Whitehot Magazine

Art After The End Of Art: Beginning Again With The Animal Bodily Ego

Wassily Kandisky, Composition VII


"The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego…the ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly those derived from those springing from the surface of the body. It may therefore be regarded as a mental projection of the surface of the body besides…representing the superficies of the mental apparatus."

-Sigmund Freud, “The Ego and the Id” (1) 

"Man is an animal. The upshot of the modern body of work called ethology of Lionel Tiger, Robin Fox, Konrad Lorenz, and a host of others, is that it reminds us of the basic human condition: that man is first and foremost an animal moving about on a planet shining in the sun. Whatever else he is, is built on this…."

"Life cannot go on without the mutual devouring of organisms. If at the end of each person’s life he were to be presented with the living spectacle of all that he had organismically incorporated in order to stay alive, he might well feel horrified by the living energy he had ingested. The horizon of a gourmet, or even the average person, would be taken up with hundreds of chickens, flocks of lambs and sheep, a small herd of steers, sites full of pigs, and rivers of fish. The din alone would be deafening. To paraphrase Elias Canetti, each organism raises its head over a field of corpses, smiles into the sun, and declares life good." 

-Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (2) 

"Internalization is the technical term for the process by which the individual constructs a mental representation of the outside world and of the people in it and therefore reacts to these mental representations as though they had some of the force and reality of the external figures themselves."

-Charles Rycroft, Anxiety and Neurosis (3)

“The first effect of the depreciation of our fine old objective criteria is to abolish all the difficulties—at least the conventional ones—in art,” Paul Valéry wrote in Degas Dance Drawing. “No one any longer enjoys the laborious study…of a piece of cloth thrown over a chair, of a leaf, or a hand…nor takes any pleasure in a slow, disinterested, close-up communion with any object, drawing therefrom a degree of self-knowledge and a sense of the collaboration between his intellect, his motive, his vision, and his hand, in relation to a given thing.”(4) With the end of laborious, focused, systematic attention to given things, objects outside the self, more difficult to comprehend than the self (however difficult it is to comprehend), an age-old, deeply traditional purpose of art, a purpose that gives it its necessity—uniting the self and not-self without denying their difference, investing one’s mind in the not-self so that it no longer seems separate from the self yet retains its separateness, humanizing the non-human by investing one’s humanness in it while respecting its non-humanness—comes to a sad end. 

George Bellows, Both Members of the Club

I suggest that the moment this decisively occurred—the moment when art lost its profound, paradoxical purpose of representing external reality so that it seemed to bespeak the self even as it remained sublimely selfless—was when Kandinsky, who “had known only realist art,” as he wrote, saw “The Haystack of Claude Monet…and didn’t recognize it,” leading him to conclude that “objects were discredited as an essential element within the picture.”(5) So was beauty: “the external, palatable beauty” of the “objective” and “corporeal,” affording “accustomed pleasure to the indolent corporeal eye”--it was clearly not indolent to Valéry—“leads not toward the spirit but away from it.”(6) Only the “purely artistic” could lead toward the spirit—and away from the corporeal. There is a familiar mortification of the body in this supposed purification and spiritualization of art: a bifurcation of body and soul, regarded as separable rather than inseparable, and the elevation and veneration of the soul over the body, devalued and disparaged as insufferably inferior, incorrigibly sinful, and mortal compared to the immortal soul--reminding us that Kandinsky began his career painting Christian religious pictures and regarded his purely artistic paintings as religious revelations, not to say spiritual epiphanies. The famous Blue Rider, 1903—Kandinsky implicitly identifies with him--is St. George in pursuit of a dragon to slay (it turned out to be representational painting). The white horse he rides, and the sky-blue that cloaks him, suggests that he comes from heaven, confirming Kandinsky’s spiritual ambition, not to say delusion of spiritual grandeur. 

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Oedipus and the Sphinx

For Kandinsky corporeal art and corporeal beauty are profane and secular, pure art and pure beauty are sacred and religious. More pointedly, art that values the body and finds beauty in nature is impious compared to art that denies the body and values and finds beauty solely in purity. For Kandinsky, abstract art distills the essence of sacred art, perfecting it by eliminating all traces of bodiliness—no majestic bodies of clothed saints, no naked bodies of martyred saints, no naked Christ on a cross, no pious donors witnessing and worshipping the scene, testifying to their faith: making an abstract—pure--painting was enough of a profession of faith for Kandinsky. Representational art—object-oriented art, particularly art devoted to the naked human body, a biologically given and thus animal body, a staple of classical art, scrupulously studied and admired since antiquity—was too vulgarly materialistic and worldly, too devoted to not to say taken in and blindsided by ordinary appearances, to “realize” and convey the extraordinary, spiritual, otherworldly meaning of art. When art renounced the physical body, more broadly turned against nature, it justified itself by declaring itself to be purely spiritual, which unwittingly (and ironically) paved the way for the dematerialization of art. And for its increasingly narcissistic self-absorption, not to say self-congratulation, bringing with it blinding indifference to the life-world in which it existed. As pure abstraction became the privileged, dominant, and idealized mode of art making in the 20th century, insular abstract works seemed to follow each other like the blind leading the blind.

Oskar Kokoschka, The Tempest

When the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead suggests that “the artist, who kept himself to the contemplation of [the] color, shape and position” of some given thing—in Whitehead’s example a chair --is somehow superior to “those of us who are not artists [and] very prone, especially if we are tired, to pass straight from the perception of the colored shape to the enjoyment of the chair, in some way of use, or of emotion, or of thought”(7)—he is echoing, in however distorted form, Kandinsky’s dismissal of corporeal beauty, that is, the natural beauty of physical objects, the beauty innate to real things, externally given corporeally present objects, as beside the profound meaning of pure art. Both Kandinsky and Whitehead seem to think we miss the spiritual point of art if we fail to prefer the bodiless “colored shape” to its embodiment in an enjoyable chair. But the reduction of the chair to a colored shape—its spiritualization, as Kandinsky would say, or de-objectification, as I would say—strips it of its value for life, whatever value it may have as proof of the artist’s acumen, not to say perceptual intelligence. No longer immanent in the physical chair, the colored shape is merely formally given, not to say a disembodied phenomenon. No longer robustly given, the chair becomes an aesthetic ghost of itself, as momentarily fascinating as a will-o- the-wisp. 

Vincent Desiderio, Sleeping Family

Abandoning the object—sacrificing the object on the altar of so-called pure art, not to say the holy grail of abstract art (Kandinsky seemed to think of himself as a sort of Christ cleaning the holy temple of art of unholy art)--art crippled itself. As though to compensate for the loss of thoughtful attention to external reality, art turned toward—and exaggerated the significance of—internal reality. The old objectivism was replaced by the new subjectivism. To use Kandinsky’s terms, art driven exclusively by internal necessity became more important than art driven entirely by external necessity. Baudelaire distinguished between “positivist” and “imaginative” artists—realists who see only facts and romantics who see the facts through their feelings.(8) He preferred the latter to the former— imaginative artists were more authentically artistic than positivist artists, for the former understood that feeling was unavoidably implicated in observation while the latter aimed to describe the facts with scientific detachment (Auguste Comte’s positivism was their model)—as Kandinsky did. But Kandinsky redefined—reductively refined--imagination: it no longer engaged facts, “romantically” transforming them by investing intense feeling in them, giving them human meaning that complemented their indisputable materiality, only expressed feelings: “the only judge, guide, and arbitrator should be one’s feelings.”(9) The art work’s subjective raison d’être and subjective impact on the viewer were all that mattered for Kandinsky. The feelings invested in it came to matter more than the manner in which they were expressed. It is as though it didn’t matter how they were expressed, only that they were no longer repressed. One might say that the reality principle—consciousness of facts--was sacrificed to the pleasure principle—unconscious expression.

Caves at Lascaux

Art became cathartic expression under Kandinsky’s tutelage, and cathartic expression was presumably artistic, opening the way to the notion that children’s art, the art of the insane, so-called primitive or native art, graffiti, etc. are as worthy of serious attention, and as deeply meaningful, as the art of the Old Masters. Thus Kandinsky could state: “There is an unconscious, enormous power in children that expresses itself here and places the work of children on the same level as (and often much higher than!) the work of adults.”(10) Do children feel more than adults? No, but their feelings are less controlled by their egos, and so seem more powerful and spontaneous. The romantic opening of the floodgates of childish feeling leads to the perverse elevation of immature art over mature art. Children’s art is necessarily as immature, not to say undeveloped, as they are. For, unlike the art of the Old Masters, it is uninformed by “laborious study” of “given things”—devoted attention to matters of indisputable fact--in the world beyond imagination. If ripeness is all in art as it is in life, then the unripe art of children is of little use in life. 

Subjective expression, by any and every subject and by any and every means, pushes objective experience, disinterested observation of objects, out of the picture: no objects appear in Kandinsky’s pictures—they’re not pictures of given things, only outpourings of feeling, signified and evoked by color and line, especially color. Ascetically eschewing objects—refusing to represent them—art became non-objective or non-representational, and with that supposedly more emotionally profound than objective or representational art, as though pure color and line are more directly expressive of feelings than objects, however imbued with feeling they may be, that is, however much the imaginative artist unconsciously projects his feelings into them. Pure abstract art gives too much credit to the disembodied “colored shape,” for without bodies there are no feelings, only etherealized sensations. 

Lucian Freud, Sleeping by the Lion Carpet

In traditional adult art the difference between the subjective and the objective is maintained even as the subjective is absorbed in and subsumed by the objective. In modern childish art the difference is completely lost. The objective is absorbed in and subsumed by—dissolved in and liquidated by—the subjective. The dynamic unconscious triumphs over—all but ousts—consciousness. Objects lose all substance, disappear into the expressive flow, as they do in Abstract Expressionism, or haunt it, lingering in its undertow, a ghost in its gestural dynamics. In some subjectivist works experienced objects, whether the human figure, still life objects, fauna and flora found in nature, man-made things, are surrealized—distorted, sometimes beyond recognition, so that they become unintelligible and incomprehensible, ostensibly enigmatic, often nightmarish and grotesque, as though they were internal objects in a bad dream, bizarre productions of the unconscious. 

Their organic, dynamic character sharply contrasts with the inorganic, static mathematical objects of Geometrical Abstraction. Squares are particularly prominent, having been idealized, not to say idolized and fetishized, by Malevich, Albers, and LeWitt. However objectively the case, they acquire subjective import by way of their alienness—they are as far from the “all too human” let alone nature and the life-world as it is possible to be. While Abstract Expressionism conveys lived experience, Geometrical Abstraction conveys unlived experience—remoteness from and rejection of life. The square may be vivified, even vitalized by color, so that it seems emotionally moving, which is what Albers does to it, but it remains unmoved and inert. Its identity is fixed forever, unlike an abstract expressionist work, which seems in constant flux, a Heracleitean stream in which it is hard to find one’s footing. Nonetheless, because they are denatured and dehumanized forms, and uncompromisingly abstract, mathematical objects--geometrical forms—become subjectively fascinating, for as strangers on the earth they unconsciously symbolize our estrangement from ourselves, not to say the strangeness of our inner lives and our estrangement from them. Nature abhorring an emotional vacuum as well as a physical vacuum, we invest our emotions in them, making them seem bizarrely bodily. Our techno-geometrical world, the world celebrated by Constructivist abstract art—a world in which mechanically constructed objects are regarded as more meaningful and valuable than naturally given objects, whether animate or inanimate—is an embodied projection of our estrangement from our naturally given bodies as well as from nature in general. 

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square

The self-certainty and predictability of geometrical forms—their axiomatically fixed character, giving them stability and reliability, so that they seem like infallible constructions, machines that will never break down—makes them seem superior to life, with its uncertainty and unpredictability, not to say precariousness. They are eternal and perfect, while life is stalked—informed--by death, and thus inherently imperfect. Life forms unfold—have a beginning, middle, and end—while geometrical forms are given all at once. Life forms change, geometrical forms are unchanging—absolute and unconditionally given, while life is always subject to conditions and time. Life seems chaotic in comparison to the composure of geometrical forms. They afford an illusion of security, an antidote to the chanciness of life. The point is made by Plato’s myth of the divided line, a vertical that reaches upward to the realm of geometrical forms—the transcendental realm of pure mind or intelligibility, of extra-ordinary essences—and downward to the mundane realm of everyday forms—the realm of sense experience or illusion, in which the sublime reality of geometrical forms is compromised by their appearance in ordinarily existing, barely intelligible objects. No doubt one feels more secure intellectually apprehending geometrical forms than subjectively experiencing commonplace objects. But geometrical forms are unconsciously experienced as repressive, making them subjectively meaningful. The difference between ruthlessly repressive Geometrical Abstraction and intensely expressive Abstract Expressionism, and the difficulty of integrating them, and the problematic result of the integration, creates a certain unconscious tension, not to say anxiety, in our response to both. 

Courbet, The Origin of the World

In short, traditional representational art is the art of consciousness, modern abstract art is the art of the unconscious. Subjective expression has come to matter more than objective representation in modernity—even in the seemingly objective representation of geometrical objects. The unconscious takes over art, which becomes excessively subjective—hypertrophied expression--just as objectivity seems to have become hypertrophied—overdone, not to say fastidiously manicured to the last observed detail--in traditional representational art, particularly in the paintings of William-Adolfe Bouguereau, Ernest Meissonier, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, and other academic neo-classicists, the denier cri of the grand tradition. 

Modern art offered a kind of insight into subjective reality—passionate expression and intense feeling—replacing the insight into objective reality that traditional art afforded. Whether traditional or modern, art had something to give—something existentially important that made it esthetically important. It was not yet at an end, without resources and meaning—not until post-art arrived, putting an end to both the subjectivism of modern art and the objectivism of traditional art, that is, the use of art to express the self and the use of art to know objects—and more broadly and nihilistically, declaring that works of art are insignificant compared to everyday phenomena. High art can’t measure up to technological masterpieces, which are more experientially relevant as well as aesthetically astonishing—indeed, more imaginative and sublime. Allan Kaprow is the author of these ideas—the disillusioned conceiver of the cynical idea of “Post-art” (call it conceptual art, if you want to dignify it), with its trivializing view of art. “Brushing my teeth…in the morning when I’m barely awake” is one example of it, he writes, arguing that “work…located in activities and contexts that don’t suggest art in any way” are more peculiarly artistic than works that declare themselves to be art.(11) In this “postartistic age,” as Kaprow call it, “those wishing to be called artists, in order to have some or all of their acts and ideas considered art, only have to drop an artistic thought around them, announce the fact, and persuade others to believe it. That’s advertising. As Marshall McLuhan wrote, ‘Art is what you can get away with’.” (12) 

Marshall McLuhan

The slanderous nihilism of this statement announces the murderous end of both representation and abstraction, imaginative observation and cathartic expression. Kaprow doesn’t mourn for them, but dances on their grave. For him art is no longer an insightful, rewarding rendering of external reality and internal reality, let alone a perceptual epiphany or emotional epiphany, but a kowtowing to the banal, a blind endorsement of the everyday—of nonart. “Nonart is more art than Art art,” he perversely asserts, dismissing Art art as inferior to nonart: “the LM mooncraft is patently superior to all contemporary sculptural efforts…the broadcast verbal exchange between Houston’s Manned Spacecraft Center and the Apollo 11 astronauts was better than contemporary poetry…with their sound distortions, beeps, static, and communication breaks, such exchanges also surpassed the electronic music of the concert halls…certain remote-control videotapes of the lives of ghetto families recorded (with their permission) by anthropologists are more fascinating than the celebrated slice-of-life underground films…not a few of those brightly lit plastic and stainless steel gas stations of, say, Las Vegas, are the most extraordinary architecture to date…the random trancelike movements of shoppers in supermarket are richer than anything done in modern dance…lint under beds and the debris of industrial dumps are more engaging than the recent rash of exhibitions of scattered waste matter…the vapor trails left by rocket tests—motionless, rainbow-colored, sky-filling scribbles—are unequaled by artists exploring gaseous media…the Southeast theater of war in Vietnam, or the trial of the ‘Chicago Eight,’ while indefensible, is better theater than any play.”(13) “Blurring art and life,” in Kaprow’s famous phrase, deprives both of credibility and meaning. The newsworthy example of such blurring—confusion or conflation, indicating that both have become wastelands, entropically exhausted, futile dead-ends—occurred when a janitor, doing his job, emptied a gallery of new work by Damien Hirst, thinking it was so much garbage.(14) Was he mistaken or did he see through the emperor’s new clothes? 

How can art recover from becoming part of the garbage of life? How can it raise itself from the grave it has dug for itself? It has to dig deeper than the grave, descend into the temple-caves where the first sacred art was made, where art originated as though in the mother’s holy womb, where our animal body came to be in all its unself-conscious innocence, the innocence of the animals that symbolize it in the cave paintings, animals the first artists unavoidably identified with because they lived off them. Hunting and eating—killing and consuming--animal bodies the first hunter artists could not help becoming aware of their own animal bodies, suggesting that painting the animals on the walls of the cave—the mythical womb--was an act of atonement for their unconscious cannibalism, not to say an acknowledgement of their kinship. It was also a way of re-originating them: returning the animals to the womb of the cave they could be reborn—and immortalized--as art. The cave was at once generative womb and generative grave—grave as womb in which the consumed animal would have a second artistic (and thus sacred) life in which it would be worshipped forever—a fate allegedly better than death. The original artists were in effect re-fertilizing the cave womb by painting it with their liquid pigments. (Can one say that artists are always on the look out for prey to live off and re-generate as art?) 

Making art was once a sacred labor of love and devotion: the cave artists, at home in the mother’s cave-womb, were as naturally sacred as she was, by virtue of her body’s ability to generate other bodies, generate life in her interior, her generative power proof that she was a goddess. The goddess mother is the elemental artist, the hunter artists who work in her cave-womb gain their generative power by internalizing and identifying with hers, even more deeply than they internalize and identify with the animals they have killed and consumed, dominated and annihilated, slaughtered to avow their will to live. The hunter artist did not enslave the animals, as the agricultural artist later did, but appropriated their identities wholesale by eating their bodies, thus gaining their natural power and strengthening his own, even as he confirmed that he was one animal among many, at large in the wilderness as they were, also living by his instinctive wits, but king of the animals, for he had more wit–instinctive intelligence--than they did. The consumed animals remain alive and active as his internal objects, serving and strengthening his will to live, and the hunter artist remains alive and active so long as he remains an internal object in the cave-womb of the goddess mother, also generating life, if only in the secondary form of art. 

Animal-inspired cave art—art that engages the animal bodily ego, the first and most basic and natural ego—is inherently prehistoric, or rather ahistoric and undying, because it calls upon primary or instinctive creativity to succeed, to make it as spontaneously convincing as it seems spontaneously made. I am suggesting that the cave artist saw little if any difference between the animal’s behavior in the wild and his own behavior in the confines of the cave: they were both instinct-driven, however more ingenious the instincts of the human animal. The animal bodily ego is innately creative, that is, spontaneously generative, and as such the foundation of the will to live, not to say the essence of existence. Mother Nature’s womb-cave was the first studio, more pointedly, the studio as an inner sanctum, a psychic space in which one could internalize something in and of the outer world by re-generating it as art, thus making it one’s own, and, if it is convincing enough—emotionally arousing and spellbinding—lead other people to imagine they own it. Reminding them of the animal bodies underneath their socializing clothes--the animal fundament of their being, the animal body closer to the origin of life than the human soul--they realize that they too are beholden to Mother Nature for their lives. The animal images gestated in the dark caves were not meant to see the light of day—let alone be seen by artificial light--for out of the womb-cave they lose contact with Mother Nature, and with that lose their hold on and faith in life, much as Antaeus did when Hercules lifted him off the earth and strangled him as he was held in the air. Losing touch—the fundament of his connection--with Mother Nature, Antaeus lost his strength and self-belief, just as the cave paintings of the animal bodies lose their sacredness when they are exposed to the air outside the cave, breaking their connection with Mother Nature--no longer securely contained in her womb--and seen by human curiosity seekers who forget they are animals because they think that wearing clothing that hides their bodies proves they are civilized.

The task of the contemporary figure painter is to recover—uncover and restore—the animal bodily ego in the classicized body, indeed, the over-classicized body in neo-classicism. A classicized body is an idealized—unrealistic, unnatural, de-animalized--body. Classical art idealizes the body to deny its animal nature. Its rough edges are smoothed, its skin is polished, its rawness is abolished by refinement. It becomes exquisitely controlled, and with that loses its animal vitality—its instinctive givenness. The idealization was incomplete in antiquity—the natural animal body remains vitally evident, as the bodies of Myron’s Discobolus, ca. 470 BCE and the Dying Gaul, ca. 240 BCE make clear, but it is encased in a kind of aesthetic shell as though mummified while still alive, suggesting an ambiguous attempt to repress it rather total denial---idealizing transmutation--of it into a magically harmonious seamless whole. None of its parts are at odds—not to say absurdly incommensurate with each other, indeed, so completely different that they seem to contradict each other--as they often are in life, but in proper proportionate relationship (the body was made “proper,” and as such civilized and dignified, not to say domesticated, at least in the illusionistic realm of art). It is the body miraculously perfected and denatured—by miraculous and anti-natural art. The modern de-idealization of the classicized body—say the body of Ingres’s Oedipus in Oedipus Explains the Riddle of the Sphinx, 1808, 1827 and Grande Odalisque, 1814, both no longer naked but nude by reason of their idealization—began with Rodin, famously with his Monument to Balzac, 1891-98, 1939, more completely and ruthlessly with his Monument to Victor Hugo, 1897, 1964,with its daring expressionistic handling of the bodies of Hugo and his two muses, the daemonic gesturalism that overruns and informs their flesh. The process of de-idealizing the body is already at work in Delacroix’s rendering of the flesh of the male and female figures in the Styxian waters in The Barque of Dante, 1822. It has its precedent in the fleshy females in Rubens’s Erichthonius Discovered by the Daughter of Cecrops, 1616, among other works. 

Rodin, Le Monument à Balzac

But it had to wait for the twentieth century for the bodily animal ego to make an unequivocal appearance in art. To my eye, it came into its own in the figures of the boxers in George Bellows’s Both Members of the Club, 1909. No idealizing lacquer on their sweaty flesh, no Vitruvian proportion to force harmony on their oddly discombobulated bodies, no mythical storyline to give them ideal credibility. What Bellows began continues in the raw flesh of the fat woman Sleeping by the Lion Carpet, 1996 in Lucian Freud’s painting. It reaches a morbid climax in Ann Gale’s Peter with Striped Kimono, 2014, a fat man with a thin skin, decaying as though in anticipation of death. And, more dramatically, in the bodies of Vincent Desiderio’s Sleepers, 2008 lined up like a herd of animals, more deeply asleep, as though in the darkness of a cave (Plato’s mythical cave of illusion?), than the sleeping bodies in Ferdinand Hodler’s Night, 1889-90. 

Ferdinand Hodler, Night

There are other noteworthy images of the animal bodily ego, among them the female body in Steven Assael’s Bridal Preparation, 2015. But it seems incompletely animal, considering that the surface of the body has been idealized—it seems too slick to be natural--as though to deny Freud’s emphasis on the fact that the “ego is ultimately derived from bodily sensations, chiefly those derived from those springing from the surface of the body,” that is, the skin, to recall his words in the first epigraph. In a sense, the skin ego(15) is the essence of the animal bodily ego--certainly its most subtle aspect--for without the skin the body falls apart. If the figurative artist is unable to render the skin ego, or neglects to do so, he falls short in the task of rendering the bodily ego, suggesting that he denies its animal nature, or does not realize that human beings are mortal animals by nature, not immortal, supernatural beings that transcend nature, inherently superior to it, as the idealizing, deifying images of human beings, with their smooth skins, in classical and neo-classical art imply. In a few modern paintings the skin is excruciatingly evident—notoriously in Oskar Kokoschka’s The Tempest, 1914 and Jerome Witkin’s The Butcher’s Helper, Buchenwald, 1941-45, 1991-92—as though the figures are being flayed alive. To my mind these are among the most moving images of the body in modern art, for they suggest that it is sick unto death in the modern world. 

The full-bodied, weighty—implicitly pregnant, consummate with potential life—Venus of Willendorf, made between ca. 28,000 and 25,000 BCE, is the prehistoric precedent—the ahistoric archetype—of the animalistic body: the bodily ego in its vital rawness and creative fertility. It is worth noting that the Venus figurines are grouped with the figures of large animals carved around the same time, suggesting that woman was regarded as one among many large animals, privileged because her body was enlarged by pregnancy. It is also worth noting that “the earliest known European figurative cave paintings” are of “large wild animals, such as bison, horses, aurochs, and deer.”(16) They date from ca. 30,000-32,000 BCE, indicating that the animal bodily ego was the original subject matter of art. They were the animals hunted by the artists. The artists projectively identified with the animals by painting them, suggesting they also knew, however unconsciously, that they were animals—that they also had animal bodies. The body of the Venus of Willendorf was more conspicuously and totally animal because of its enormous size—all the more animal because it had no head, suggesting she had no human identity. Indeed, she was the goddess of life—the mother goddess—in all its fertile abundance rather than a particular woman. 

Her animalistic female body, with its pungently alive rolls of skin, is the ancestor of the animalistic female body in Courbet’s The Origin of the World, 1866. He focuses on its vagina, emblematic of its identity, with single-minded, concentrated attention. To recall Valéry’s words, Courbet is in “disinterested, close-up communion” with the vagina—an indisputably “given thing”—as though eager to enter it, burrow into the mother’s womb: the vagina is the entrance to the cave of Mother Nature. He worships at its altar, described to the least detail—hairy skin ego and fleshy body ego forming one consummate whole. Courbet’s uncompromising realism—fearless objectivity—is totally at odds with classical idealism. If reality is insulting, as the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott famously said, then Courbet’s realism is an unapologetic insult to classical idealism. And to our technological society, which prefers mechanically productive machines to organically creative bodies, artificial life to natural life. It seems determined to replace the latter by the former. 

There are many figurative artists working today, but the animal bodily ego has all but disappeared from art, driven out of it by the art pathologies of conceptualism and minimalism, the dregs not to say dead-ends of modern art. It seems that the true and difficult task of postmodern art is to render the fullness of bodily being—especially the fullness of being of the generative animal bodily ego. Or at least to remind us that our bodies are more important than our machines, for they are our life. More pointedly, the task of contemporary art in a technological society is to remind us “that man is first and foremost an animal,” to recall Becker’s words, and behaves like an animal, as all the wars in which human beings hunt each other to death, no longer with low-tech spears but high-tech guns and bombs, make abundantly clear. “Whatever else he is, is built on this”—a truth that art must build on and emphasize, especially because human beings have become more conspicuously and ruthlessly animal than ever—bitter consumers of each other--as the death tolls of modern warfare make clear. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm writes, in the 20th century “more human beings had been killed or allowed to die by human decision than ever before in history,”(17) suggesting that a figurative art that presents the bodily ego in all its animalistic nature is ironically humanistic. WM


(1) Sigmund Freud, “The Ego and the Id” [1923], Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1961), XIX, 26

(2) Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (New York and London: Free Press, 1975), 1, 2

(3) Charles Rycroft, Anxiety and Neurosis (London: Maresfield Library, 1988), 38

(4) Paul Valéry, “Degas Dance Drawing,” Degas Manet Morisot (New York: Pantheon, 1960), 59

(5) Wassily Kandinsky, “Reminiscences/Three Pictures,” Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art, eds. Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 363

(6) Ibid., 242

(7) Alfred North Whitehead, “Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect,” An Anthology (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 533-34

(8) Baudelaire makes the distinction in “The Salon of 1859.” In “The Salon of 1846” he wrote “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subjects nor in exact truth, but in a mode of feeling.” His idea of the imaginative artist is an elaboration of his earlier idea of the romantic artist. Charles Baudelaire, The Mirror of Art, Critical Studies, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), 242, 43

(9) Kandinsky, 169

(10) Ibid., 251

(11) Allan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 219

(12) Ibid., 103

(13) Ibid., 97-98

(14) Warren Hoge, “Art Imitates Life, Perhaps Too Closely,” New York Times, October 20, 2001

(15) Didier Anzieu, The Skin Ego: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Self (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), is a thorough account of the skin ego. 

(16) Wikipedia entry on Cave painting

(17) Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage, 1996), 12


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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