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Lost in Amazonia | The Nation

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Lost in Amazonia

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After a century of repressing or deriding Woman as a symbol of beauty, high culture in the West has suddenly gone over. Victorian fairies, Pre-Raphaelite nymphs and sirens, Edwardian fashion plates and modern-day pinups smile down from the walls of major museums, and novelists such as Andrei Makine, Philip Roth and Penelope Fitzgerald examine female beauty as a central metaphor for value. Oblivious to Kant, evolutionary psychologists do not hesitate to collapse beauty into feminine allure, which they consider a powerful reproductive adaptation. Meanwhile, feminists excoriate Madison Avenue for reducing women's faces and bodies to commodities. For aestheticians, these are heady, if complicated, days.

About the Author

Wendy Steiner
Wendy Steiner is the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English Emerita at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an opera...

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The latest entrant in the field of female beauty only increases this euphoric unease: the New Museum of Contemporary Art's exhibition "Picturing the Modern Amazon" (until June 25). The picturings in question are paintings, photographs, sculptures, comic books, videos and jewelry representing female bodybuilders, those women for whom working out turns symmetry, balance and proportion into weapons of liberation. As the bodybuilder Nathalie Gassel states in My Muscles, Myself, "My muscle has been built to assert its power and presence: its movement indicates my life's fundamental principles which are to be, to do, to show."

According to this exhibition, to be a "hypermuscular woman" is to re-create one's body as a work of art for public display and self-realization. "You are an artist creating a sculpture," claims Heather Foster. "You put on muscle like clay." This process involves a double role for bodybuilders that is reflected in the title of Phyllis Bramson's painting Being Both Object and Subject. Many people would argue that in this respect the female bodybuilder is just a special case of all women, who willy-nilly design an appearance that is taken as their identity. Several images in the show play up the parallel between bodybuilders and more conventionally "designing women," for example, Deborah Willis's Untitled, Bodybuilder #14, which suspends the red salon-sculpted nails of Nancy Lewis against the pattern of veins in her gym-sculpted thighs.

"The female masquerade" in the case of bodybuilders, however, is more literal, for it involves an erasure of "natural" femininity and the addition of a synthetic variant. With body fat reduced to 5 percent for competition and steroids coursing through their blood, it takes silicone to give female bodybuilders breasts and "big hair," makeup and sexy lingerie to signal their femininity. The crudeness of the signs employed inevitably suggests brothel scenes (as in James Salzano's Hannie Van Aken, NYC) or transvestite parodies (as in Susan Meiselas's Evolution F)--an off-color aesthetics of nude muscle accented with fetish.

The exhibition stages a curious paragone between the picturers and the pictured as to which, in effect, is the controlling artist. Several of Andres Serrano's gorgeous photographs of the spectacular Lesa Lewis, for example, cut off her head at the jawline, as if Serrano were appropriating agency for her art to himself. The hypermuscular women at the exhibition opening, in their turn, upstaged the art with their extraordinary presence in the flesh. The curators of the show are old hands at subject-object competition: Laurie Fierstein, a champion bodybuilder who writes about the sport; Joanna Frueh, a professor of art history who is also a feminist performance artist and gym enthusiast; and Judith Stein, a distinguished curator whose sense of empowerment from lifting and pumping gave rise to the exhibition in the first place.

The rhetoric with which these curators surround bodybuilding is the exuberant optimism of liberation, independence and self-actualization. Upon entry into art, however, women's self-creations cannot help but become, as academic jargon would style it, "a field of contestation." Through bodybuilding, a woman may turn herself into a work of art, but representing that transformation turns her ambiguous. She may be either a creative agent or a victim of her judges; an irresistible seductress or a pawn of male fantasy; a heroic actualization of female strength or an unavailing compensation for female weakness; a classical feminine ideal or a masculinized freak. Dizzying contradictions like this always result when the "like" in an analogy is suppressed--in this case, when a woman "becomes" a work of art. The curators stress the euphoria of this triumph, but its pathos is inescapable. "I have a kinesthetic response to the real nude," writes Frueh. "In her presence I am invigorated, my posture improves, I feel my strength and flexibility, my capacity for many powers, my allure. This, I think, is why she moves me to tears."

I would be willing to bet that the tears have a less empowering origin. The male bodybuilder Samuel Fussell has written that he "became a bodybuilder as a means of becoming a caricature. The inflated cartoon I became relieved me from the responsibility of being human." Female bodybuilders, in contrast, claim that the "inflated cartoon" they create is their way of becoming human, a difficult paradox, indeed. "Picturing the Modern Amazon" dramatizes as powerfully as any art the intolerable contradictions in women's experience and the desperation with which some search for a way out. The show would rise to the level of tragedy if it were not pervaded at the same time with the deflating breezes of the ridiculous. As Judith Stein observes, the major difference between a bodybuilder and an artist is that "one pumps iron, the other, irony."

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