The image on the header of this blog is an anatomical model from La Specola, the zoological and natural history museum in Florence. It is a wax model of the muscular and nervous system, where the skin of the body has been stripped away. La Specola was founded in 1790 and this piece was created by the artist Clemente Susini, who was renowned for his anatomical wax sculptures. Dating from an era before the plastination process of later artists/anatomists like Gunther von Hagens, these works were intended to teach doctors and scholars, when bodies were not always available due to both religious reasons, as well as an inability to refrigerate corpses. The scientific context of these pieces could in many ways dissipate or counter the initial abjection that images of the body wihtout borders causes. The abject is most prominent in the corpse, particularly seen outside of science and religion, according to Kristeva, Science can act as a mitigating discourse that lessens the sense fo the uncanny and the abject that is attached to the cadaver. However, I am interested in the intervention of the discourse of art in these works. These are not simple anatomical models, rather they are posed as classical sculpture, the figure propped up on one arm, knee bent, while his free arm bends gracefully up and towards the figures chest. This is not the flat un-animated body of a cadaver, rather, this body is in motion, in tension, and posed artfully. The discourses of art at this time are focused on beauty. Arnoldian aesthetics argue for the exclusion of everything that is not uplifting. Art must be about sweetness and light. Kantian aesthetics may acknowledge the existence of disgust, but denigrates anything that is not either beautiful or awe-filled, like the sublime, which while terrible, is also uplifting in its experience of the divine through beauty or through awe and terror. Sculpture in particular is seen to avoid disgust and debasement because of its replication of life in three dimensions.
It’s not hard to see how these anatomical waxes are disgusting; the body is left open, its protection from the world and pathogens is discarded. The fabrics that it lays on should seep with blood from his open body. The crossing of borders, bringing the inside out, is a taboo associated with the abject’s concern for both rules and space. Moreover, the presence of bodily fluids are also disgusting because they point to a breach in the body. If we were to encounter a body mangled like this out in the world, we would be horrified. I argue that we would be so horrified, that we would in fact reject the body, completing the cycle of disgust in radical exclusion. The abject may be exclusion, but it is never complete, it haunts from the edges. The corpse may be the most abject object according to Kristeva because it haunts us long after the sight of it with the lingering reminder that we too will die, disintegrate, and end. But other objects that reference or depict the ultimate abjection, also create an abject response, one that is perhaps less radical, but more haunting because they can be approached more fully. Kristeva’s is a sidelong glance, objects that depict the abject allow for a full bodied stare. What allows for a full bodied look? The intervention of art. While part of it is the sheer fact that this is a model and not an actual cadaver, and part of what allows the look is the context that this is in a scientific museum. But another, important part of what invites the look is the artist’s intervention, the seemingly paradoxical inclusion of beauty. The reference to neoclassical sculpture, the pose, the inclusion of cloth underneath the figures with provide the bodies with a human and artistic context all allow and even encourage an engagement with that which depicts disgust and is in many ways disgusting. The longer, more sustained engagement with these objects then allows for a greater kinesthetic and empathic connection with the works, allowing the abject greater time to impact the viewer, and return to haunt now and later.
While these works are not art, per se, they do what I believe all great abject art does, allow for a mitigated experience of the abject, which does not fully overwhelm like the sublime or the real, because of its subdued form. Abject in its purest form runs the risk of simply becoming disgusting, of completing a full circuit in which the offending object is totally, radically, excluded. When art intervenes in the abject, it mollifies the extremeness, and encourages a haunting, a return, that is far more troubling and long lasting in its impact that something which is purely rejected. Part of the abject’s attachment to the liminal stems from its paradoxical nature, that one both wants to look and wants to turn away. Kristen calls this fascinated victimhood: one wants to run or turn away but cannot. Something needs to maintain the victims fascination, some of which is captivation is the obscene pleasure in being reminded of everything we thrust away so that we can go about our lives without perpetual crisis. The pleasure is a catharsis that comes from embracing the return. However, things can facilitate that catharsis, and abject visuals, both from the art world and the larger context of visual culture can do just that.
For more on La Specola: Encyclopedia Anatomica
Museums like La Specola – Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads