Surface Tensions: Judith Butler on Diane Arbus (2004)

Two men dancing at a drag ball, N.Y.C. 1970.

By Judith Butler, ArtForum, February, 2004

The Diane Arbus exhibition “Revelations,” currently (2004) showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is not difficult to attend. The crowds that circled the block to see the major Marc Chagall exhibition earlier this fall are now quite small, leading me to wonder about the hardiness of visual appetites during these times. Bright colors and flying figures, relentless affirmations of religious traditions in the midst of modernity: All this had clear and overwhelming appeal to a general public. But when I asked a few friends to accompany me to Arbus, nearly everyone declined: They had political repugnance for the objectifying photos; they thought it would be “depressing.” To them, Arbus’s photographic gaze seems inappropriately fascinated by human distortions, playing on spectacle, pandering to the unseemly desire to gawk at what might seem aberrant, to peer, to invade. However true these criticisms may be, there is something else going on with these photos to which some of this moralizing may well be blind.

I gather that the prohibition against which Arbus worked in her time–the bourgeois norms that have everything to do with making sure only certain surfaces show–continues to operate now in another register. We are not supposed to make into visual spectacles human bodies that are stigmatized within public life or to treat them as objects available for visual consumption. As a result, one finds oneself wanting to see what one “should not” enjoy seeing, and now partly to test the thesis that these photos are nothing but spectacularization or objectification. One does not, from a critical perspective, want to accept such a blanket judgment without first seeing for oneself, so the desire to “see for oneself” is instigated by the newer prohibition as well. There is in Arbus–and in the discomfort with her work–always that struggle: a certain solicitation to see what one should not see. In a way, nothing much has changed since the ’50s and ’60s when she took most of her photographs, since prohibition still governs the scene of their showing. And though SF MOMA tries to assert Arbus’s universal value for understanding the “complexity” of human life, sequestering the fact of her suicide in 1971 to a small corner of a small room in the exhibition, there is no way around the difficulty she makes one work with: One wants, in some instances, to turn away, not because the photo is grotesque, but because the human figure is so proud in its enormity or deformity or its plasticity, in its shiny garb, happy, finally, before the camera, Arbus’s camera, that provides the occasion and promise to be seen and seen again. So we witness the visual trace of her solicitation in the smiling or tortured figure who is photographed, and that solicitation works on the viewer as well: What did she say to that person? And what relation did they establish? And how was it arranged, this look, this stance, this pleasure and pain?

So the prohibition is there, since these are photos that no nice Jewish girl is supposed to take, and one can see the restraining force of the prohibition precisely as she shoots through it. The prohibition stands as a dying god, in whose fading light she shoots again and again, bringing into discrete illumination these various shadow figures as so many Antichrists and pagan avengers.

Most consumers of Arbus head straight to the grotesque photos or share in her fascination with the dwarfs, the muscle men, the mentally ill, and all those who wear their decorations, shines, and glazes proudly before the eye of the camera. Indeed, one of her earliest photos is a reduplication of a movie “close-up” in which, it might be said, that celluloid literally closes in on the kiss it portrays. For Arbus, there is already something ghastly and otherworldly in this medium that determines what flesh will mean, but there is no recoil in moral horror. In the Hollywood shot, we don’t reckon with the plastic medium into which flesh has dissolved, but that medium is established as the point of departure for much of what Arbus does. Indeed, most of the well-known pieces record a nearly successful transformation of flesh into gloss or shine, the near eclipse of flesh by shiny materials, the synthetic embrace of the body that closes it off from the possibilities of touch, the transformation, through muscle building, of the body itself into a formidable and impermeable surface. If Arbus has been accused of objectification, perhaps it is because she works with and against the surface. Indeed, the fact that her figures remain stubbornly on the surface can be understood as a resistance to capture, a refusal of invasion. Can we, as the philosopher Jay Bernstein suggested to me, understand both the camera’s refusal to invade and the figures’ refusal of invasion as an assertion of dignity through the insistence on surface?

There are several images in which figures face Arbus’s camera with their eyes closed, including Woman on the street with her eyes closed, N.Y.C., 1956, and A very young baby, N.Y.C., 1968, and yet others in which the figure seems to look past the camera altogether (Blonde girl with shiny lipstick, N.Y.C., 1967). The camera seems oddly rebuffed at these moments, and the figures present an obdurate surface, one that cannot be entered or known. In some photographs the figures look back at the camera with suspicion (Seated transvestite with crossed ankles, N.Y.C., 1966; Two girls on the beach, Coney Island, N.Y., 1958; A flower girl at a wedding, Conn., 1964; Boy in a man’s hat, N.Y.C., 1956), or sadness (Woman on the street with parcels, N.Y.C., 1956), or a mix of fear and disdain (Puerto Rican woman with a beauty mark, N.Y.C., 1965; Two ladies walking in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1963). These are not freaks or performers, but they do show us something about the ordinary performance of obduracy. The body seals and protects, appears bounded and set apart. The only sign we have that there might be a life within is in the eyes, expressing triumph before the camera, testing its gaze, or averting contact.

Most of these photographs turn out to be of women, but not all of them. There are musclemen showing their self-sufficiency, and the Human Pincushion, Ronald C. Harrison, N.J., 1962, who calmly displays how he can handle any piercing. Arbus’s camera works a bit like those pins, probing and piercing a surface that will not yield. In a way, the camera dramatizes this lack of contact, its own inadmissibility, even as the photographer has entered places (mental institutions, strip joints, etc.) where the camera is not always admitted. Arbus enters only to find new ways of being refused or rebuffed, of registering and amplifying in visual form the obdurate surface of the humans she encounters there. Woman in a bow dress, N.Y.C., 1957, shows a woman on the street, walking toward the camera but registering anxiety about its proximity. In a sense, the bow on that dress would enter any room before the female figure who wears it, drawing attention there first, acting not only as a substitute symbolization for her but as one that deflects the gaze and incites a baffled fascination. She is clearly silhouetted, alone before the camera, fending it off, directing its attention to the bow that provides a frontal flanking. Burlesque comedienne in her dressing room, Atlantic City, N.J., 1963, presents the performer’s body in a sitting position, but this is a body to be seen and not had. It is no more available by virtue of being naked than it would be by virtue of being near. It is, by definition, over there, seated amid clutter, bounded and bare.

This kind of photographing of the body, though, seems to change when touch and motion enter the picture. And though there are pictures of touch, especially among Arbus’s images of nudists, the figures are generally standing still, and even the scene of heterosexual lovemaking in Couple under a paper lantern, N.Y.C., 1966, seems to be no more than a static occasion for the reflection of light, as if the figures were turned to gloss or shine in the midst of their act. One of the most startling departures from this mode, however, happens in the relatively early photograph Masked boy with friends, Coney Island, N.Y., 1956. Where in the images from the ’60s we might expect the mask to fill or focus the frame (see Masked man at a ball, N.Y.C., 1967, or Masked woman in a wheelchair, Pa., 1970), here it is donned by one of the boys in the middle of a group of young men, subordinated to their play, their entanglement, and their motion. The boy on the left is blurry, and the one on the far right’s face is partially obscured by his own hand, stretched in the direction of the camera, pointing but perhaps also fending off; the various hands on the masked boy seem both to capture and to embrace him. The legs are in some homoerotic tangle, facing several directions at once, losing the distinctness and boundedness that is so often the signature feature of Arbus’s women and most of her men. Where the photos that solicit the obduracy of the body tend to focus on the mask, the bow, the shiny dress, the glossy reflection, this image, along with Two female impersonators backstage, N.Y.C., 1961, seems to catch some pleasure and motion generated from touch.

In this last piece, the two men cast their gaze somewhere between each other and the camera, and they seem to break through a stark solitude by which so many of the other figures, embracing or no, are bounded. Perhaps the homoerotic scenes open up some place of ease for Arbus, since they more fully relieve the photographer from the scene or provide an articulation of pleasure that is something other than “achieving” oneself as sculpture or synthetics. These are figures who do not attempt to achieve an impermeable surface but who become tangled up in touch and motion in obvious pleasure before the camera.

In Two boys smoking in Central Park, N.Y.C., 1962, the figures face each other and the camera at once, as if undecided between the two objects. They smoke in tandem and their feet are close enough, miming one another in proximity. The knees point to each other, though, and the boys stand alone amid an expanse of dirt and trammeled grass and a set of trees that suggest a certain worlding. Unlike the burlesque comedienne, they are somewhere, not only in themselves; and they are with each other, and clearly they have plans (what is in that bag? and why does it shine?). As opposed to the bags that so many women carry (see Woman with a briefcase and pocketbook, N.Y.C., 1962), this one is portentous. It will be mobilized for some purpose at some time, even though it also allegorizes the luminous moment that is the photograph itself.

Among Arbus’s last photos are those of mentally interned patients or of people with Down syndrome. In Untitled (6), 1970-71, three such subjects are playing on the lawn, taking pleasure in their bodies, performing that pleasure. If Arbus is subject to the criticism that she casts psychological illness or developmental challenge as utopic, perhaps a rejoinder ought to be that it would be equally wrong to conceive of psychological disorders as producing lives that can only suffer. Arbus insisted that these photos were “beautiful,” and she clearly portrayed the pleasure in the body that could be taken in partial obliviousness to the norms by which it is governed. Her photographs “grant” the bodily tricks and performances of these subjects their dignity.

In most of these photographs there is little wind. The world is very still, and the looks people give each other and the camera are fixed, as if they have been in that position for a very long time. One exception is Child in a nightgown, Wellfleet, Mass., 1957, a relatively early photograph in which the breeze lifts the hair into a set of horizontal streaks and wisps and the sorrow in the child’s eyes works in tension with a slight smile and a subtle look of expectancy. She has not yet become the bright white nightgown, and she has not yet gone inside from the weather of the night to compose herself into a statue to be registered by the photographic gaze. The catalogue accompanying “Revelations” lets this photograph fill one of its introductory pages, and, of course, it is a much more reassuring image than most of what Arbus offers. There are reasons to be permanently skeptical of any effort to excise the negativity from Arbus. It seems equally important, though, to notice that she gives us a way of understanding how the body only sometimes becomes resolved into its impermeability, its objectness, its surface, and its solitude. She gives us counterpoints along the way, showing that this surfacing of the self happens over time and through poignant foreclosures. Although we never get behind any of these surfaces (and this may well be a reason to exonerate Arbus from the charge of “capturing” her subjects), we do see in this constellation of photographs how the surface is achieved, interiority refused, but not because of some existential generalization about all subjects. The performer, the freak, the bourgeois couple in their stasis, the bow and the bag in their finality, all emerge against the background of a lost world of touch and motion, one that nevertheless, surprisingly, continues to make its appearance.

BOOKS: Diane Arbus

* Revelations (2003)
* Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (2005)
* Diane Arbus: Untitled (2005)
* Diane Arbus: Magazine Work (2005)
* Diane Arbus: Family Albums (2003)

Around the WEB: Diane Arbus

* Wikipedia: Diane Arbus
* Artnet: Diane Arbus
* SF MOMA: Diane Arbus
* NPR: “Diane Arbus’ Identical Twins”
* Washington Post: “Diane Arbus: Revealed And Rediscovered”
* Haber Arts: Diane Arbus

ASX CHANNEL: Diane Arbus

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(© Judith Butler, 2004. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)

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