Reflections on our project

Since concluding our presentation last night, I have decided to do a post with some of my reflections on the project.

When we first started, we knew quite quickly that we wanted to do something related to queer theory. Our final outcome “De-Imperialising Gender Identity Terms: A Fragmented Exploration of the ‘Trans’ ‘Experience'”, certainly achieved it. I have really appreciated the opportunity to delve into trans studies literature, particularly the work by Katie Sutton and Susan Stryker. Their research reinforces the interdisciplinary possibilities of trans studies, and, on a personal note, it was exciting to see the importance of German studies to the discipline.

Another area we wanted to include was visual culture, especially film. In the end, we had to leave this out as we decided to spend more time on our case studies in non-English speaking contexts. There certainly could be a version of a presentation, though, in which we studied the representation of trans experiences in American cinema, before contrasting that with other non-Anglo American examples. Where visual culture did come through was the inclusion of Native American performance art, and, frequently, our research into one discipline may have sprung from initially researching art history. Overall, the inclusion and exclusion of visual culture is an interesting demonstration of how interdisciplinary studies can reconfigure assumed links between different areas of knowledge.

We worked well together as a group. Everyone completed their areas of responsibility and brought something new and individual to the presentation. I was particularly impressed to see how members of the group who weren’t so familiar with queer and trans issues learn so much, so quickly.

Capoeira itself

Our project focuses largely on what capoeira represents and how it has been decontextualised and fragmented over time. Having said that, it is important to be as clear as possible about what capoeira actually is, in order to fully engage with the terms used in articles etc. This post is just to lay out an understanding of what capoeira entails, so as to make the rest of our work more meaningful.

Capoeira is most commonly referred to as a martial art and it’s practitioners tend to use the word ‘jogo’ [game]. However, it might be described as a ‘blurred genre’ [Downey 2002] comprising elements not just from martial arts and sport, but also dance and ritual. Historically a practice outlawed and persecuted, it is now used in diverse contexts: from cultural celebrations to modern gym classes.

Traditional manifestations of the practice involve capoeiristas forming a ‘Roda’ [ring] within which two, or occasionally more, participants partake in demonstrating their abilities. This roda is constituted of people waiting to take part, as well as bateria [musicians] who often initiate ‘call and response’ singing with those waiting to enter. When the roda is formed, the most senior mestre [recognised master of capoeira] present often sings a ‘chula,’ which praises God and his own mestre.

The game itself incorporates an extremely wide range of movements, however blocks are typically frowned upon for impacting the fluidity of play. However, they are not often utilised anyway due to the fact that capoeira encourages it’s participants to show attacks, but not to actually follow them through to fruition. It is understood that there is often more skill and control in freezing the attack right before it connects, than there is in completing the movement. That being said, it is still a contact sport and ‘rasteiras’ [take downs] do occur.

Capoeira also does not have fixed rules and there is no way to determine a winner or loser as such. Extent of aggression naturally varies, where some games are almost teamwork to create the most intricate dance and others resemble far more of a martial art as the term is commonly understood. However overall, the roda allows the game to continue between players, as they swap in and out, for as long as they wish.

There is no universal way of grading a capoeirista’s ability, and individual groups approach the education of it’s members differently. The above pattern outlines some of the basic elements of capoeira as it was practiced traditionally, but the fragmented nature of it’s history and evolution means that this cannot be taken as a comprehensive guide.

Music of capoeira

Berimbau: a chordophone played with a wooden bow, capable of three different sounds (open string, high note, buzz). The instrument is associated particularly with capoeira but also candomblé, making it a large part of the culture for many slaves located in Brazil. In certain areas, during the period that capoeira was illegal, even carrying a berimbau in public was thought to be sufficient grounds to justify arrest and legal prosecution [https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/852720.pdf?ab_segments=0%252Fdefault-2%252Fcontrol&refreqid=excelsior%3A6b296a3f1e1ea2124c46ca1faedfaa6f].

The music of capoeira substantiates its subversive nature. Not only does the choice of ‘toque’ (literally ‘tolling’ but roughly translated to ‘song’) establish the pace and energy of the game, many of the lyrics are direct references to slavery. Examples of this include ‘na Roda de Capoeira / nêgo joga para valer’ [Vamos Trabalhar], which states that slaves might play the game to prove their worth. Another example can be found in ‘A Manteiga Derramou,’ which speaks of classic acts of sabotage [Scott 1985].

The music was also used as a form of communication. Not only did specific beats delineate the need for a change in players or incite more energy, it also served as a warning. Given that slaves were not permitted to practice any form of martial art, capoeira had to be hidden from the Portuguese officials. By playing a syncopated rhythm (akin to the sound of galloping hooves), a berimbau player who was stationed as a lookout could alert the capoeiristas of incoming officials. This would result in the players of the game switching to a purely dance-based form of movement, so as to avoid confrontation with the law.

In this sense, the music also contributes to the ‘malandragem’ (cunning) of capoeira, which is considered an integral part of the art. One mestre in Rio stated that “Malandragem is survival, it is surviving the fight that is every day life” [Wesolowski 2015]. This cunning is perceived to be an effective technique in dealing with societal constraints.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctt14tqd0x.12.pdf?refreqid=search%3A144a3bc946db0b40d5396dae91e8d8ad

Interdisciplinary lessons and teamwork skills

To have worked on our TAD project – interlacing art, sexuality, and theories on perception – has taught me quite a few lessons on interdisciplinarity. These three domains, indeed, are by essence interdisciplinary by the fact that they intertwine cultural history, theology, sociology, but also psychology and the cognitive sciences; an accurate picture of the perception of sexuality in art at a certain time and place necessarily requiring an engagement with all and in-between all of these disciplinary fields.

This interdisciplinary requirement did not go without issues, to say the least: for a five minute presentation, we had to condense all of this varied material in a few disciplinarily intertwined ideas. This may be the biggest challenge of an interdisciplinary study and a Liberal Arts analysis in general – the one of juggling with this tsunami of information and having the eye to only select and keep the essential ideas or illustrations for your overall argument. This in turn, of course, pre-requires structure, focus and an understanding of what precisely is aimed to be argued.

On another note, to have worked with a group on that task was also deeply enriching. To the trans-disciplinarity of our study was, in a challenging way, added the trans-subjective perspectives that we each had on art (how to analyze it), sexuality (the extent of its freedom) and spectatorial subjectivity (is it absolutely relative or moderately relative in relation to a specific culture?). This invited us to open our minds, be flexible and make concessions – to put into question what previously seemed evident to us. This is a crucial vulnerability to accept, as in the working world, conceptual and intellectual diversity and adversity will always prevail and challenge our preconceptions.

The ultimate difficulty of working as a group, quite obviously, was also to coordinate, organize, and autonomously fulfill our self-made tasks and deadlines. We had to work as a team in making choices and thereafter make a plan as to how and when to get to certain goals. For instance, when we decided that we each had to find a particular case study at the beginning of the semester, before the next time we would meet. In this, the use of social media was very useful – WhatsApp, with its ability to mention specific members of the group or reply directly to messages (as well as send images, voice messages, documents) was a great tool with which we can undeniably work on a group project later on in the professional area. It was also a place in which questions could be asked and brainstormings could be made, without the necessity to meet in persons.

In conclusion, by interlacing teamwork with interdisciplinarity, this final Liberal Arts module clearly taught us two vital skills to use in professional life, both within the scope of our undergraduate teaching and extra to it, within the scope of social and organizational life.

Fragmented Origins of Capoeira

As far as I can see, there are four strands within the history of Capoeira, a brief outline of which is provided below. Debates concerning the ‘purity’ and heritage of Capoeira styles began in the 1930s and groups tend to align themselves with one of these schools of thought. 

  1. those who espouse an Afro-centric vision (claiming capoeira originated in Angola among free men) see Downey 1998, 2005. Some critics have suggested that the name capoeira has Bantu roots, which supports this viewpoint. Neves e Sousa suggested in ‘Da Minha África E Do Brasil Que Eu Vi’ that similarities are evident between Capoeira and Jogo de Angola, Bassula (a traditional fishermen’s fight in Luanda) and N’Golo (a male dance performed for female puberty rights in the Mucope region).
  2. Bahian capoeiristas claiming that capoeira first appeared in Salvador. Salvador was the first slave port, alongside the economic centre of the colony. It is argued that capoeira developed in senzalas, the dance-like aesthetic acting as a facade for the study of martial arts. Parallels have been drawn between Capoeira and the syncretic religion Candomblé, which linked African deities to Catholic saints, allowing slaves to worship their gods while maintaining the appearance of Catholicism. 
  3. The artistic/martial expression of capoeira was developed in the quilombos, and the name comes from the Tupi language. The most famous figure in this narrative is King Zumbi, the leader of Palmares, the largest and longest enduring quilombo in Alagoas. It is suggested (though no physical documentation exists to corroborate the fact) that Zumbi trained an army of foot soldiers in a form of capoeira martial art. Whether or not this is accurate, today King Zumbi is a popular symbol of Afro-Brazilian pride and resistance.
  4. The earliest and most extensive documentation of Capoeira’s origins suggests it emerged first in Rio de Janeiro. By 1821, Rio possessed the largest urban slave population in the Americas (46% of the total city – Holloway 1993:26). The first visual representations stem from this environment, the most explicit reference being an engraving by Johann Mortiz Rugenda entitled ‘Jogar capoëra ou danse de la guerre’ (1835).

It is worth noting that many practitioners acknowledge the dubious validity of stories surrounding Capoeira’s heritage. However, such narratives are often taught to initiates as they begin to learn, continuing to circulate as a way to contextualise Capoeira within the history of slavery and slave resistance in Brazil.

 

Final Reflection

Today we had our last meeting before the final rehearsal and presentation tomorrow. Since our last meeting with Rosa, we finalised our shared Google Docs and had daily communication about updates/feedback/changes. We decided to meet over the weekend because we wanted to check out the room and also time ourselves to make sure we were meeting the 20 minutes time limit. We also did some final remarks on each other’s parts and worked on perfecting a coherent narrative. Tomorrow we will practice for a last time with our visuals. 

After being almost done, I realised that this project has given me the chance to improve on several skills. First, team work. I was very reticent about working with a group of people that I didn’t know and probably would have very different interests and personalities. However, even though this was true (we all have different interests), we managed to find a topic that we all found fascinating and motivated us to work. I found, at some times, we all wanted to take the project through a specific path that connected with us personally, but our meetings with Rosa helped us to find a common ground for our ideas. I basically learned that being flexible to feedback and other perspective can be surprisingly helpful and productive! Nevertheless, I found that there can be a dichotomy between students between those who are concerned with “deep learning” (studying for personal knowledge and development) and those who preoccupy about “surface learning” (concerned with progression through the course to get a good final certification). I would definitely consider myself a member of the deep learners, but I realised that I need to learn from the other methodology because, after all, formal academic education does care about the knowledge you acquire… but they appreciate a student following set procedures and deadlines and following the progression of the course step-by-step. This is extremely hard for me because I work in peaks of energy and can read and write for 12 hours in a day, but I find it hard to work just 1 hour in a day for 12 weeks. However, the project made me realise that I should work on this in order to be able to meet procedures if needed.

Secondly, regarding interdisciplinary research: I have been very interested about critical theory (which deals with philosophical, political, social, etc. issues) and its effects on history, and this project allowed me to explore it in quite depth. Furthermore, I learned to be more nuanced and critical about assumptions and it showed me that working consistently, over time, on a project and being flexible about the paths it takes can open up opportunities that are even more interesting that the first one I conceived. When I read my first entry on the blog, I can see my progress from that one-dimensional case-study filled with assumptions, too straight-forward and basic, and not interdisciplinary enough. I really feel that the final result is nuanced, critical, and interdisciplinary. I think the presentation does justice to Ways of Seeing… and that is a big thing to say!

Finally, even though the blog was a bit glitchy at times and it created some confusion, I think it’s a great idea to have a place to post your findings and where you have useful information about your research and progress so you can go back to it – and get feedback. I think I will take this idea to create a blog for myself and write summaries of the readings I do and write updates about the projects I am working on to organise it all in the same place.

In conclusion, the project was quite useful to improve some skills and learn things about myself identifying things to improve further. It also was surprisingly productive to work with a group of people I didn’t know, and I learned how to be interdisciplinarily nuanced.


I also wanted to leave a final thought about perception in my particular case-study of The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Since I have been dealing with this paintings for weeks (I believe months even), I was curious to find the perception that my friends got of it. So, I posted a poll on Instagram asking them first, if they saw sexuality (95% said yes) and, secondly, if they got positive or negative vibes. These were the results (32 participants) :

It was extremely divided almost by half and half by the people that got positive vibes and the people that saw it negatively. Interesting!!

Aspects of Capoeira in the 21st century

  1. Rio Olympics : https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/jp7xjp/is-there-a-place-for-capoeira-in-the-olympics 
  • Not every capoeirista is in favour of an Olympic event:  opinions differ according to which capoeira form is practiced: “Capoeira Regional is closer to fighting, or sport. They’re more enthusiastic about capoeira being in the Olympics” vs capoeira Angola: they are less in favour as they believe that “capoeira, which includes music and chanting and does not declare winners or losers, is a cultural rather than a sporting event”

2. Brail’s toursim industry: https://sports.vice.com/en_us/article/jp7xjp/is-there-a-place-for-capoeira-in-the-olympics 

  • Brazil’s tourism industry makes ‘”frequent use of capoeira’s striking visual images, but the day-to-day reality of life for many in the capoeira community is not as glossy, especially in a country as wracked by racial and social inequality as Brazil”.
  • Capoeira presentations, normally theatrical, acrobatic and with little martiality, are common sights around the world.
  • “Lots of people think capoeira is macumba,” said Joselio Lima, the Maré mestre, using a generic term for Afro-Brazilian religions. “Sometimes I have to explain to the parents of my students that it’s not about religion.””
  • Capoeira nowadays is not only a martial art, but an active exporter of Brazilian culture all over the world: Every year capoeira attracts thousands of foreign students and tourists to Brazil.
  • In 2014 the Capoeira Circle was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the convention recognised that the “capoeira circle is a place where knowledge and skills are learned by observation and imitation” and that it “promotes social integration and the memory of resistance to historical oppression”

3. Capoeira in popular western culture:

  • Capoeira can be seen in films such as in Harry Potter and the Goblet of fire (the Durmstrang students), Indiana Jones and the kingdom of the crystal skull. In these films, capoeira is used in a de-contextualised context with no reference to its origins.
  • Capoeira is also seen in Rio2 and in Infinity War where capoeira is one of several African martial arts that T’Challa utilizes in combat.
  • Capoeira is frequently seen in rap music videos as back up dancers, again mostly with no reference to its origins and meanings
  • some have said that breakdancing has some capoeira influences sine the 1970s

Preliminary Plan of Presentation

This is the plan and backbone, for the moment, of our presentation for next Monday:

 

Title – Ways of Seeing: fragmented perceptions of sexuality in art through the ages

 

Intro

-> Start from Berger’s idea – what he says and what we do with it (let him introduce the work)

-> Perception is inherently fragmented in both subject and context (expanding on his argument)

—> Sexuality in particular: basic fact of human life, but governed by religious and moral codes

-> makes it particularly apt to be artistically represented in a fragmented manner (perception)

 

3 Objects: representative of their particular time and context

-> Contemporary Instagram as a concluding, contextualizing thought

Why these? – go well with Berger’s ideas of Nudity, Mystification and Reproduction (they exemplify them)

-> It’s also that they provide diversity: extra-European example of Japanese Shunga art (beyond Berger); at the end an example of contemporary representation insta of sexuality will also be provided 

—> Provides a fragmented approach

 

Then – jump strait to the case study 

-> touch beyond history – psychology, cognition

-> ideas and concepts that are beyond Berger’s Ways of Seeing

—> These ideas as a side note, to be eventually discussed during questions

 

Conclusion – present time internet

-> decentralization in space – static images that travel around the word

-> active engagement of the audience with works

-> making money on digital reproduction

—> Speaks to critical theory, gender studies 

 

Dress up? To decide at the end

 

OUTLINE IDEA FOR THE PRESENTATION

  1. The fragmentary nature of perception: perception of sexuality in artistic representation is inherently fragmented due to the subjective reception of spectators
    1. Why sexuality
    2. Ways of seeing
    3. Why these objects (across time and space)
  2. Possible perceptions in their time
    1. How sexuality was lived in each of the periods
      1. Can we really perceive like them?
      2. Critique os sexuality as a modern construction
    2. Monopolisation of art by the elite
      1. Imposition of “meaning”
  3. Possible perceptions now
    1. Mystification and commodity fetishism create passive audiences that don’t really engage with the material.
    2. Search for authorial intent?
      1. Doesn’t make sense to look for authorial intent or a “true” meaning when so little is known of the author or the work.
      2. “Death of the author is birth of the audience” – important to break with mystification and authority’s imposition of meaning.
    3. Opportunities thanks to current material conditions
      1. Public galleries + mechanical reproduction + the internet
      2. Usefulness of the democratic praxis
        1. Active spectatorship as antidote for alienation
  4. Fragmentation is constructive for the ways of seeing.
  • I have combined Ways of Seeing with ideas from other critical theorists to give it more dimensions.
  • I think we can explain our case-studies simultaneously in each point, so we can cover all the mains points of Ways of Seeing for each of the objects and show that the ideas are somewhat universal because they can be extrapolated to other examples of art through time and space.
  • This might be too long for 20 minutes.

Ways of Seeing Sexuality in The Garden of Earthly Delights (Final thoughts)

Introduction: Why sexuality?

Sexuality was and is experienced by all human beings in all times and spaces, but civilisations and cultures have viewed it in very different way throughout times and the artistic representation of those cultures show this. For example, ancient Greeks used sexuality as a central topic of their religion and their art; later, sexuality was taboo for medieval Europeans due to the expansion of Judeo-Christian values (and this was, again, expressed in their art); meanwhile, Japanese art of the Edo period portrayed a vision of sexuality that was erotic and harmonious.

Our project explores this and, therefore, makes two main assumptions: first, that sexuality is common for all human beings and, second, that perceptions of sexuality and its representation in time is fluid and changes throughout time and space. This is an analysis based on historical materialism, or the idea that the material (structural) reality of a certain period conditions its culture, how people create and perceive. However, a couple of questions arises from this straightforward material analysis, which are: if a work of art is particular to a time period, why does it connect with people beyond its era? What is the value of the work of art beyond its example of material culture of a time period? This is where our project comes in. Parting from Ways of Seeing as a theoretical framework, we expand on the idea that sexuality in art was perceived differently through time and space, and connect it with the value it has for nowadays. In this sense, we explain that perception is subjective to the spectator as well as to the historical period, and that the practice of interacting actively with art from the past can be means for individual and social liberation.

Critiques on the notion of Sexuality

According to our friend Foucault, sexuality as a cohesive action separated from other social relations is a modern notion brought to us by the European elite. According to him, ‘all this garrulous attention which has us in a stew over sexuality, is it not motivated by one basic concern: to ensure population, to reproduce labor capacity, to perpetuate the form of social relations: in short, to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative?’ (Foucault, 37). He argues that the creation is specifically European because the European tradition of views of sex from Christianity is very different to the ones of antiquity or other parts of the globe, such as Asia. The cultures outside Christianity commonly ‘endowed themselves with an ars erotica. In the erotic art, truth is drawn from pleasure itself, understood as a practice and accumulated as experience; pleasure is not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself; it is experienced as pleasure, evaluated in terms of its intensity, its specific quality, its duration, its reverberations in the body and the soul‘ (60).  As we can see, sexuality for these cultures is nothing separate from their bodies and souls or social relations, but part of them and their everyday life. It had representation, because it was something people did (like eating) but it didn’t have a moral value accompanying them (if you think about it, there is not a concept such as sexuality for eating – and every human does it with different tastes and for different reasons). 

In Europe, since the Middle Ages, sexuality was interpreted by the act of confession and the ‘receptor valued how much sin you had made’ (67). In other words, sex becomes sexuality because it is valued under the label of “sin” and compare to virtues. For Foucault, this is problematic because it’s obviously an imposition from the elite (authority) to control the common people. He explains that ‘the cycle of prohibition: thou shalt not go near, thou shalt not touch, thou shalt not consume, thou shalt not experience pleasure, thou shalt not speak, thou shalt not show thyself; ultimately thou shalt not exist, except in darkness and secrecy. To deal with sex, power employs nothing more than a law of prohibition. Its objective: that sex renounce itself. Its instrument: the threat of a punishment that is nothing other than the suppression of sex. Renounce yourself or suffer the penalty of being suppressed; do not appear if you do not want to disappear. Your existence will be maintained only at the cost of your nullification. Power constrains sex only through a taboo that plays on the alternative between two nonexistences’ (84).  Indeed, ‘power is essentially what dictates its law to sex. Which means first of all that sex is placed by power in a binary system: licit and illicit, permitted and forbidden.[..] The pure form of power resides in the function of the legislator; and its mode of action with regard to sex is of a juridicodiscursive character’ (83). After all, ‘in Western societies since the Middle Ages, the exercise of power has always been formulated in terms of law’ (87). So, maybe, to analyse something in terms of sexuality is to already be an accomplice of a discourse of power directed from the elite to the common people. 

Sexuality in The Garden of Earthly Delights

We know little of the author of the painting, Hieronymus Bosch, and the painting itself. What we know is that the author was successful and painted for the Brussels elite (aristocrats), who were the representatives of the orthodox culture of that moment (Vergara, web). We also know that the triptych was painting in the last decade of the 15th century to be part of the personal collection of the Prince of Orange-Nassau, and decorated his palace in Brussels. This is incredibly uncommon, because triptychs had been objects reserved for churches, more specifically altars. This can probably tell us about the first steps of a secularisation process art was going through in that specific time, a time when medieval tradition and new Renaissance ideas coexisted in the higher classes of Northern European cultures. The fact that it was the aristocracy and not the church automatically gave more room for creativity and allowed Bosch to explore themes outside the sacred scripture (even though the triptych undoubtedly is based on the Bible).

The left of the triptych, the presentation of Eve, has strong religious significance but it’s accompanied with dream-like symbolism and representations of non-canonical Gospels (the Parables of Jesus). Indeed, this drifts away from the Catholic orthodoxy that had dominated the higher sphere for centuries until that time. We must remember the last decades of the 15th century and first decades of the 16th century were the times when Martin Luther and Protestantism gained momentum.  The panel, presents nudes as they are typically represented in European oil painting: static and passive. Yet, it is quite strange to find representations of this particular scene, and we have very few examples of it in Art History (Vergara, web).

Moving on to the second panel, we find the vivid representation of sexuality in a fantastic environment. ‘From 1200s, hybrid monsters and strange creatures peer out from bestiaries and the margins of illuminated manuscripts, influencing thereafter fantasy art’ (Art Book, 136), but it was still uncommon to find this kind of representation in a triptych; ‘utterly unconventional, it deviates substantially from the mainstream Netherlandish art of the time’ (Art Book, 136). It is a confusing scene that breaks with established order or composition hierarchy, and there is no specific focus. Art historians have found this panel extremely hard to interpret in regards to the authorial intent, as we know little of the author and the meaning is not explicitly detailed. In fact, Bosch didn’t even sign the work, but there is little doubt that it could be someone’s else.

In terms of sexuality as theme of the panel, ‘medievalist have argued that there was no term like “sexualitas” that corresponds to the modern one, no unified field of discourse. Medieval people, the argument goes, had sex, but they did not have sexuality, which is not just a series of sex acts but a category of human experience, a discourse about the body and what we do with it, a way of constructing meaning around behaviour. [Nevertheless] medieval people certainly had discourses of the flesh and of desire’ (Karras, 279). According to Katherine Harvey, ‘while Christian ideals indeed influenced medieval attitudes to sex, they were rather more complex than contemporary prejudices suggest. Christian beliefs interacted with medieval medical theories to help shape some surprising and sophisticated ideas about sex, and a wide variety of different sexual practices (Harvey, web). Furthermore, medieval approaches to sexuality were characterised by variety’ (Karras, 281), especially because the time period lasts for centuries and it covers all of Europe, so many cultures coexist under the term.

What is the role of sin then? ‘Much has been made of the medieval tendency to interpret disease as a product of sexual sin. Too much. In fact, the medieval tendency to see disease as sexual sin was not solely based on moral judgments – there were also strong medical elements. According to medieval understandings of the body, based on the system of the four humours (blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile), these men’s behaviour presented problems. The humours system derived from the idea that health was based on an equilibrium of the humours, and illness the product of imbalance. Humours were balanced, and good health maintained, through the expulsion of various bodily fluids, including semen. Regular sexual intercourse was thus part of a healthy life for most men, but moderation was key.’ (Harvey, web). More importantly, however, ‘the relationship between the behavioural expectations enunciated by the norms that society imposed to govern human activities and the recalcitrant realities of human conduct’ is evident. After all, no matter if sex is consider sinful, people won’t stop having urges because of it.  

Nevertheless, ‘in the study of sexuality, historians have to be even more careful than in other areas not to project their own attitudes onto the period of study. Sexuality is something about which many people in the modern world care deeply. […] In particular we must beware of the modern notion that sex is ideally an act of mutual pleasure involving two active partners, a two-way street’ (Karras, 280). It can be strange for us to see an image of sexuality with multiple bodies, and we can extrapolate our own feeling of strangeness into the painting to attribute a “true meaning”. However, as we argue, true meanings don’t necessarily exist in art, so interpretation is more important. 

‘The earliest surviving response to The Garden of Earthly Delights dates from 1517, when Antonio de Beatis – secretary to the Cardinal of Aragon – encountered it in the palace of the Nassau Counts in Belgium. This palace was a political hub of the Netherlands, and regularly hosted high profile diplomatic events. The painting was enthusiastically received by its distinguished audience’ (Art Book, 137). A bit more history about the property of the panel also tells us that it belonged to the aristocracy until 1939, when it was moved from the palace of El Escorial in Madrid (where it was for centuries since it was confiscated by the Spanish aristocracy in 1591) to the current location of El Museo de El Prado (Maroto, web). This means that, for centuries, this work of art was physically monopolised by the elite, so the wider audience did not actually engage with it and perceive it in any way. However, those privileged enough to have seen the work probably parted from the ideas of sex mentioned above. 

So, sexuality in the first panel is representative of the European nude: passive and static. Sexuality in the second panel challenges this notion and presents a multitude of bodies having pleasure (note that Eden in Hebrew means pleasure). What about the last panel of Hell? Could there be any sexuality represented in it? Well, according to historian Vern L. Bullough, masochism was a common sexual practice in the Middle Ages. ‘Quite obviously there are many elements in medieval society which emphasize both the importance of suffering and the need to give punishment. […] Although asceticism is not, in and of itself, necessarily masochistic, there is a line between the physical and mental training necessary to achieve greater self-control and sado-masochistic pleasure, between self-denial and self-punishment, but it is not always clear what that line is. Some of the early Christian ascetics seem to have crossed that line and, if one is to believe the descriptions of Palladius, that line was crossed often’. 

Does authorial intent matter in the interpretation of the work?

Evidently, knowing about the context of a work of art nowadays influences how we interpret it. However, we have to bear in mind that the people who engaged with the work in its period were probably not worried about the authorial intent, as at that time the author was really not relevant (one of the reasons why they didn’t sign their pieces), at least not as relevant was the person that commissioned the painting. 

In addition, it is difficult to assume a specific meaning or authorial intent in a painting of that period, as the knowledge of it is entirely fragmented because we don’t have records and we don’t live in their historical context – so we can’t perceive as they did. Even art historians are not clear about which artistic current corresponds to Bosch’s paintings. For example, Dr Alexandra Harris argues that ‘Bosch’s pale figures belong to the international gothic‘ (Harris, web) while Encyclopedia Britannica attributes Bosch’s work to the Late Gothic Flemish movement because ‘it shows individual decisions by the painter to portray the extreme and bizarre’, and other historians argue that he is currently a Northern Renaissance painter. Susie Nash problematises the pontentially conflicting terminology of (“Norther Renaissance”, “Late Gothic”, “International Gothic”) which is often employed to ‘describe fourteenth-, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century art and architecture in the north.’ These terms suggest artificial fissures that disrupt continuities and can be easily interpreted as conflicting – while they are not. So, even by assuming that Bosch’s belongs to one of this categories, we can imply a meaning to his work which is not really true nor relevant for our particular way of seeing. It can actually be a distraction.  

Furthermore, the monopolisation of art by the authorities have led people to believe that they should know everything about the context of a painting in order to engage with it. And even though knowing the context is necessary for historians that are studying the material culture of a time and place, it is really not necessary for a general public. In fact, even for historians knowledge and attributions of meaning can change through time depending on the research. For example, many art historians argue that Bosch was clearly portraying the actual world in the second panel, because they assume that it is what happened in the Bible after the creation of the original sin, and makes sense with the subsequent panel of Hell. However, other historians that have studied versions of the Bible have found that there is a sequence in the Bible after the creation of Adam and Eve which imagines the world as if the original sin was never conceived. Basically, it describes a lost paradise in which humanity could have enjoyed pleasures for eternity if Adam and Eve had not become sinful. Vergara (web) believes that this is the possible authorial intent of Bosch, since he was obviously an artist with creative freedom that didn’t depend directly on the church. Obviously, what you know about the Bible can severely affect your interpretation of the work, if you are looking for a real intention.

Another example of how knowledge about an art work changes, and so does authorial intent change with it is the fact that in 1951, German art historian Wilhelm Fraenger published a book titled The Millenium of Hieronymus Bosch, which was widely influential for Bosch students in the following decades. The book tried to prove that ‘Bosch’s symbols probably came from the secret, proverbial, heretical language of certain fifteenth century millennial sects, who heretically believed that, if evil could be overcome, it was possible to build a heaven on Earth’ (Berger, 36). This helped to see the triptych as an inherently positive message because, after all, it was the authorial intent. Nevertheless, Fraenger’s work is nowadays very much contested, especially because it is now known that Bosch was in fact part of a secret Christian organisation called The Brotherhood of Our Lady, which was actually very much orthodox. All the archives and information accumulated by the organisation became public in 2004 and historians currently have access to it. And so, the “real” meaning of the painting is now believed to be more moralising that utopic, due to Bosch’s religious orthodoxy. 

This last weekend, I had a conversation with a friend about the painting and asked her what was her way of seeing it, without caring about authorial intent. She told me that for her the painting was definitely a moral cautionary tale for people to avoid sin. Of course, she (as me) had taken a higher level of Art History in our last year of high school, and we had studied Bosch in detail. She knew (as I did) that the interpretation of the moralising tale was the one that had a wider acceptance by art historians. She also knew that in Bosch’s artistic production, the theme of sin came up over and over, somewhat obsessively.

The Haywain Triptych is another of Bosch’s paintings found in El Prado museum. It is an explicit tale of the consequences of greed, one of the seven cardinal sins. The metaphor of avarice and accumulation of hay appears in the Bible, so there is really not many interpretations about this triptych.

The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins is also a work found in El Prado attributed to Bosch (also not signed). As the title tells, it shows seven scenes that represent each of the capital sins.

Bosch’s representation of The Last Judgement (presented in this triptych as subsequent to the acquisition of the original sin) , is undoubtedly apocalyptic and it follows the description of Luke’s and Matthew’s books of the New Testament which explains that the people corrupted by sin will suffer the consequences of their acts. This representation of suffering is very similar to the panel of Hell in The Garden of Earthly delights, so it can be extrapolated that they both share the same meaning.

So, of course my friend could not separate her knowledge to her way of seeing, but she also was very much affected by the mystification and search of a “true” meaning imposed by the author.

However, I think that the value of the work is both what it can tell us about the past but, more important, how we can use it in the present. For example, in his essay of Bosch, Berger uses The Garden of Earthly delights as a metaphor for greed under the capitalist system. In the panel of Hell, he sees the consequences of this greed: suffering, elimination of the landless and homeless, totalitarianism…

Usefulness of the work now

This brings us my last question of this post: what is the usefulness of looking at sexuality in The Garden of Earthly Delights nowadays?

Our bodies it what connect us to the rest of the tangible world. Our bodies can, therefore, be the key to the ultimate utopia: a world in which everything is pleasurable. However, we still have material conditions that make this enjoyment impossible, we don’t have freedom in many ways to enjoy our bodies. Like Berger implied in his Bosch essay, the horrors of the modern world can create the opposite, our bodies can become a battleground of torture and suffering. For example, being killed by hunger or lack of refuge or wars or for protesting for better conditions, being raped or abused for our personal conditions, or even suffering for having to work every day for 9 hours and living under stress.

This is why I like to see The Garden of the Earthly Delights as a dialectical conversation between pure connection with our bodies in a completely innocent way – where not even nakedness is seen as something out of the ordinary (represented by the left panel), and a situation were our bodies are literally instrument for torturing us (represented in the right panel). In the centre, the synthesis of this conversation: a world were individuals are part of a community where everyone has the enough material conditions to enjoy their bodies in their own pleasurable way, and where sexuality is lived as part of an everyday search for enjoyment.

Of course, this is just a way of seeing.

 

Sources: 

The Art Book, published by DK with multiple authors, 2017.

The Bible. <https://bible.org/download/netbible/ondemand/bybook/gen.pdf>.

Berger, John. ‘Hieronymous Bosch’ (1999) in Portraits, Verso, 2017.

Bullough, Vern L. ‘Sex in History: A Redux’ in J. Murray and K. Eisenbichler, (eds.) Desire and Discipline: Sex and Sexuality in the Premodern West. University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Western Painting, <https://www.britannica.com/art/Western-painting/Western-Dark-Ages-and-medieval-Christendom#ref582559>.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I an Introduction, Random House, 1978.

Harris, Alexandra. Bosch and Bruegel review – more gripping than a thriller (2017) <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/01/bosch-bruegel-joseph-leo-koerner>.

Harvey, Katherine. The Salacious Middle Ages (2014) <https://aeon.co/essays/getting-down-and-medieval-the-sex-lives-of-the-middle-ages>.

Karras, Ruth Mazo. ‘Sexuality in the Middle Ages’ in P. Linehan and J.L. Nelson (eds.) The Medieval World. London Routledge, pp. 279-293, 2001.

Nash, Susie. Northern Renaissance Art. Oxford History of Art, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Silva Maroto, Pilar. Ficha de El Jardín de las Delicias. <https://www.museodelprado.es/recurso/jardin-de-las-delicias-el-el-bosco/578702d4-4420-4e97-8518-8363a1fc2c9e

Vergara, Alejandro.  Otros ojos para ver el prado: El jardín de las delicias (Multimedia), <https://www.museodelprado.es/coleccion/obra-de-arte/triptico-del-jardin-de-las-delicias/02388242-6d6a-4e9e-a992-e1311eab3609?searchMeta=jardin%20de%20las%20delicias>.