The Concoction

An Ethiopian woman's musings on Africa, the world and everything in between

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        Tuesday, June 27, 2006
        Art shaping the world
        "Why is our world so dominated by images of the body that are unrealistic?" This is the question that a PBS documentary, entitled How Art Made the World, was tackling last night (June 26). Very fascinating.

        The documentary compared body images from prehistoric time until now, and philosophized why we are obsessed with “unrealistic” body images. Basically, according to the documentary, it boils down to two main factors – how the human brain is wired and culture. I, quite liberally, add, patriarchal societal arrangements/ male chauvinism/machoism/sexism… whatever you want to call it.

        It's all in the (male?)brain
        Seagulls, according to Dr. Ramachandran, provide an important clue as why humans were obsessing about large boobs and butts. Baby seagulls know that bright yellow with red strip means food source because mama seagull's beak is exactly that color. In the 70's, Dr. Ramachandran did an experiment with a yellow stick and some red stripes. The more the stripes, the crazier the baby seagulls went. He thinks that if seagull’s had a museum, the most popular piece of art will be a 3 foot long yellow stick with several red stripes.

        But how about after the babies grow up? Would adult seagulls go to a museum and say "Gee, look at the size of that beak man!"? Or would they be looking at another body part to slobber over?

        Through time and depending on the cultural context, the body part that is exaggerated has changed. The Egyptian ancient art was a case in point where the figures are proportional, but still unrealistic. The frontal torso, profile of the face with an eye moved to depict it better, and feet and hands unnaturally turned defying gravity. The Egyptian culture of consistency and order didn’t make room for exaggeration of the human body. Therefore, the ancient artists had to turn some parts of the body unrealistically for emphasis sake. For the next three thousands years, these images were the only portraits of the human body.

        Then the Greeks came up with their dead gorgeous, super athletic bodied statues because looking good in that culture was being close to being god-like. Until last night, I never knew why their statues had one part as if the body is in action and the other resting. It was a way of depicting the human body in an unrealistic way. One question I always have and the program didn’t even touch was, what's up with the pea- size willies on these ancient statues? Was that a deliberately unrealistic depiction to exaggerate the six-pack or were they really that small? I hope the first for my ancient sisters.

        Fast forward body art to Post Modern era, and we find that the art is done directly on the human body through plastic surgery. No cave walls or marbles needed here. It is quite settling, in a weird way, to put plastic surgery in its historical context - then it won't be too disturbing.

        Apparently, what part of the body should be exaggerated depends on culture (didn't I say this before…?). This must be true because most African and African American portraits of women show narrow waist and KEBOW hips and bottoms. Also, randomly select a hip hop song and there is a 7-9 chance that it has a "shake/pop/… your booty" line somewhere.

        Traditional Ethiopian art exaggerates the eyes, and since last night I'm trying to figure out why the eye is so important in our paintings. The Michelangelo type of drawings on a ceiling in a monastery in North Ethiopia are full of big eyed angels. More photos here.

        Female body in a patriarchal society
        From the grotesquely exaggerated to the ghastly skinny, the different ways of representing the female body show (consciously or sub-consciously) who's the object and who's the owner. This is not a new argument, but seeing the long history of portraying the female body drives the point home even harder.

        Although I'm quite aware of the arguments around objectifying the female body, I still don't understand the psychology of advertising for a lawn mower using a half naked woman to lure men to buy it. A bike I can imagine because I can see a man imagining himself on a fat bike with an attractive woman clinging to his back. But a lawn mower? C'mon now!

        The other thing I missed in the documentary was mention of female artists and how they depicted the male body. I will give my left big toe that there is no one woman who made a statue of a man with the penis elegantly resting on one knee. I wonder why and what does that say about Freud's Penis Envy bullshit?
        posted by Fikirte @ 4:02 PM   Digg!
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