Last month I was commissioned by Article Gallery to write a piece of text to accompany the latest exhibition 'Obscene and Pornographic Art', paintings by Sadie Lee and Matthew Stradling:
“I ain’t no languid nude”: a maybe-not-so-tragic love affair with Neoclassicism’
A central paradox of any transformative criticism is that its dreams for the future are founded on a history of suffering, stigma and violence.
Historical painting has not been altogether kind. Like our social history which is so often written by the “victors”, those that made slaves, savages, subservient women, lunatics, heretics, hysterics, criminals and freaks; Academic art often presents itself as a documentation of the times, yet it’s a warped reflection that has denied many to visibility within the frame. 18th century painting in Europe practiced under the influence of the academies, developing two styles: Neoclassicism and Rococo. The chocolate-box gaiety of Rococo, softly stimulating floridity, personified aristocratic naughtiness in favour of the western-European pedigree. Whilst often sharing aspirations, Neoclassicism’s harder and more simplified images of nobility dispelled the ornate in Rococo while further polishing its privilege with flattery, making grandiose claims in form or narrative in the name of portraying a supposedly great empire. The creation of this standard sediments a lineage of entitlement which is far from redundant, still lending gravitas to a way of looking and favouring certain bodies over others. Perhaps just as long as their frames cling to gallery walls, these outdated norms of white heteronormativity will remain harder to budge, in painting, and otherwise…
However despite recognition of these images as problematic in retrospect – I am so sweet on Academic painting. I often find myself enamoured with these types, feeling great admiration in figure and feature, a love affair so consuming it feeds into my own painting. Yet I’ve feared I’m dragging myself into a past in which I may have been at best a languid nude, or in the back crying into my toga as centurions draw their swords. My tumultuous relationship with Neoclassicism in particular I have considered akin to that of a romantic partner, a lover in whom you see all the most redeeming qualities, all the beauty, with whom you want to make it work, but deep down you know they’re “just not that into you”. These works don’t represent my values, our lifestyles don’t compute. However before I doom my own artistic career as a rom-com cliché, it is nevertheless true that while I hold a candle for oil painting, I have also found myself illuminated to a number of other artists who are themselves, it seems, in similar positions and forcefully reimagining this relation through their own practice. By neither regarding such cultural heritage as time best forgotten, or in fact agreeing that it is all consigned to the past: artists such as Eleanor Antin, Titus Kaphar, Sadie Lee, and Cindy Sherman instead actively critique the problem as ongoing, readdressing the pitfalls of Academic painting in explosive political projects from feminist, queer, or non-white perspectives.
More than just one-upmanship (“I can paint too, ya know!?”), there is potential in an ethical exploration of history(-painting), reimagining what has come before or adapting hidden narratives obscured by centuries of accumulated discourse. In their own takes, artists can create new artefacts built on inadequacies and residues, featuring new figures that perform the (neo-)classical body through theatrics and posing, whilst highlighting cultural, sexual and political difference. On departing from the ideal one can defy its limitations, acting as a ‘means of revenge on the ideal that remains the exclusive right of the original’; ‘a celebration of the copy precisely because it marks the limits, and ultimately the failure and collapse of that ideal.’ This infiltration of ‘subversive’ bodies in a seemingly static realm could be thought to be making trouble in the way that Judith Butler has famously asserted, a strategy of destabilising the illusion of innate and stable identity norms. However since identity in this case is always part of a larger network of social control it may be more pertinent to expand to a consideration of these power structures through the work of Michel Foucault.
Foucault wrote that power is always present, in all places, all the time. It does not come handed down from a position of higher authority but circulates about us, producing discourses. Discourses in language are groups of statements which construct topics, governing how we can meaningfully talk about our objects of knowledge, which authorise themselves as true, not as absolute Truth, but as regimes of the true. Academic painting can be thought of as representational system that produced meaning and further maintained discourse to the benefit of the powers that be – the benefactor, the sitter, the audience, the aristocracy, and the artist. Similarly, power’s hold on sex is also created and maintained by discourse. In fact, Foucault wrote that in fact Modern societies have not been categorised by repression or prudishness, but by a dedication to discuss sex and sexuality ‘ad infinitum, whilst exploiting it as the secret’. The transformation of sex into discourse is similar to that transformation of history into Academic into painting: there are those who decide what narrative is acceptable, those that are sanitized, excluded by power. Every era had its deep-rooted epistemological assumptions that determine acceptability: the Académie des Beaux-Arts would equate celestial splendour to a smooth Greco-nude, applaud Fragonard’s ability to capture the act of sneaking a peak up-skirt as a lady dangles on a swing, but will veto Courbet’s depiction of female genitalia still a hundred years later.
Yet techniques of power don’t just work by repression and invalidation; they can also be channelled in intensification and resistance, and pleasure. In particular, Foucault writes how in the Greco-roman formation of power, truth and sex were linked, in the form of pedagogy, ‘by the transmission of a precious knowledge from one body to another; sex served as a medium for initiations into learning.’ By using the didactic, that is informative and instructional, qualities of Neoclassicism, artists are penetrating its discourse, making it slippery. Each tableau becomes a theatrical microcosm of antiquity’s sexual, economic and power relations, tensioned with anachronisms, which rupture and pull apart static truths, fuelling a decline of old discourse. Appropriating the styles of the 18th century can perhaps lend a sense of monumentality and intensity in the making of overtly sexual work. By synthesising these virtual histories and virtual futures, a way of creating images that straddles the past and the present, power is created between the two paintings, old and new. The realisation of the codes and conventions in painting ‘implants it in reality and enjoins it to tell the truth’: producing ‘an entire glittering sexual array, reflected in a myriad of discourses, the obstination of powers, and the interplay of knowledge and pleasure.’ Out of this new discursive ‘event’, an emergence of a new regime of explicit knowledge, which may mean that a once lop-sided love affair begins to revive and transform.
 Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (London and Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009), 1.
 James Tweedie, “The Suspended Spectacle of History: The Tableau Vivant in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio” in Screen, Vol. 44, Issue 4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 387.
 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume 1 , translated from French by Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 35.
 Foucault, Volume 1, 61.
 Foucault, Volume 1, 72.