Wendy Steiner


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

Cover Interview of August 02, 2011


I have two wishes for readers of this book.

First, I hope the model provides a useful focus for them in approaching the diversity of contemporary culture.  Second, I hope readers will emerge from this book with an alternative to the negative view of media so commonly espoused by intellectuals.

The advent of computers, the Internet, bioengineering, and the other astounding technologies of our day is at least as disorienting as the advent of the printing press or photography was in centuries past.  Media revolutions require a vast amount of cultural processing, and artists are among those most actively contributing to this effort.  Through the idea of the model, artists in our day are showing us not only the dangers of new technologies, but their extraordinary humanistic potential.

The Real Real Thing dramatizes this contrast of views through a quip by Susan Sontag and a novelistic interchange by Christopher Bram.

Susan Sontag reacted in disgust at the American soldiers’ posing beside their torture victims in the Abu Ghraib photographs.  If the seventeenth-century empiricist Bishop George Berkeley could declare, esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived,” Sontag sees modeling as the percipi of the media-saturated, those driven to objectify and be objectified, to experience authenticity only in the act of presenting themselves to public view:  “To live is also to pose.”

Those who gaze on the model are just as frequently declared the passive ones.  “The people” in contemporary democracies have been reduced to viewers of their leaders’ “appearances.”  According to the political scientist Jeffrey Edward Green, “The relationship between actor and spectator, in its current form, threatens the political equality prized by democracy.”

But if, for some, the culture of the gaze is a disgrace, for a surprising number of artists, filmmakers, and writers, it is nothing of the kind.

In Christopher Bram’s novel Gods and Monsters, for example, the protagonist James Whale poses for a fellow art student.  “’What I don’t like is I sit and you draw,’ he says.  ‘Not fair, John.  Not democratic.’”  Obligingly, John undresses, too, and both men pose and draw each other.  “Whale is relieved, pleased.  They have corrected the balance of things, made themselves equals.  One of the joys of art is that it introduces a new hierarchy into the world.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the introduction of new hierarchies into the world—in gender, race, and artistic experience—has been a defining imperative in recent art.

This episode reframes Sontag’s dictum as follows:  “to live is also to communicate,” and its goals are the democratic values of equality and empathy.  I would be pleased if the reader of The Real Real Thing came away with an appreciation of this ethical potential in our perplexing new identity as models.

© 2011 Wendy Steiner