Secret revealed: I was almost an unemployed art historian. I was also almost an unemployed philosopher, and an unemployed historian. That is, back when I was a student I went through the same kind of little crisis most students go through, wondering about the subject in which I should major. It was a near thing, but I ended up an English major and, for better or worse, fell in with a crowd of poets. I also ended up employed as a poet and critic, but I think that was mere chance — unemployment is the default position for humanists of all kinds. Anyway, the kind of poetry and literary criticism I write tends to have a lot to do with history, and to flirt a little with philosophy. But art history has always been a kind of road-not-taken for me, and lately I've been spending some time watching a lecture series on the history of European art, a course solid and old-fashioned enough to remind me of the introductory art history class I took so long ago, when I'd sit in the back of a giant auditorium and listen to the professor in those educational interludes between bouts of futzing around with a recalcitrant slide projector.
The lecture series I'm watching comes with an accompanying textbook, and, in keeping with the para-academic nature of the enterprise, it includes little summaries, paradigms, and even study questions. It's basic stuff ("we can understand what we're looking at better if we think in terms of subject, interpretation, style, context, and emotion") but good stuff, in an introductory way, and I've decided to think through all of the study questions. The first of these was almost too easy — it asked us to describe the difference between interpretation and style, style being something like a visual language (Renaissance single-point perspective, say, or Cubism) and interpretation being more like the particular statement about the subject being made within that style. But the second question I encountered was more intriguing: it simply asked for an analysis, in terms of the five categories of understanding in the course's paradigm, of an artwork one has cared about. Here's what I did with that question earlier this morning, while munching a croissant, drinking coffee, and staring into space.
The artwork that came to mind was a four panel, digitally rendered, set of photographs created by Jason Salavon, a Chicago-based artist with whom I've hung out on a few occasions, and whom I brought up to Lake Forest once as a speaker for the &NOW Festival. Salavon's piece is called "Every Playboy Centerfold: The Decades." Here's the description from Salavon's website:
From a broader series begun in 1997, the photographs in this suite are the result of mean averaging every Playboy centerfold foldout for the four decades beginning Jan. 1960 through Dec. 1999. This tracks, en masse, the evolution of this form of portraiture.That's it above, by the way — the image at the top of this post. But what can we say about it if we somewhat mechanically apply the categories of subject, interpretation, style, context, emotion? And why do I, personally, find it appealing?
The subject is pretty clear: through a process of digital averaging of visual elements, the piece manages to include 40 years of Playboy centerfolds. But what's the take, the interpretation? It has to do with history, and this is the first thing that appeals to me: I've got a fundamentally historical imagination. When I teach a literature course, it's always in some way about the evolution of civilization, and how the literature of the time plays into that evolution. When I write a critical essay about contemporary poetry, it tends to situate that poetry in a context going back at least to the Romantic era of the early nineteenth century (I do this even when it isn't necessary, and many's the editor who has trimmed the historical limbs from the overgrown shrubbery of my prose). Salavon's interpretation of the history of the Playboy centerfold over the years seems clear enough: the women get thinner, and they get blonder. What's really interesting about this is how the point, which in the hands of another kind of artist could be made rather heavy-handedly, is made without a lot of rhetorical bombast. The piece has a lot to say about beauty, and about the ways men objectify (and women are taught to objectify) the female body. It even implies an increasingly brutal body image regime (Barbie über alles!). But it makes the point with coolness and quiet, like a scientist presenting data and letting the data speak for itself.
In terms of style, the piece combines something decades-old with something only recently possible. That is, it certainly owes a lot to Pop Art, to the whole Andy Warhol/Roy Lichtenstein manner of taking the forms of popular culture (publicity photos for Warhol, comic books for Lichtenstein, pornography for Salavon) and reworking them. But the numerical averaging of image components is something only really made possible by information technology, of which Salavon is a master: he's holds a joint position in art and computer science at the University of Chicago, and used to be a video game programmer. (Salavon explores the poetry of statistics elsewhere, in images averaging out two generations of yearbook photos, or abstractions containing every frame of a particular movie, or in images of the statistically average house in any given market — it's no wonder that he was chosen to create the artwork at the U.S. Census Bureau headquarters).
As for context — well, it's not a piece that could have been made before artists turned to media critique. There's been some of that since the rise of mass media in the late nineteenth century, but it really took off after the second world war, with Situationism and its cousins. And I think it's also a feminist, or post-feminist, work, in that it isn't a piece that takes the female nude for granted as a subject for art. It foregrounds the mediation and social construction of beauty ideals, and in that regard it's utterly unlike something like, say François Boucher's "Nude on a Sofa," which I find mesmerizing for entirely different reasons than those that compel me to look at Salavon's work:
This brings us, at last, to the quality of emotion. There's a certain coolness to Salavon's four images, stemming from their partial abstraction. But this coolness plays off against the way the heterosexual male gaze is meant to interact with the original images, which, after all, were made to provoke the heat of desire. Those blurred, abstracted figures are haunting because they're uncannily both figurative and abstract, provocative and etherial. And they present images of desire at a kind of Apollonian remove, making us see them with a kind of historicizing, quantifying gaze at odds with the simple lustful gaze the original images imply and create. In the end, this gives us (or, at any rate, me) a kind of doubled emotion: a bass note of Dionysian abandonment to desire, and another note that resonates high above, in the realm of the self-conscious intellect. And that's the emotional note that sings its siren song directly into my ears.