Wounding the Viewer: Diane Arbus and Sylvia Plath

by on Jan.21, 2011

I’ve been thinking about Diane Arbus’s work recently. Partially because of Joyelle’s post about the stunt-body of Plath’s Lady Lazarus, a “freak” (I hope everybody realizes I’m using very big quotation marks around this word) being gazed at (photographed) by the reader, and partially because I watched a somewhat mediocre but still pretty interesting fairytale bio-pic about Arbus, Fur. It may also tell us something about “the gaze.”

About the movie: Part of the problem was that it set up such a conventional conflict: the “freaks” she photographs liberates her, leads her away from her sexually repressive marriage and to become a true Artist/Photographer. In other words, it followed exactly the trajectory Megan Milks though The Black Swan followed (and which I disagreed with): the woman needs to be fucked to become a good artist. And the reason for this is that it will give her an interiority; she will no longer be the empty ballet dancer or the subservient and repressed wife; she will be a completed human being. In her husband’s pictures of housewives for Vogue they appear as automatons.

On a more interesting level: Like the Black Swan (and Joyelle’s necropastoral), Art is tied up with Death (the treatment of the camera makes it seem like a crime weapon) in Fur.

I don’t know much about Arbus but there seems to be a much less friendly/liberational relationship between the photographer and the “freaks” in her work. To begin with, that man below seems to have been castrated, but it’s the viewer who’s freaked out. The man seems incredibly powerful, incredibly in control, despite looking vaguely like a photomontaged image. There is a lot of violence in these photographs, but often the violence seems directed toward the viewer and possibly the photographer. That is a large part of its beauty.

I tend to think Sontag’s critique of Arbus (and photography as a whole) is way too simplistic and puritanical and iconophobic: she basically accuses it of a kind of superficiality and that leads to a voyeuristic relationship to the world. (It was a while since I read it, so I hope I don’t mischaracterize it): “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it. But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks.” And if I remember correctly photographs control the subject matter (which ties in with the mastery of the gaze).

However, she does make this interesting observation about Arbus: “Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence.”

A pro-Arbus piece might object to this characterization, but Arbus herself wrote:

Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don’t quite mean they’re my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame and awe. There’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.

In some sense, she seems to say that Sontag is in fact correct. She is using these freaks to “violate” her; or to act like sphinxes that “demand you answer a riddle”, riddles act like wounds in texts, especially as Arbus assumes we don’t know the answer, we are traumatized by the riddle. Unlike the epiphanic work of art, these image don’t come back together, the viewer doesn’t come back together; we are “traumatized” by the art.

We don’t gain mastery over them with our gaze. But that’s not because we feel sympathy with them or some such humanist crap; on the contrary, they are riddles, we don’t empathize, we don’t feel a personal connection etc.

This is why I think the liberational metaphor is wrong: we don’t answer the riddle, we don’t survive the art work.

Part of what the movie got right, I think, is that with art comes death. The ducts that are shaped like hair, allows her to hear the troubled breathing of the Wolf Man who lives above her, and they are also echoed in corridors that seem to lead to death/corpses. However, while the Wolfman dies, Arbus has to survive, has to have an epiphanic coming-back-together, and then become naked at a nudist colony (she becomes willing to share of herself? Or I suppose this is a hoaky version of Heaven, as Arbus did kill herself. This would suggest that the movie has a bit more to do with The Black Swan).

And as Joyelle notes in her Lady Lazarus post, Lady Lazarus’s freakishness lies in making the connection between art and death, in moving across death’s boundary, in becoming a “stunt” body.

This is of course a large part what Sontag dislikes about photography: that it removes interiority and depth, makes voyeurs out of the viewers (the peanut-crunching crowd”).

In some ways this stunt body is the automaton body that was so central to Freud’s idea of the uncanny:

“On the other hand, we notice that Schelling says something which throws quite a new light on the concept of the Unheimlich, for which we were certainly not prepared. According to him, everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.”

(That’s Freud’s quote.)

According to Freud, the automaton is a double, both living and dead, a reminder of the unconscious.

However, I’m also thinking about how Sontag’s theories were also influenced by Barthes’s theories about photography. And he famously associated photography with death. He developed the notion of the “punctum” – the wound, the reminder of death, which seems related to Arbus’s idea of the traumatic art event.

I also wonder what the relationship is between Bellmer’s dolls and Arbus’s freaks? On some level, they are very obviously different. Bellmer’s dolls seem to have been victimized and they tend to not have eyes; while Arbus’s “freaks” tend to look very powerful. Yet it seems there is a connection between photography and dolls in both pieces: and it has something to do with riddles.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    Can I also re-iterate how incredible that Arbus quote is. For many different reasons. Shame and awe. That’s what I want from Art.


  2. Johannes

    Also, apologies for messing up the format of this blog entry, but that’s just the way it is.


  3. Danielle

    Sontag does the same thing in Illness as Metaphor–oversimplifies (ie, suggests that we’ll find a singular cause of cancer), gets puritanical–I can’t quite figure out why this tactic strikes her wise/valuable, except that maybe when you start critiquing the use of metaphor you have to embrace the literal and absolute?

    Re: “stunt” body, Robyn Art’s amazing *The Stunt Double in Winter* (Dusie Press Books) does JUST THIS! Beautifully. http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-stunt-double-in-winter/3161596

  4. Johannes

    I think she has a real platonic streak in her – images, metaphors, reproductions are not true, real, and thus confuses. You can even see it in her “Against Interpretation” which appears to be anti-new-critical or something, but is in fact ultra-text-based. She wants an erotics instead of an hermeneutics. Of course I’ve found this a helpful essay in some regards.


  5. Roz Ito

    Totally agree about that Arbus quote. Fantastic. I really love:

    “Most people go through life dreading they’ll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They’ve already passed their test in life. They’re aristocrats.”

    The shame & awe that “non-freaks” feel when put in the presence of someone who has superior understanding.

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