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California State University, Dominguez Hills
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Created: November 1, 2003
Latest Update: November 1 2003
Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, November 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.
Jenny Saville's Strategy, 1994
© Jenny Saville; Used here under "fair use," for teaching.
What a semester for Naked Lady Mudflaps and Belly Wisdom. The human body and what it tells us both visually and normatively of our culture has had some fascinating spokespersons this century. Matisse was criticized for pandering to cosmetics and fashion. Barbie and the Mudflap Ladies were criticized for setting up ideals that led to unhealthy and unwholesome ideals for women. In the November 2003 issue of ART News, Pernilla Holmes writes about Jenny Saville and her views of the feminine (and masculine) body.
I found Strategy so arresting I wanted to share it with you. Unglamourous, certainly, but strong, powerful, and beautiful in a terrifying way. Holmes assures us that Jenny Saville is not painting in defense of fat people, or even fat women. Jenny Saville is simply fascinated by flesh. She has observed plastic surgeons at work, and takes for her subject the body in suffering and agony, as well. Her modern heroes are Soutine, Lucian Freud, and de Kooning. Figures. If you haven't had occasion to meet them, we'll be sure to get them up next semester.
Saville is not following a cause, promoting a social issue. She sees beauty in the body and in all its distortions and contortions. She needs to express that beauty. Where does that leave us in understanding art and social theory? Art, it would seem to me, has many different roles in social life. Pleasure is one of its goals. The plesure of contemplating beauty. Exploring the nature of beauty and what we come to call beauty is another of its roles. And this is the point at which we need to understand that answerability enables the Other to see beauty in different, non-normative ways. We may not choose Saville's Strategy over the Naked Ladies for our daily living, but we need to be aware of the many different perspectives of both beauty and woman.
Perhaps one aspect of choosing is realizing that we need not choose. All these perspectives are there, for the different roles in which they are called upon. I would just rest more easily if I were sure that those who slap up decals of the Naked Ladies have thought deeply and carefully about the human body and all its meanings. No, I don't want Strategy for a mudflap. But neither do I want unawareness. So when one or the other of us is offended by the symbol or icon that is used, wherever, there is a need, not for censorship, for censorship doesn't work, but for awareness of the Other's sensitivity to the deep and complex issues involved. Solution? Make it OK to talk about it. In school. In church. At home. And respect the harm the Other feels, for such harm, denied, grows into non-negotiable demands and fury.
By the way, notice that the woman in Strategy is wearing underwear. Why do you suppose Jenny Saville didn't paint her naked? I don't have the answer. But it's an interesting question, isn't it? I feel perfectly comfortable with the way she is dressed. Would I feel comfortable if she were not dressed? Wonder about it. Though I will probably never be able to afford it, I could live with Strategy in my home. That means I see a great deal more in it than a naked fat lady. What does attract in this version of beauty? Wonder about that, too. jeanne