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By Wendy Steiner


The Montréal Review, October 2011


 "The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art" by Wendy Steiner (University Of Chicago Press, 2010)


"Surveying the field of contemporary culture with grace and wit, Wendy Steiner comes to the surprising conclusion that 'a revolution is underway in the general understanding of beauty.' The Perfected Form of the engineered celebrity and supermodel-and such things as Platonic architecture and sculpture-is giving way to a more interactive beauty. The real real engages the audience in vital interaction-does not petrify as a Medusa head-a Reality squared"

-Charles Jencks, author of Critical Modernism


Any creation story is a story about models, for as King Lear reminds us, "Nothing can come of nothing." Models generate entities "made in their own image." They are the Real peeking out at us from the mirror of art.

Contemporary artists seem utterly fascinated with this figure. The painter Marlene Dumas papers whole gallery walls with watercolor Models; Vanessa Beecroft poses women in her performance pieces like undressed store mannequins, suffering the gaze of embarrassed gallery-goers. Cindy Sherman's genius lies as much in her uncanny modeling of female stereotypes as in the photographs she takes of her impersonations. And in Life Model Goes Mad, Tracey Emin enacted an artist's model by spending three weeks naked and on view in a gallery installation. Other arts are equally model-mad. America's Next Top Model, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Live Nude Girl, Look At Me-from reality television to films, memoirs, and novels, the arts are fixated on the model.

The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art explores this focus on the model and tries to explain it. The intrusiveness of media into everyday life, it claims, is creating a growing anxiety over the Real. With content on the Internet virtually uncontrolled, it is all but impossible to tell facts from fictions or falsehoods. Indeed, we fear there may be no difference among them: that reality is merely a construct created by those with the power and influence to control the way reality is seen. Our own identities seem increasingly artificial, as personal profiles and avatars stand in for us, and posts and tweets replace face-to-face communication. We are all becoming models: real people known through their images who style themselves for media consumption. As Susan Sontag has written, "To live is also to pose."

This situation is destabilizing the arts. With daily life permeated by screens, hype, and image, the arts are losing their special claim to the sphere of fiction and the imagination. The Real Real Thing asks what happens to art when "virtually everything is virtual." The answer seems to be that art responds by making an about-face from abstraction and surrealism to insist on its connection to the real. Documentaries and memoirs-nonfictional genres that were previously considered sub-artistic or peripheral-have now become our major narrative forms. And portraiture and actual mirrors are turning up in visual art because of the indisputable reality claim of their subjects.

A new myth of modeling is emerging. Far from the disempowered sexual objects of the past, models are being pictured as artists in their own right, skilled shapers of their own images and collaborators in the aesthetic communication. The Real Real Thing describes this turn in cultural politics, in which value is no longer focused on the work and artist as in modernism, but includes all the participants in the experience of art. The real person who poses for a work is not irrelevant once the work exists, and the real people who experience it are not just passive, uncreative recipients. In this interactive aesthetics, the roles of model, artist, audience, and artwork reverse and overlap; power circulates freely among them; and empathy, equality, and reciprocity are central values.

The Real Real Thing covers a lot of ground, from mythic creation stories to the model-celebrity-artist mergers of Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan. It demonstrates the importance of modeling to feminism and bioethical debates, to the militantly political artworks of "The Disappeared," and to "relational aesthetics" in contemporary art theory. At a time when the relation between the real and the imaginary has become utterly ambiguous, it reveals the model as a cultural key.

This book is the third in a loose trilogy on aesthetics that began in 1995 with The Scandal of Pleasure: Art in an Age of Fundamentalism, a defense of the arts against the literalism of the Culture Wars. Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th-Century Art (2001) was the next in the series. Its claim was that artists were again focusing on beauty as a positive value, but reinterpreting it in interactive terms. The Real Real Thing elaborates this interactive aesthetics through the figure of the model.

It is only two decades since the Culture Wars that provoked The Scandal of Pleasure, and yet the challenges the arts address today seem entirely different. The problem now is not that art will be treated as a threat to the body politic, but that the body politic has become hard to distinguish from art. Not just artists, but all of us are concerned with the issues the model raises: power differentials in the process of communication, the permeation of the media into everyday life, and the unique value of the arts in the buzzing circuit board we call reality. These anxieties have transformed the previously marginal figure of the model into a valuable symbol of the hopes and ironies of contemporary existence.


WENDY STEINER, a Canadian, is the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was Founding Director of the Penn Humanities Forum and past Chair of the English Department. Among her books on modern literature and art are The Real Real Thing (2010), Venus in Exile (2001), and The Scandal of Pleasure (named one of the "NY Times 100 Best Books of 1996"). Steiner has created the librettos and multi-media productions for two operas, The Loathly Lady (2009) and Biennale (in process), and co-created a real-time music visualization, Traces on the Farther Side (2011).


Copyright © The Montreal Review. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911

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