Re-contextualizing Moral Optics of Foucault and Botero by Eduardo Mendieta

Another (recent) short paper I wrote on artist, Fernando Botero, for the course, Contemporary Art: History and Theory taken at UC Berkeley Extension (for Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Visual Arts).

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One of the fundamental lessons in drawing class entailed drawing untold numbers of fruit, boxes and bags.  The exercises were required to instill the importance of actually depicting what existed in reality versus what the mind believes or thinks exists.  I was often reminded that we first see everything the wrong way and that it is our brain that turns everything right side up.  Understandably so, as the world and human cognitive processes evolve, ways of governing ourselves and let’s not forget the ways in which we’ve created social and gender constructs to function in the world and society at large; we often forget to try and understand a photographic depiction.  We take it for what it is.  From finding a photograph aesthetically pleasing to a sense of repulsion, there are instantaneous reactions.  It’s the closest depiction of reality and how we physically see something.  Yet, with post modern nuances of art entailing a conceptual and performative slant, it should not be forgotten the effectiveness of painting.  I would like to ask the reader to combine the tenets of philosophy and art to re-contextualize the way in which painting, in contemporary times, can offer a much more powerful way of understanding politics and how it coveys philosophical concepts in such a way language is unable to capture.  From Botero’s classical painting techniques, the viewer is afforded the opportunity to navigate biopolitics (as Foucault has coined), social constructs and ideology through the canvas.

Reading through Eduardo Mendieta’s paper entitled, Moral Optics, my interest was piqued in how philosophy and art are combined.  We see this convergence in post modern thought and art practice.  He discusses Foucault’s Biopolitics and its relationship to seeing as correlated to biopolitics and biopower.  From this, the reader gains a broader understanding of how Botero’s paintings take the imagery of Abu Ghraib produced by photography and brings the seeing to an inevitable understanding of torture through re-contextualization via painting.  Mendieta inculcates the reader to re-examine and learn new ways of seeing Foucault’s archeological dives into the human condition through histories of sexuality and power, which is integral to the current discussion yet for the scope of this writing, the points most correlated will be highlighted.  In his reflection of Foucault’s look at politics and power, I find myself most concerned with the following:

This new form of political power, or biopower, has evolved along two axes. Along one axis, it has developed a series of disciplinary technologies that come to bear upon the body as a machine. These technologies conform an anatomopolitics that aims to optimize the capabilities of the body by rendering it more docile and pliable to be inserted within systems of economic and political control and efficiency. Along the other axes, the body is treated not singularly but as part of a spe- cies, a genera, whose basis is entirely biological and organic. Here the body is seen as part of a system of life processes: birth, mortality, health, life expectancy, and anything that increases or decreases any of these. The body is seen as an instance of a species falls under the regulatory controls that conform a biopolitics of populations (Mendieta, 6).

First, understanding that there is a way in which a viewer perceives their own body within a culture, a society of bodies, is crucial.  If we were to examine Botero’s painting from a philosophical standpoint.  There is an act of knowing and acknowledgement that must occur prior to engaging in Botero’s work.  With the base knowledge of the body being part of a larger system, the body and mind become part of a larger system of symbiotic relationships.  Exploration of those power relationships that Foucault is so well known for is all the power relevant in political and contemporary art.  The contemporary art museum and gallery patrons can see this with the advent of specific types of museum and gallery collections (ie., Museum of African Diaspora, alternative art spaces to reach and represent various under represented minority groups, etc.).  With many various groups in the arts and although a completely different discussion, I felt compelled to start with a specific way in which to view post modern (contemporary) painting from this lens.

One of the reasons Botero’s paintings are extremely effective is due to a certain level of detachment the viewer experiences at first glance.  There is a stage of processing that occurs which does not necessarily seem to be present in photography.  Since photography is the closest depiction of reality, painting offers a graduation in perception and comprehension.  As I mentioned in the beginning of the piece, when one learns how to draw and paint for the first time, there are various techniques incorporated into the teaching that force the student to view only the shapes, lines and form of the object.  One of the methods, from my experience, includes looking at an actual photograph upside down to relieve the mind and brain of affixing a meaning.  In a way, this is what Botero’s paintings allow the viewer to do.  Mendieta explains several ways in which one can view the art works claiming that:

On the one hand, fatness stands in his paintings for the excesses of the privileged classes, which more often than not are ridiculed, scorned, and demoted. The haughty expressions, the ornate dresses, the regal accoutrements, the imperial posturing, are all neutralized and deflated by the heaviness of unbridled and undisciplined bodies. On the other hand, this very same abundant, solid, cherubic and baby-like fatness can be read as a form of humanization. What from an angle can be seen as an anxiety, from another angle, provided within the paintings themselves, allows us to see a vulnerable subject. Against a bourgeois, imperial, sovereign subject –Cartesian, Kan- tian, but most exactly, against the Cortésian and Pizarronian subject—Botero juxtaposes the cor- poreality of the flesh that is undisciplined and undisciplinable. We are irreducibly creatures of bod- ies that hunger and can die both of starvation or gluttony. Our flesh thus is always a source of a profound unease, for it can betray us to the same degree that it is what makes us vulnerable to another’s violence (Mendieta, 8).

The very fact that Botero’s paintings bring up quite a dichotomous way of seeing and thinking in terms of how we place ourselves in time and space is what makes painting such a relevant art form in contemporary times, if and only if the painter makes the wise decision of provoking the viewer into that stage of detachment to see what is actually there and what ought to be understood.  Comprehending in such a way that questions acts of violence and torture through an understanding of the body is only possible if the painter creates something that we cannot easily place meaning upon.  In many ways, showing us what we think we know in an unparalleled and unconventional way.

Overall, the framing of the subject and the artist outside the frame is integral in understanding Botero’s work.  As Mendieta points out with meditations on photography, painting has the ability to recontextualize systemic issues for the viewer that lead to a greater, deeper understanding of social, cultural ills.  In Botero’s case, specifically, painting offers a multifaceted perspective on the biopolitics of torture.  Mendieta asserts:

Painting has re-claimed its sovereignty over the field of representation and perception. Susan Sontag wrote, “photography is, first of all, a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself”…Painting, after the age of the mechanical reproducibility of chemically produced perceptual equivalences, teaches us that seeing itself is a way, a framing (Mendieta, 2).

Work Cited

Mendieta, Eduardo.  Moral Optics: Biopolitics, Torture and the Imperial Gaze of War Photography.  Stony Brook University, New York.  2009.

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Author: Dorothy R. Santos

Dorothy R. Santos (b. 1978) is a Filipina-American writer, editor, curator, and educator whose research interests include new media and digital art, activism, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. Born and raised in San Francisco, California, she holds Bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy and Psychology from the University of San Francisco, and received her Master’s degree in Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts. She serves as one of the editors-in-chief for Hyphen magazine. Her work appears in art21, Art Practical, Daily Serving, Rhizome, Hyperallergic, and SF MOMA's Open Space. She has lectured at the De Young museum, Stanford University, School of Visual Arts, and more. Her essay “Materiality to Machines: Manufacturing the Organic and Hypotheses for Future Imaginings,” was published in The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture (2016). She is currently a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts fellow researching the concept of citizenship. She also serves as executive staff for the Bay Area Society for Art & Activism and board member for the SOMArts Cultural Center.

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