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.

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!!

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>.

Ways of Seeing Art – through Critical Theory

In the following post I will use other sources of Critical Theory (from Marx to Ranciere, among others) to construct more dimensions into our project, and it will be useful for our three case-studies. Specifically, to follow our thesis that perception of sexuality in artistic representation is inherently fragmented due to the subjective reception of spectatorsI deal with the ideas of spectatorship, authorial intent, commodity fetishism, and democratic praxis. My peers can continue from this research to develop their own case-studies, although I recommend expanding this reading list. 

SPECTATORSHIP

In his 1967 well-known treatise The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord introduced the critical theory of Spectacle, in which people living in modern consumer societies had an automatically passive approach to life. Completely alienated from our work production and turned into machines to watch and consume, ‘the more [we] contemplate, the less [we] live’ (Debord, 23). As mentioned in my previous post, Berger’s Ways of Seeing was a way to break with this passive engagement, this passive interpretation of viewing, specifically in art. In other works, Ways of Seeing is a method to avoid The Society of the Spectacle (much as Debord’s movement of the Situationist International, which were in favour of active approaches to every day living).

In The Emancipated Spectator (2008), Jacques Ranciere comes back to this idea in a direct and goal-oriented way. His book seeks to be a final call for the emancipation of the spectator, to the awakening of a passive audience. He calls it emancipation, because it’s an active movement towards freedom, specifically ‘intellectual’ freedom. Ranciere points out that a passive spectatorship automatically generates a dichotomy of knowledge: the ones that create and are active are the ones that know about the work of art; and the ones that are passive are the ones that don’t know, and so they are alienated. But he emphasises that viewing can also be active, if we ‘if we interpret, compare, link what we see to other things we have seen, experienced, dreamed in other places. There are distant spectators and active interpreters (Ranciere, 13). If the audience is active, that dichotomy of knowledge mentioned before radically changes because ‘a work is not transmission of the artist’s knowledge or inspiration to the spectator. It is a third thing whose meaning is not owned by no one. […]’ (Ranciere, 15) and, therefore, interpreting spectators can apply their own knowledge into the work, just as Berger implies in Ways of Seeing. In other words, the separation between viewer and art work needs to be trascended because the idea of interpretation is more important for active engagement than authorial intent (we will go back to this idea in the next section).

However, perception, as we argue, is inherently fragmented because it depends on subjective reception from each spectator. So, interpretations depend on the individual. Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy which deals with this idea of personal perception. Famous thinkers of this current are Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and others. ‘Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience.’ (Stanford Education, web). Therefore, Ways of Seeing could be interpreted under this scope, as Berger undoubtedly shares this idea that art interpretation depends on the way we experience it. This is also related to the concept of qualia, defined to be individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. The term qualia derives from the Latin meaning “of what sort” or “of what kind” in a specific instance like “what it is like to taste a specific apple, this particular apple now”. 

Furthermore, psychology has also explored the subjectivity in perception. The subjective character of experience is a term in psychology and the philosophy of mind denoting that all subjective phenomena are associated with a single point of view (the individual). The term was coined by Thomas Nagel in his paper “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” Subjective character of experience implies that the perception of all things, concepts, and “truths” in the universe differs between individuals: we all live in different worlds, each of which may have things in common, because of our unique perspectives on our worlds. The only thing to which one can hold oneself is something one has experienced or perceived. The paper basically explains that bats have their own way of perceiving and therefore their own way of experience that humans would have a hard time comprehending, and this is obviously due to their physical characteristics and their environments. ‘Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited’ (Nagel, 439) so even though we might have all the information about a certain thing (for example, how bats perceive) we can’t experience what they do. Same even if we have all the information about something past, we can’t experience it again and so our perception of their material culture is necessarily different than theirs. 

There is also scientific research that supports this inherent fragmentation of perception depending on experience. In Cultural Effects on Visual Perception, Masuda summarises the scientific empirical work done in the recent decades that shows that culture and human psychological processes are considered to mutually influence one another. He argues that ‘mainstream psychology has generally assumed that psychological processes are universal and that the main role of psychology is to investigate these universal aspects of human beings. Visual perception, attention, and even visual illusion have, therefore, been understood mainly in terms of the underlying optical mechanisms and characteristics of visual information hardwired in the human brain and shared by human beings in general’ (1); however, this is proven wrong by the inter-cultural work cited by Masuda. For example, he explains the experiments on visual perception given to people of different cultures and they responded differently (despite of race and gender).  

As mentioned in my previous post, this is one of the main theses (if not the main) of Ways of Seeing, and my case-study is a clear example of this, especially the main panel. Depending on how we see it, we can interpret even opposite meanings. I will develop this further in a final post about my particular case-study.

AUTHORIAL INTENT

While thinking about the project and the argument that perception of art is inherently fragmented because it depends on the subjective interpretation of the viewer, an obvious question was, what is the role of authorial intent then? To what extent is meaning decided upon a piece of art? If only the perception of the spectator matters and it’s value for the present, worrying about the context of the piece necessarily generates a negative mystification?

A theory that is in favour of disregarding the authorial intent when engaging with a work of art is the famous Death of the Author, first developed by Roland Barthes is his 1967 essay of that title. The essay focused on literary analysis and criticism, and he famously argued that the ‘text belongs to its audience, not the author’. Traditionally, criticism focused (in all the arts) in authorial intent until the critical theory of the 1960s, of which Barthes’ is representative. From Barthes on, however, critical theorists shifts the focus to the work in itself, and especially the relationship between the piece and the audience – not, as it was before, the author and the audience. According to Barthes, focusing on the author has no value because the ‘the author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person” […] the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions’ (Barthes, 2). In other words, the author was a construction and imposed by the elite to set a fixed meaning to their works of art.

As he summarises, ‘once the Author is gone, the claim to “decipher” a text becomes quite useless. To give an Author to a text is to impose upon that text a stop clause, to furnish it with a final signification, to close the writing’ (Barthes, 5). In pages 28 and 29 of Ways of Seeing, Berger specifically explains how the elite has monopolised art and its meanings until the era of mechanical reproduction and concludes that ‘art, with its unique undiminished authority, justifies most other forms of authority, that art makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling’ (29); therefore, allowing authority to control art is dangerous not only because it causes passive spectators, but also because it creates a complacent and controlled society.  Barthes also thinks that the author has been treated as a God, and the meaning it gave to his/her work was treated as final and fixed because it was surrounded of an aura of secrecy and the only active relation the audience could have with the work is to unpack this secret (even though it was implicit that they would never been able, because it was a divine creation). This is also what Berger calls “mystification” in Ways of Seeing. Furthermore, as Berger (and Debord and Ranciere), Barthes believes that a free audience that engages actively with the works of art is the audience necessary to create a better society and individuals: ‘the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author’ (Barthes, 6). 

Foucault famously expanded Barthes work outside Literature to other types of production. He focuses again on the role that the work in itself has, outside of the context of its creation, ‘the work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be the author’s murderer’ (Foucault, 1).  He explains that, contrary to historical believe since the Renaissance, ‘the author is not an indefinite source of significations that fill a work; the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction’ (Foucault,14). According to him, hence, the author is an ideological figure and people assign meaning to a work for who made it instead of what is really present in that work.  

But, if we kill the author, should we kill the historical context of the work as well? After all, we have established that for Berger and the critical theorists of the 1960s, the most important thing of a work of art was the value it had for the public in the present moment. I think that this is important to highlight: the value of context depends entirely on the reason of approaching the piece. For example, it is very different if we aim to engage with art as audience than if we want to approach a piece of material culture to understand a specific period, and both of these are compatible. For instance, Berger obviously emphasises on the Ways of Seeing that are useful for our personal and social development in the present, but he also understands the value the pieces had in its time and why they were made like that. This is noticeable when he talks about oil paintings in the third essay of Ways of Seeing (83-112). So, if we approach a work as an starting point to talk about a period, then it’s important to know about the context and even the author but if we just want to experience art and live it now, with its value for the present then it is really not necessary.  

In conclusion, I think that the idea of death of the author can help us break with imposed meanings from historical authorities, and make us engaged freely with art while finding use for it in our present moment for us as individuals and as society. Furthermore, for the art historian or the person that seeks to analyse a work of art for its value as proof of material culture, understanding that meaning changes depending on the material conditions of the audience’s time period can help them understand that they also have to deal with the ways that the audience of that specific period engaged with their culture (Who had access to this art? What did they perceive? What was their value? How does it compare to the value now?).

COMMODITY FETISHISM

So far I have explored spectatorship and how it challenges authorial intent when engaging with art works. In addition to this, in order to understand the shift in the interpretation of art, we must address (at least briefly) commodity fetishism. After all, art works nowadays (and since, as Berger shows in Ways of Seeing, the advent of capitalism and the invention oil painting) are seen as high-level commodities rather than public objects. Before, following Berger’s ideas and the cited critical theories, I argued that art works should be analysed according to the value it has for the individual and society. I realise that the term value is quite ambivalent, especially when dealing with art, because it can be read as monetary value – even though I meant more pragmatic and intellectual value. This is exactly what commodity fetishism is: the perception that what it is involved in the production of an object are not social relationships, but economic relationships of market exchange.

Karl Marx was critical of this view of objects as mere inter-exchange because each work (artistic or not) was the result of social relations and the active production of a human being. For Marx, seeing objects created by humans as mere commodities was alienating, because it was against our social nature as producers. Indeed, seeing art as mere objects that represent monetary value is completely alienating for us, because we can fail in seeing a real connection with our society. For this reason, commodity fetishism is very much connected with the wider debate of artistic perception. Art works are not commodities (the belief that they are is also why originals are mystified according to Berger), but part of humanity’s heritage and a language to connect people throughout time and space.

In his essay, Revolutionary Undoing, Berger explains that ‘art historians with a social or Marxist formation have interpreted the art of the past in terms of class ideology. […] It now appears that in the later stages of capitalism this has ceased to be generally true. Art is treated as a commodity whose meaning lies only in its rarity value and in its functional value as a stimulant of sensations’. So, commodity fetishism can also occupy the functional value of stimulation. Precisely for this reason, it is important to engage actively with art and see it as a public right which’s value is that it stimulates our intellect as individuals in a society. 

DEMOCRATIC PRAXIS

In the end, we can conclude that Berger’s thesis in Ways of Seeing and these works of critical theories is that art should be more accessible for common people. If perception of art is fragmented because it depends on subjectivity, and any imposition of a true and unique meaning is just authoritarian and aims to create a passive audience (and society), then freedom of interpretation and engagement is the productive intellectual value that can create better individuals and societies. This is what I refer to as democratic praxis. 

In his essay, The Author as Producer, Walter Benjamin (one of the references for Berger in Ways of Seeing) proposes that ‘when it examined a work of art, materialist criticism was accustomed to ask how that work stood in relation to the social relationships of production of its time. [But what if instead of asking] how does a literary work stand in relation to the relationships of production of a period, [we ask] how does it stand in them?’. By this, he meant to explore the technique of the work rather than the context around it, sort of a first step of what Barthes and Foucault would propose later on about the Death of the Author. However, I think that the question should be: how does the work stand today? So, we should examine how our perceptions can create value for that piece of art nowadays. This way, we will democratise art in its final stance and we will de-mystify the works and finally separate their meaning to the elites and authority. We will stop seeing art as commodities that don’t belong to us, and start seeing it as part of our personal and social heritage.  

Berger, along with the critical theorists mentioned, had the ultimate goal to fight against alienation and create a more active public. As Marx first stated in his Theses on Feuerbach, the most important political turn of modern time is a democratic (from below) praxis, a stop to contemplation and a start of active practice. Of course, this must come both from the individual but also from society, because ‘human nature is not inherent in its individual, in reality it is the ensemble of the social relations’. In fact, just by having social relations and engaging in this kind of activities as a group we are being active, because ‘all social life is essentially practical’. The conclusion, then, is still the same: we have for too long only interpreted the world, and the point is to change it. Engaging with our cultural heritage active is one of the first steps to do this.

Sources:

Barthes, Roland. Death of the Author, 1967. <http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf>.

Benjamin, Walter. The Author as Producer, Verso, 1966. <https://yaleunion.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Walter_Benjamin_-_The_Author_as_Producer.pdf>.

Berger, John. ‘Revolutionary Undoing’ from 1969, in Landscapes, Verso, 2016.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, 1973.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York Zone Books, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. What is an Author?, 1969. <http://seas3.elte.hu/coursematerial/HarasztosAgnes/Foucault_WhatIsAnAuthor.pdf>

Marx, Karl. Theses on Feuerbach, 1845. <https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm>.

Masuda, Takahiko. Cultural Effects on Visual Perception, 2009. <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/299611215_Cultural_Effects_on_Visual_Perception>.

Nagel, Thomas. ‘What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ The Philosophical Review, vol. 83, no. 4, 1974, pp. 435-450.

Ranciere, Jacques. ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, in The Emancipated Spectator, trans. by Gregory Elliott. Verso, 2009, pp. 1-23.

Stanford Education. Phenomenology. <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/>.

The Value of Ways of Seeing as Our Theoretical Framework

Before my next post (which seeks to develop our research through other ideas in critical theory) I would like to make a clarification about the value of Ways of Seeing as the main theoretical framework for our study. Berger affirmed in Ways of Seeing that ‘we see these paintings as nobody saw them before’, he meant our specific material conditions of our time period allow us to experience (to “see” in the widest sense) art in a unique way, as these conditions are different to all historical periods before. Nowadays, art has the most democratic diffusion in history: mechanical reproduction, free galleries and museums, public education and, of course, the internet, create this condition. Before, probably only the elite could access paintings, and even when they were accessible to a wider public (for example, it was originally set in a public space) the fact that elite commissioned and paid for this art meant it was accompanied to a meaning imposed from these elites. In Ways of Seeing, Berger argues that we now have the conditions to break with historically imposed meanings from the elite, to stop with art mystification and start seeing art as humanity’s heritage and enjoyable and useful for every single individual, and society as a whole. 

Furthermore, Berger encourages everyone to experience art through their own perspective and individual way of seeing. In this sense, he implies that experience of a work of art (or of art in general) is related to other experiences of life. This is why our historical material conditions are so important, but also our personal experiences and knowledge. As he points out, ‘the way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. In the Middle Ages when people believed in the physical existence of Hell, the sight of fire must have meant something very different of what it means today. Nevertheless their idea of Hell owed a lot to the sight of fire consuming and ashes remaining – as well as to their experience of the pain of burns’ (8). I can’t help to relate this sentence to my case-study. Indeed, the third panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights is a lively and disturbing representation of Hell. How different that representation could have been interpreted in a period were Hell was a physical possibility to now, when we often think of it as a philosophical idea rather than a place. 

Imagine believing THIS is exactly what awaits in the after-life.

Experience of art according to Berger is so subjective that even ‘the meaning of a painting can be changed according to what you see beside it or what comes after it’. Again, in my case-study, interpretation of the main panel changes completely if you see it alone, or beside the Hell panel. In addition, if you use it as an illustration for a text about sex-positivity, it would have a very different meaning than if you use it as an illustration for a text about lust as sin. 

‘Lust allows a soul unable to confront the reality of life with a brief escape. Indulge in lust, and all of life’s troubles and worries disappear for a moment – only to reappear again unchanged, and with one’s soul in a state of peril. Indulging in lust of any kind has a kind of hollowing-out effect on the soul – it sells the person out for all they are worth, simply in order to feel good for a little while.’ (Source: https://www.catholicgentleman.net)

VERSUS

‘If everything goes well and sex is natural and flowing it is a beautiful experience because you can have a glimpse of the second through it. If sex goes really very deep, so that you forget yourself completely in it, you can even have a glimpse of the third through it. And if sex becomes a total orgasmic experience, there are rare moments when you can even have a glimpse of the fourth, the turiya, the beyond, through it.’ (Source: Osho, Talking Tao)

Indeed, this can be related to Berger’s claim that ‘reproduction makes works of art ambiguous’, since this separation of the panels is only possible due to modern forms of reproduction of the images, since the triptych itself always presented three consecutive and inseparable panels. Nevertheless, the most interesting idea I take from this is that ‘we never look at just one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves. Our vision is continually active’ (9), we are continually participating in art just by viewing and interpreting.  And, certainly, this connects to our central argument that the perception of sexuality in art is inherently fragmented because it depend’s on the viewer subjective experience. 

In my following post, I will expand on spectatorship and the role of authorial intent in our ways of seeing by looking at critical theories about the topic. Furthermore, I will deal with the perception of sexuality in my particular case-study by referring to critical scholarship as well, and always inside the theoretical framework of Ways of Seeing

A Summary of Last Discussion

After our last meeting with Rosa, we decided our topic would be ‘The Ways of Seeing Sexuality in Art from Antiquity to Modernity,’ and our thesis would be that the perception of sexuality in artistic representation is inherently fragmented due to the subjective reception of spectators.

Our approach is object-based, and our content is divided into three single case studies ranging from classical sculpture to medieval Spanish panel painting to renaissance Japanese art. Each case study selects the most dominant and representative genre and artwork at the time. We will incorporate John Berger’s book The Ways of Seeing as our framework to examine each individual case. We aim to analyze the motif of nudity in accordance with cultural aesthetics and spectatorship.

A Bergerian analysis of Utamakura

In Berger’s view, artworks can only truly be understood and interpreted through their socio-historical context, which implies that to analyse a work of art one has to put himself in the shoes of the spectator at the time and place. What is needed is thus primordially a historical contextualization, even if drawing more universal ideas about artistic representation is as much important. 

Three Bergerian ideas can be interesting in analyzing the Shunga work of Utamakura: spectatorship bias, devaluation of copy and the female nude.

In John Berger’s view, ‘what we see is always influenced by a multitude of assumptions we hold about such things as beauty, form, class, taste, and gender’. In the same way, spectatorship of Kitagawa Utamaro’s Utamakura was influenced by a certain aesthetic of beauty – that of explicit nudity, sexual idealization, and, most interestingly, mutual pleasure; both man an woman enjoying their sexual intercourse as can be seen with their smiles and the fact that the woman character bits the cheek of her partner. Despite a strictly patriarchal society, this can be explained by an absence of judo-christian moral on female corruption (no equivalent shinto or buddhist myth of the original sin), but maybe also more simply, I would say, due to a stronger erotic effect of representation woman sexual pleasure – erotic arousal was at the basis of Shunga art and one of its objective.

Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s essay 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, John Berger argues that the aura of a work of art is devalued by mechanical reproduction. This applies well to Utamakura, or “Poem of the pillow”, which was part of a 12-pages printed illustrated book. Published in 1788, this book was thus copied multiple times and became, as for the book, a rather elitist object, and as one sole drawing itself, a more popular and democratized art work. This necessarily de-sacralized the initial drawing and transformed it to mere “copies”, even if in Japan there might have not been such a fetishism for the pure, “initial”, and original object. In Berger’s view, ‘ways of looking at art have been utterly changed by the development of mechanical means of producing and reproducing images’; this is the case for post-industrial and capitalistic Europe, but also certainly the case for Edo period Japan, in which ukiyo-e and shunga woodblock painting flourished in massively copying the initial woodblock inscription, becoming ‘commercial products’. 

Finally, however, the idea Bergerian idea of the passive female nude is questioned and challenged by Utamakura and shunga art in general, as the woman is most often portrayed as an active agent of her sexuality – in Utamakura as in others, the woman is portrayed as independent and assertive more than as an ‘object to please their male-oriented audience’. Pleasing the audience was for sure a goal of the painting, but this was not done so by the objectification of woman and its subordination of man – in fact, it sometimes appear to be that the man itself is submitted to giving pleasure to woman, as in famous Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s shunga painting of a woman having a sexual relation and seemingly deep pleasure with an octopus. Woman and her sexual pleasure may have been seen at the centre of sexual intercourse by spectators at the time.

In this way, John Berger’s analytical limit comes out through the study of Japanese Shunga art: he did not pay attention to extra-European and non-western artworks for his observations. In Japanese artworks, and eventually in various non-European ones, nakedness never seem ‘supine’ in a European way. While Berger’s achievement was to start a process of deeply questioning art works, I myself will attempt to question his spatio-temporal limitations and eventually marxist assumptions (as to mechanistic copying, which isn’t necessarily de-valutating). 

Perspective on sexuality is inherently fragmented, and what is important is to always keep in mind the different, sometimes contrary perceptions that a certain public and spectator may have had at the time of the work in regards to us – an outlook which ultimately transforms the piece as it is the spectator, not the author, who truly makes its meaning. 

Cited: Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books (1973).

Polykleitos’s Diadoumenos

The original victor monument, Diadoumenos by Polykleitos, was cast in bronze and produced around 430 B.C. Although it was melted down long ago, there are still many extant Roman copies and fragments which reveal the beautiful body of a presumably Greek athlete. Polykleitos’s Diadoumenos is ascribed as a victor monument based on its signature movement of fillet-binding, depicting the victor at a crowning ceremony. Victor monuments such as the statues erected at Olympia and elsewhere in the Greek world honoured victorious athletes at the Olympic Games, and were dedicated by admirers, either individuals or states. This statue depicts a youth leaning in a contrapposto gesture against a tree stump with his head adorned with a fillet (band) presented after a victory in an athletic contest. This copy presents a faithful rendition of the bronze original, and most of this sculpture is intact except for two missing hands.


Most victor statues at Olympia were nude to highlight their physical prowess and qualities of strength, endurance, and courage. This contrasted with other athletic pursuits like charioteering, and set the victors apart and above everyday spectators. The fully naked body of Diadoumenos fully expressed Polykleitos’s appreciation of the standard of beauty described above by accentuating the alluring musculature from every angle.

The muscles are infused with the essence of life due to the posture, while the waist is slightly tilted and the left leg moved back to support the body, as he leans in contrapposto. He lifts his arms attempting to tie the fillet around his head, with his well-toned triceps and biceps glistening under the exquisite marble texture. Apollo’s belt on his waist smoothly transitions to his arched back and beneath it lies the firm buttocks desired by contemporary audiences.

Forming an effective contrast to the boldly-cut and well-proportioned body are Diadoumenos “gently undulating planes of the cheeks and the dimpled chin.” The softened facial features meet the demand for the ‘youthening of victors,’ and designate him a desirable object of courtship. Additionally, Greeks also emphasised kalokagathia, being both beautiful and morally good. Despite the frontality of his naked body, his head is slightly tilted and his eyes look down as if he is avoiding the charged gaze of the spectators. This parallels Plato’s dialogue Charmides, in which Socrates engages with a handsome boy whose attractiveness is heightened not merely by his features, but by his blushing reaction to Socrates’ admiring gaze. The blush induces the same irresistible virtue of sophrosyne [temperance] while another attractive attribute aidos [natural modesty] of Charmides was later revealed in the story. In this Diadoumenos statue, Polykleitos captures a victor at the crowning ceremony, with his posture triumphant but his gaze modestly deflected, similar to the attributes listed in Charmides. Steiner argues that this gesture of aidos not only symbolises “the modesty appropriate to the moment of divinely-granted good fortune,” but also “from the perspective of the artist, sculptor or viewer of the scene, which further contributes to the adolescent charm and marks him as a potential eromenos.” Andrew Stuart concludes: “a shyness that was homosexually winning.”

The material used could also influence the assessment of the statue. The original Diadoumenos was in bronze, and the Roman copy used as an example in this essay is marble, which could induce different effects on audiences’ perceptions. Andrew Stuart explained contemporary audiences viewed bronze as having connotations of strength, resilience, and flexibility due to the myth of bronze men exploited by Homer and Hesiod. Bronze was “the metal from which the race preceding that of the heroes was made, and the metal that the heroic world itself customarily employed for armor, weapons, and utensils,” thus, lending a heroic quality to statues made from this material. Moreover, the gleaming bronze could evoke the burnished, well-oiled bodies of the athletes themselves in the midst of athletic triumph. Marble, however, has a sparkling nature with smooth, symbolic properties. Bodies carved in marble would naturally appear rocklike, hard, and brilliant, making them a “wonder to see” and “dazzling to gaze upon and impressing the mind with its solidarity and strength.” Hence, either medium affects how the statue could be interpreted in terms of contemporary understandings of male beauty and prowess.

The display of maleness at baths, gymnasia and athletic competitions rendered bare flesh as a mundane and unremarkable part of daily routines. Still, conventions in Greek art suggest that there were often ulterior meanings and interpretations regarding male nudity on public display. Roger de Piles, J.J. Winkelmann, and Hegel deduced the nudity in Greek art as “a device to elevate man above time, space, particularity, and decay,” as their excellence could be linked to Homeric attributes as “naked heroes retrojected it into Homer’s world; naked athletes presented it in contemporary form.” Following Winkelmann and Hegel, other scholars reject the absolute idealisation of the naked body. John Berger views nudity as “a form of dress.” They perceive nakedness as “the costume being a concrete manifestation of such desirable manly attributes as courage, strength, speed, fitness and so on, all of which ‘naturally’ created a handsome body,” with no superhuman element involved. Despite their disagreement, the desirability of a naked body could not be ignored, as many positive attributes are attached with the physique and the association of heroic nudity.

“Nakedness is created by the mind of the beholder,” as Berger states. The suggestive sexual undertones prevalent in art from this period imply that spectators were encouraged to admire the victor and his image, while the visual qualities strongly urged that “one was not to glance at a work but to gaze and to act emotionally and physiologically.” Andrew Stuart distinguished the two polarities in the scopic field: “the glance, which emanates from the self, and the gaze, which issues from the Other.” Since these athletes exercised and competed naked it lured many onlookers and fostered an erotically charged “spectator sport” while the gymnasium, Palaestra, local and Panhellenic contests set the stage. Beauty contests like Euandria and Euexia were also dedicated to the presentation of the male body.

Irene Winter proposed the effect that victor monuments would have upon both genders: “for women their subordination to desire and by men; for men, their fusion with authority at the same time as they are subject to it.” Deborah Steiner elaborated on Winter’s ideas and adopted it into the ancient Greek victor monument, while delivering two focal opinions for her argument: “object of desire” and “the engaged mode of spectatorship.”[

“A nude has to be seen as an object to be nude,” Berger identifies the nude as an object and hints with a passive undertone. Indeed, it serves as the object of desire, and “the engaged mode of spectatorship” works on both genders alike. Winter expounded: “for women their subordination to desire and by men.” Thus, the Greek women projected their desires upon the victors: “The women saw your many victories at the seasonal rites of Pallas, and each silently prayed that you could be her dear husband.” Such intense erotic admiration would be detected when the contemporary Greek women gazed upon Diadoumenos, and it is natural for them to assume their relationship with the object. However, the lack of direct female sources from this period means one can only assume female perspectives from mainly male descriptions. Steiner highlights a “hierarchy of desire”, which moves from adult male viewers to immature athletes, to women.

However, men’s desires are more complex, “combining narcissistic identification with the body on display together with voyeuristic pleasure that arises from viewing another person as the object of sexual stimulation.”[ As mentioned earlier, the beauty standard of the statue had to fit into the Homeric ideal of heroism, and male audiences could vicariously project themselves into the victory moment, which might then precipitate homoerotic implications. 

During the ‘youthening of victors’ in the mid-fifth century, the statue-makers deliberately reduced the significance of a realistic representation to conform to the idealised beauty of the ephebes that the Greeks canonised. The ‘youthening of victors’ implied an ulterior method to portray these attractive physiques under an eromenos context, such as the beloved one in a pederasty relationship. Andrew Stewart noted that sculptors aimed “to create a perfect object of male desire ” for the adult male spectators. This victor monument conformed not only to the standards of youthful facial beauty, but the blushing and deflected gaze was also considered attractive, in which coincides with Berger’s “calculated charm.”

To conclude, the nudity of Diadoumenos is carefully designed by the sculptor to invoke the sexuality of both genders alike. However, given consideration of the prevalence of pederasty during classical Athens, it inclines to appeal the male viewers.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing, (2008, c1972), London: Penguin

Hyde, Walter Woodburn. Olympic Victor Monuments and Greek Athletic Arts, (1921), Washington: Carnegie Inst.

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