Vanitas: Postmodern Art and Shock #2
Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorexic byJana Sterbak in 1987
(Postmodern Art and Shock #2)
Manitoba Tory MP Felix Holtmann said (in 1991), “Using government funds to exhibit beef is ridiculous.” Likewise, other politicians and organizations that feed the hungry have labeled Vanitas (made of 60 pounds of flank steak) a waste of money. Some in Canada were shocked and angry enough to insist the Canadian government stop funding any gallery that shows her work.
Vanitas addresses issues concerning women, fashion, consumption and the body. The equation of women with meat and the notion that “you are what you wear” are common ideas in Western society. The current women’s fashion industry is worth tens of billions of dollars per year. It’s no news that some designer dresses cost tens of thousands of dollars and that such dresses signify socio-economic status for the woman who wears it. In many cases, women’s fashion is (i) no longer about looking nice as flaunting what you can afford and how sexy and important you can afford to be and (ii) a means of hiding a woman’s deeper spiritual and social problem of who and what she is. Moreover, (at that time in the United States and Canada) (iii) statistics have pointed to a growing number of young women with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa (referred to in the title), because their body types do not match the prevailing fashion or “look” sported by the tall and thin models populating the media.
Those who became upset with Vanitas (Latin for ‘vanity’) hold on to the modern aesthetic myth that visual art (i) should confine itself to playing with colors and shapes with traditionally accepted material to please the eye and (ii) should not contain any comment regarding the outside world. Ms. Sterbak’s work challenges that modern myth by incorporating organic material in her work in order to comment on the spiritual and social crises facing many women in our contemporary society. Moreover, those who reject the work by speaking of meat going to waste fail to see (i) the real waste occurring in the women’s fashion industry to the tune of tens of billions of dollars per year by the industry preying on female vanity. They also fail to see (ii) the damage the fashion industry’s ideal female body propaganda has brought onto many young women; and that (iii) adult women now have to fight any signs of aging. All of this has come to the point of body-alienation: a woman’s own body has become her own oppressor and enemy.
Ms. Sterbak was invited to appear on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show but declined. She said, “I think they had a very naive idea of what it was about.” The tile Vanitas refers to an art historical convention referring to human vanity and the fleetingness of life. Ms. Sterbak also said, “The point of the work is that meat dies.” The meat used in the work decomposes in six weeks. Both traditional and modern aesthetics tend to focus on the material aspect of an artwork; it is believed that a work of art should last indefinitely. However, Ms. Sterbak’s work challenges this notion by espousing her conviction that a work of art is a process. Vanitas consists of the process of life: coming into being, growing and the process of decay. The work will eventually die (i.e., turn into a pile of dust). Because of that, the essence of the work is not in its “everlasting” materiality but in its own ever-changing dynamic that can neither be frozen in time nor conveyed through conventional aesthetic means. Likewise, the very essence of womanhood consists in the same ever-changing internal dynamic and cannot be externalized or materially defined: the essence of womanhood cannot be defined by a woman’s appearance, e.g., how young and slender her body is and what clothes she happens to wear. As such, the essence of womanhood should be a woman’s own dynamic life-process and should not be possessed and controlled by the fashion industry. I take Ms. Sterbak to be saying that a liberated woman should become her own person and not fall prey to the body-image propaganda of the fashion industry, where a woman battles her own body to look the way the fashion industry wants her to look.
Even though it makes a potent feminist statement on our contemporary society in an aesthetically relevant way, Vanitas does not fit the general population’s notion of art to the point of shock, hostility and ridicule.