Wendy Steiner


On her book The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art

Cover Interview of August 02, 2011

The wide angle

The Real Real Thing shows early 21st-century culture wrestling with new media, technology, and science.  The book is the third in a loose trilogy that began with The Scandal of Pleasure:  Art in an Age of Fundamentalism (1995).

The Scandal of Pleasure, a response to the Culture Wars, defends the arts against censorship and literalist interpretations on the grounds of the virtuality of art, its difference from reality.

The next in the sequence, Venus in Exile:  The Rejection of Beauty in 20th-Century Art (2001), argues that beauty is again becoming a central goal in art after a long period of neglect and outright hostility on the part of the avant-garde.  But now, instead of being valued as a property of artworks, beauty is prized as an interaction among the real parties involved in the experience of art.

The Real Real Thing elaborates this interactive aesthetics explored in contemporary works of art.  By focusing on the model, “that which art represents,” contemporary works elicit a reality with an independent existence outside the work.  A real model interacts with a real artist, and a real audience perceives the resulting creation.  Works about modeling thus signal the reality of the creative and communicative interactions involved in the experience of art.

So here I might appear to be contradicting the central premise of The Scandal of Pleasure:  that art functions in a virtual relation to everyday experience and hence that it would be a mistake to deal with an artwork as we would deal with everyday life.

But this contradiction is only apparent.  Nonfiction, documentaries, reality TV, interactive art, and all the rewriting of modeling myths conceivable could not eradicate the virtuality of art.  Instead, the emergence of these reality genres indicates the re-orientation of the arts toward a new set of conditions in reality.

It is only two decades since the Culture Wars that provoked Scandal, and yet the challenges the arts address today seem entirely different.  The problem now is not that art will be treated as a threat to the body politic, but that the body politic has become hard to distinguish from art.

Not just artists, but all of us are concerned with the issues the model raises:  power differentials in the process of communication, the permeation of the media into everyday existence, and the value of art in the buzzing circuit board we call reality.  Paradoxically, the previously marginal figure of the model has become a valuable symbol for the hopes and ironies of the current situation.