Shame

I’ve been thinking a lot about Anton Ehrenzweig’s idea that artists are shameless, that art is a kind of self exposure that demonstrates a courageous defiance of social norms—of guilt in fact. I’ve discussed it before on this blog. But even though it is a theory of expression, it’s not about subjectivity as we understand it today, about the artist’s “identity.”

The artist’s self-display necessarily has a sexual component, but today there are no erotic shocks. Too many people have learned from modern art not to pay any attention to the proprieties—even to believe that defiance of the proprieties has a moral value. And in the age of Trump the high standard of shamelessness observed by the ruling class makes the merely erotic kind seem paltry. The famous 1% are truly a class with no class.

In the face of these difficulties I have to admire those artists who have still managed to take a real risk—and make it real; mentioned on this blog have been Andrea Fraser, Jeff Koons and Carolee Schneeman, all great in different ways. Of the three I have most respect and admiration for Fraser. But what they all prove is that it’s not enough to take off your clothes, in fact it’s not enough to present explicit sex, it is absolutely crucial where, when and how those things are done—as in all art. Society is still there, and the human monkey is still subject to society’s greatest weapon—shame, an emotion that can kill. Who can defend against mockery? Well, evidently lots of people today, but an artist still has to find the intolerable spot, where the monkey either laughs or throws a rock because it can’t help itself—and then internal form and external context (meaning the art world) have to be rightly arranged to silence the monkey.

I come from a pretty nervous place, and used to be very sensitive to shame. It’s taken many years to grow a thicker skin, and I would say it’s come entirely from inside—no one else’s example ever helped me. One turning point happened a few years ago. “Embarrassing” photos were taken, and sent. But even though I looked very undignified, was surprised to realize that I just didn’t care. I wasn’t embarrassed, and just to register that fact at the time was a milestone. But, though I think the whole story is quite amusing, and I would happily tell it to some people, I won’t reveal it on this blog. The reason is that the sexual component is not shocking, but there were other aspects that would be sure to bring on the abuse. I don’t want to be jeered by any other monkey, who would? And even though I was missing some of my clothes, the photos were not erotic. But that’s a bit disingenuous. All images are erotic, and the erotic may be more strongly present when the image is deliberately low key, undemonstrative. When I saw the famous “ordinary women” Dove ads in Berlin about ten years ago, I found them very striking and incredibly sexy.

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I can hear the obvious criticism—that I’ve just performed a sleight of hand and substituted the female body for my own. But the modes of self display are different for men and women, and for male and female artists. Another post for that.

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