turns, the excursions off here and there to look not just at the dominant teleological path of history (the history of the winners) but at a whole complex web of associations and influences and effects and oddities. This is a history of play in which there are no absolute winners; no single dominant arena but multiple overlapping ones. A history in which everyone seems to be developing and adapting the rules as they go along; with inconsistency and contradiction an inherent part of the game.

Thus the 2000 year quest for beauty feeds inadvertently into and is cross-fertilised by Social Darwinism, most notably through critics like Max Nordeau (a kind of Pauline Hanson of the nineteenth-century art world); turning up in its more deadly guise in Nazi Germany, where the quest to define the perfect man becomes a quest to determine and ensure its dominance. In this sense, Hersey notes, "Nazism's only true novelty was the totalitarianism that put these older notions horrifically into effect."

And if these days the canonical body has all but disappeared from high art, popular culture seems to have picked up the baton and run with it with a vengeance. For the vast plethora of heroes and heroines that we see everyday in film, television and magazines still appear, after all, to come from a fairly limited gene pool.

But Hersey's interest in his final chapter on "Hyperdevelopment Today" is in sub-cultures. The super-heroes quietly packing on muscle in the comic books of the past few decades, now turning up as the Arnold Schwarzeneggers and gym junkies of "real" life. And the "D-Cup Superstars" of phone-sex catalogues reproducing the poses of classical art.

(I'm also reminded of the war of the cod-pieces between the recent celluloid Batman and Robin teams, and of course the debate over whether or not it was obscene for Robin to have nipples.)

For Hersey, the Incredible Hulk, and his friends Killpower and Motormouth (Killpower with phallic protuberances all over his body as weapons, and Motormouth, a bustier, less phallic and much smaller version but with more verbal power I guess), signal the end of the canonical reign and a move into an era of hyperdevelopment. An era with new links and new possibilities provided by cosmetic surgery, growth hormones and the science of body-building. Links which "involve the bizarriere of the stranger sorts of ancient art, of comic books, of Dada, while also making novel parallels with non-human nature."

In the end, though, I found the implications of Hersey's book far more interesting than his conclusions, which was one of the strengths of his style and method. I felt more able to pick up and run with the various associations and ideas, and connect it up with other reading, even when it contradicted his theories, or even when I wasn't convinced, than I did with Yalom's more contained and linear narrative.

Furthermore, by locating change, even at this level, within the convergence of the private realm of sexual selection and the public world of art practice -- as a "dialogue" (ie a two-way exchange) -- Hersey restores the notion of agency to everyday life, not just at the level of individual choice, but at the level of resistance to those choices, and the creation of different ones.

For while art may serve as propaganda at times, it is often the unexpected, unlooked for, and unsanctioned intersections that prove the most resilient.

*

One of the best aspects of Hersey's book are his juxtapositions, which are both wild and evocative, mini works of art and of art criticism in themselves, even without his text.

In his introduction, for instance, he lines up the Venus Pudica, Thomas Gainsborough's portrait of The Honourable Mrs Graham, a Bronze Age Paphiote goddess, and Mistress Tanya from a 1990s phone sex advertisement, and looks at the similarities and differences between their bodies and their poses. In another chapter he takes us from Francesco Solimena's eighteenth century painting of The Risen Christ, with the folds of cloth wrapped strategically around his loins to form vectors subtly marking out his manhood; to the sixteenth century Portrait of Lodovico Capponi, standing serenely dressed in silk and wearing a not so subtle (in fact outrageous and very penis-like) codpiece; across to Robert Mapplethorpe's (1980) Man in a Polyester Suit (with his not even a tiny bit subtle penis dangling out between the opening of the stiff suit).

But the one that moved and disturbed me the most was looking from "America's Fittest Couple" (Laura Creavalle and Chris Aceto, from a muscle magazine), to a similar pairing of Killpower and Motormouth. Killpower being, in the mathematical formula developed by Hersey, even more "evolved" than the Incredible Hulk.

*

As with Yalom, I felt at times that Hersey battles with a too easy distinction between "good" and "evil". In his case: the evil of the Third Reich vs the "innocence" of individual "augmentation of attractors" (such as muscles or breasts); in hers: (for example), the evil of the mutilation of women's bodies in hard-porn vs (reluctantly) the good of cosmetic surgery which is after all an individual's choice.

If at the heart of Hersey's book, there seems a belief that as long as there are no death camps, or no voicing of racist sentiments, then things are basically ok (bizarre, maybe, but nothing to really worry about); at the heart of Yalom's is a belief that market forces must ultimately be a "win-win" situation. Even the losses from breast cancer can be recuperated in greater knowledge and increased opportunities for women to "[wrest] their God-given bodies from the media ..."

*

We are both biological and cultural creatures, part of the animal kingdom as well as different to it. But there is no way back to (pure) nature, and no God at the helm of market forces or evolutionary processes to ensure that individual choices made within a highly artificial cultural environment are going to ensure greater fitness, or adaptability, or even survival.

For when the evolutionary instinct is coupled with sophisticated cultural technologies (whether it's art or Nazism or medicine, or science or mass media or capitalism) then "natural selection" no longer applies and "survival of the fittest" becomes a whole new ball game. One with a whole new set of creative possibilities, responsibilities, questions, dilemmas and potential disasters.

*

The writing of history is (also) a form of selection. It too uses augmentation, exchange, differentiation and arrangement; creates vectors and maps bodies. It is a way of telling stories, of relating ourselves to others, and to each other; signalling desirable and undesirable traits in an effort to identify what might make us fitter to survive in and adapt to the constantly changing cultural world we inhabit, and of which we are a part. And, a such, these stories are inevitably morality tales.

The paradox of evolution is that while the selection for specific traits can lead to a greater fitness in a given context, it is the availability of the oddities and deviants and irregularities that ensures survival in the long run.

Which is to say that if we are to take responsibility for our long-term survival, we need a way of writing history that embraces its role as a moral discourse, but we also need to allow for and include the wildcards, the anarchic, the deviations and aberrations.

*

Somewhere along the line, our involvement in the world is real, our bodies are powerful. But only Christ can remain untainted, and then only by never using his perfect body, by remaining unseducable. And if the lesson of Saint Agatha is that women can only gain their breasts by losing them, then perhaps it's time we used a different model.

Beth Spencer's first book of fiction,How to Conceive of a Girl was published by Random House in 1996. She is currently working on a book of essays, and a novel with the working title A (Short) Personal History of the Bra and its Contents: from Maidenform to Madonna.

A History of the Breast was published in Australia by Harper Collins in 1997, and The Evolution of Allure is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press hardback, published in 1996.

[View Maerten van Heemskerk's Ecce Homo (Man of Sorrows) and Francisco de Zurbaran's image of St Agatha protectively carrying her severed breasts, beautiful and bloodless, on a plate.]

Terry Goldie has responded to this article.

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