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Visual Art and Embodiment in a World of Subjectivity

©Beth Carruthers 2003

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Through its forms of isolation, obsessive examination and intensive deconstruction, the practice itself embodies the form it abhors, taking us ever farther from the body and the world.

The prevailing attitude in the art world is shaped by this mood of intense and suspicious regard. As may be imagined, in such a climate, visual art has a rough ride. Throughout the 20th century, as the practice of artmaking itself was increasingly called into question, talking and writing about art came to be of more value than the works themselves. In the words of writer and critic Bram Dijkstra, “contemporary culture has learned to glorify concepts of expression over expression itself. This realm of art as theory has become a fail safe formula for the intellectual identification of what is art…” [Dijkstra, 100] Not only was art made subject to the discourse, within this framework the discourse itself became art – a self-referencing cycle of discourse on discourse.

Artworks themselves were particularly suspect, subject to intense deconstruction as antiocular fervor raced through the cultural world like a virus. The anti-visual was at the core of the new feminist critique, as vision was deemed to be essentially objectifying. Vision and visual art were considered specifically representative of Western, male-dominated, imperialistic practice, while at the same time, works that suggested an embodied, sensual, or essential, relationship with the world, or nature, were particularly suspect and harshly criticized. While the intention of this critique has merit, it relies heavily on maintaining the convention of the mind/body split and actually reinforces existing systems of dominance and control.