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The Body in Contemporary Art Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 27th, 2020

A human body has been one of the major themes in art ever since it first appeared. Cave art, the paintings on the rocks, depicted ancient people and their bodies in motion. Many centuries have passed, and the perception and use of the human body in art have changed, evolved, and expanded in different directions. Today, the works of modern and contemporary art tend to reject the fixed norms and rules that used to direct classic art. This is the case because the modern understanding of the meaning and purpose of art clash with any attempts to provide a definition to this phenomenon. Practically, as defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary, art as a concept is tightly connected to the notion of skill and knowledge (“Art” par. 2). However, the contemporary perception of art does not rely on any outstanding set of skills as much as on a unique way of self-expression and communication.

Since art exists without boundaries, its contents can involve absolutely everything. Moreover, the themes and objects used by artists have become limitless; in particular, there are no longer any fixed topics or rules as to how different themes should, can, or cannot be presented. As one of the most common themes in art, a human body is now explored in a wide variety of ways and perspectives. Previously, a human body in art used to be portrayed in a range of ways based on the cultural perceptions and values (“Human Form in Art” par. 10). In the contemporary Western art, the dominant approach is extremely individualistic; and thus, the depiction of a human body varies according to the unique visions of the individual artists.

To be more precise, in art, the human body can serve as a subject, object, or a part of a performance (“Artist Rooms: Theme: The Body” par. 1). As an object, a body can be used as a material to create art; in this role, the body works as a receiver of the meaning that is provided for it by the mind. As a subject, the body is viewed as an agent that already contains certain meaning; the use of the body in a work of art is intended to expand on the meaning that has already been there and communicate it in unique and unconventional manner. Finally, the art of performance includes the human body in its motion; in this role, the body is viewed from a variety of angles and perspectives and in the combination with what is happening to it in the process of the creation of the work of art. In performance, the body is presented as a complex and changing substance; neither the result of the performance nor any particular aspects of the process are considered as definite manifestations of this art. Instead, the actual process and changes that happen to the body are the work of art.

Three different works of the contemporary art can be used as examples and illustrations of the ways the body can be used and perceived from the artistic point of view. The first example is 160 cm Line Tattooed on Four People created by Santiago Sierra in 2000. This work of art represents a video of four women receiving a tattooed line on their backs (Sierra). The video is black and white and has no sound. It is possible to think that since the bodies are being drawn on, they serve as the canvas in this work of art. However, the video presents the entire process of the four people gathering, waiting for the tattoo artist, receiving their tattoos, getting dressed, and leaving. In that way, this art is a performance, and the line on the bodies of four people is not the manifestation or it but the process of it being tattooed. The meaning of this art includes the potential events that were not included in the video such as the people deciding to have the line tattooed and become a part of this work, the simplicity of the line, its continuation throughout the four bodies of different thinking, acting, and meaningful bodies.

The second work of art selected for this paper is Plank Piece I and II that was created by Charles Ray in 1973. As it is seen from the title, the work contains two pieces both of which are pictures of a body supported by what appears to be a wooden plank (“Charles Ray. Plank Piece I and II” par. 1). In the pictures, the body seems to be weightless and powerless; it demonstrates the lack of initiative or any kind of character or motion, the person’s face is disguised. It looks like the body and the plank supporting it are juxtaposed as two different types of materials. In that way, it is possible to conclude that in this work, the body is used as an object. It is passive, soft, and bent, while the plank is straight, hard, and is an obvious basis for the construction. It is captivating how the artist managed to remove personality from the body and employ it just as an object, a material used to create a construction. Knowing the complexity and the assumed intuitive symbolism of a human body, it is a very difficult task to present it in an image where it is stripped of the entire multitude of meanings.

Finally, the third work of art is known as Shoot; it was created by Chris Burden in 1971. The idea of this work of art is characterized as outrageous because it represented the artist being shot in his arm by his friend using a rifle in front of the viewers (“Chris Burden” par. 4). The thought behind this work was to provide the audience with a real-life image of a person being shot and experience the feelings and emotions that accompany this action. First of all, this work of art is, clearly, a performance designed as a multilayered action, each phase of which carried a particular meaning. Secondly, the body used in this work was employed as a symbol standing for itself. In contrast with Plank Piece I and II, Shoot was based on the meaning of the human body as a representation of a living person. In that way, the damage caused to the body during the performance could only be appreciated from the perspective of the body’s value.

To sum up, compared to the earlier periods in art, the contemporary art is known for its boundlessness and the unlimited number of points of view on the themes explored. The human body is one of the most common themes that can be used as an object, a subject of art or as a part of the performance. In the contemporary art, the body is diverse not only in its shape but also in its meaning. In addition, the perspectives that are employed to look at the body and understand it are not dictated by any fixed norms and rules; instead, they are created by each individual artist for their specific purposes and intentions. The human body can serve as a source of a multitude of unique and unconventional ideas in the contemporary art –the approach to art that uses the most habitual objects and situations to provide them with new meanings.

Works Cited

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2016. Web.

“Artist Rooms: Theme: The Body.” Tate, 2016. Web.

MoMA, 2016. Web.

The Art Story, 2016. Web.

“Human Form in Art.” Pitt Rivers, 2016. Web.

Sierra, Santiago. YouTube, uploaded by Santiago Sierra, 2012. Web.

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