Unreal Nature

August 23, 2011

The We-Relationship II

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 7:43 am

… The model exists prior to the creation and is more powerful, exerting a shaping influence over it. … however, the tables are turned when it comes to value: once the work is complete, the model is usually no longer of much importance. The point of the modeling is to arrive at the creation.

This is from the first chapter, “What Is a Model?” in The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art by Wendy Steiner (2010):

… To begin: modeling is a process in which an original is replicated in a copy or copies. Whether we identify the model as the original or — less commonly — as the copy, some difference separates the two, and this discrepancy raises issues of matching, accuracy, or in the artworks that most concern us, realism. Models may be said to combine distinct orders of existence: their nature as beings (or objects or ideas) in their own right, and their virtual existence in the copies or replicas they generate. Thus, models straddle an ontological divide. And it is for this reason that they are ubiquitous in the arts today, for their double-ness allows them to symbolize the growing permeation of the virtual into everyday reality.

Second, “model” is a relational concept through and through. To say that something is a model implies that it is in play with other factors, human and inanimate. A model gives rise to something else — a product, a work of art, a “creature.” In the case of an artist’s model, she or her pose are directed toward someone — initially toward a creator, and ultimately toward a larger audience.

… Since we shall be returning to these factors over and over throughout the chapters that follow, I offer Jakobson’s speech schema adapted to visual communication as a handy reference.



ARTIST . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . VIEWER



I have put an asterisk beside “Model” in the diagram, because though in certain works, for example portraits, she is the referent, this is certainly not always the case. A work based on a model may not be “of” her: what it is about, what it means, what it designates or denotes, what its point is (or any of the other ways of construing “Referent”). And yet, she bears some connection (even if a constrastive one) to all of these. The ambiguities in the model’s relation to the referent are precisely what make her such a provocative figure. Moreover, the model’s relations to the other parties in artistic communication are equally variable. When a sitter lives with her own portrait, the model/referent is also the viewer. In a self-portrait, the artist and model/referent coincide. But, regardless of the situation, the model is an element in an interaction that is at once creative and communicative. Indeed, insofar as we consider artworks in relation to their models, it is impossible to separate creation and communication.

Third, the relations in modeling are hierarchical in nature, and they turn on three fundamental issues: temporal priority, power, and value. Which element comes before the other in the aesthetic process? Which determines the other? Which is the point of modeling? In the relations between the model and the creation, for example, there is an obvious, conventional answer to each of these questions. The model exists prior to the creation and is more powerful, exerting a shaping influence over it. After all, that is what “being a model for something” normally means. Equally obviously, however, the tables are turned when it comes to value: once the work is complete, the model is usually no longer of much importance. The point of the modeling is to arrive at the creation.

… Obviously, there is considerable fluidity in modeling hierarchies, and objections and counterexamples will surely have come to mind. Postmodern theory specifically reverses many of these conventions. Consider these “premises” that Harry Berger Jr. outlines in his 2000 study of early modern Dutch portraiture:

The portrait is the image not of a sitter but of the sitter’s act of self-representation

The portrait is the image not of an actual but of a fictional act of self-representation.

Even to hypothesize that a portrait imitates or copies from the life, that it reproduces an actual event, an occasion of posing, is to imagine more than we can know.

[ … ]

… When she poses, she is image-like, formal, to-be-seen. Like a picture or sculpture, she is unmoving as she “throws a shape,” and in doing so she incites a version of the aesthetic response that will eventually be directed toward the artwork that replicates her. The two are often pictured in quasi competition — nature’s beauty versus art’s beauty — and historically, nature has often been declared the victor. People find it hard to differentiate the beauty of an artwork from the beauty of its model, especially in the photographic arts.

Gustave Courbet, The Painter’s Studio: An Allegory (1854-55)

… Model and work are often described in similar terms, for example in the British art historian Sir Kenneth Clark’s opposition of nude and naked. The nude is an idealized form in art, but a posing model is also a nude. Likewise nakedness, with its imperfection and vulnerability, can be a condition of both an image in art and its model. A model’s double identity as quasi artwork and human being is a teasing paradox.

… If art about models often forces us to consider the reality behind representation, it can also focus on intersections between reality and aesthetic form.

Jacques Derrida claimed, “There is nothing outside the text,” and Jean Baudrillard, that “the age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all referentials.”

The model, by contrast, is by definition “outside the text” insofar as she is an independently existent being. In this way, art based on a model is inescapably referential, the purity of its form “diluted” by the accident and contingency of the model. Thus, when art specifically focuses on its model — as is often the case today — it stresses important aspects of aesthetic experience that are typically de-emphasized in modernism: the work’s connection to extra-artistic reality, the inseparability of creation from communication, the interactivity among the parties involved, gender-related issues of agency and passivity, and so forth.

My previous post from Steiner’s book is here.



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