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Life Finds a Way

Photograph of Donatello, Bust of Niccolò da Uzzano, 1430s Polychromed terracotta

Few things feel more aesthetically surprising to me than the return of the body as a subject in art. Back in the Nineties, we knew it as a concept, certainly, and as a “contested site” of various ideological claims; we spoke of it as metaphor, symbol, and dialectic, and as something to be thought. (You hardly dared call yourself a student unless you’d written an essay on Bourdieu that included the phrase “thinking the body.”) But rarely did I go into a gallery to stare at a human body, and more generally I chose to feign distaste for any contemporary work that aimed at verisimilitude or re-creation. At worst, the body was an oddly persistent remnant of a discredited humanism, tethering us to outmoded, fundamentally nostalgic ideas: individuality, personality, the soul, and so on. At best, it was deadweight, soon to be rendered irrelevant by cyborgs, AI, VR, post-human robots of all kinds, and, eventually, the singularity.

But then the body had its revenge. St. Sebastian and Venus might have been exhausted as subjects, but how could you be exhausted by what you had hardly ever seen? The black body, as envisioned by the black artist; women’s bodies rendered by women; the imperfect body, the differently abled body, the queer body, the colonized body, the abject body.… In the struggle for visibility and the claiming of distinct identities, a space opened up for the individual body once more. (Witness Ta-Nehisi Coates’s rejection of slavery as a historical oppression enacted on “an indefinable mass of flesh,” instead preferring to personify slavery as a “particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own.”)

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This resurgent contemporary interest in the body, visible throughout the art world, was given particular breadth in the Met Breuer’s recent survey Like Life, which tracked two thousand years of fraught history—Renaissance pietàs beside twenty-first-century polychrome mannequins, automatons and death masks, waxworks and (in the case of Marc Quinn) blood-works, stretching from the uncanny to the sacred to the starkly biological but never losing sight of, or apologizing for, our persistent fascination with ourselves. That old Nineties ambivalence does make several appearances—most notably in Damien Hirst’s half-peeled, anatomical Virgin (Exposed) (2005)—but when it finds itself in the same gallery as Christ at the Column (1697), with his many wounds of scourged red, it strikes a viewer more as intimate revelation than as demystified materialism. Both pieces seem to ask similar questions. Is that what we really are, underneath? So vulnerable? So human? The sort of emotions explicitly applied for by the many suffering Christs on display—pity, awe, the recognition of mutual suffering—are rediscovered here in apparently secular works, such as Kiki Smith’s Untitled a.k.a. The Sitter (1992), who sits naked on the floor, wearing her stigmata on her back—deep, vertical welts suggestive of both self-harm and a whipping from a master—and is modeled in grubby-looking wax, like a devotional candle. Even in a sculpture as playfully obtuse as Jeff Koons’s Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988), you start to notice the irresistible communication that will occur between two sets of eyes, between viewer and subject, however you may try to block it with banality. (Although, in this example, it’s the man who has become an inanimate icon and the animal who appears to be in possession of consciousness, beseeching us with his strangely intelligent gaze, as if to say: Can you believe I’m stuck with this schmuck?) Like Life is one of those Instagram-ready, ahistorical, rag-bags of a show, but in the historical back-and-forth, new political uses are found for the oldest art-historical tropes. Reza Aramesh’s Action 105 (2017), an incredibly realistic, polychrome limewood sculpture of a Palestinian youth stripped down at an Israeli checkpoint, hands crossed gently behind him, bare chest frighteningly exposed, is a poignant continuation of the thousands of St. Sebastians that came before him, while Yinka Shonibare’s Girl Ballerina (2007) stands very near the Degas she is in Like Life to depose and replace. (Modeled in the same pose, but robed in kente cloth and brown of skin, she hides a gun behind her back, so you know she means business.) As for Max Klinger’s bust of the New Salome (1893–1903), presented stone-faced, arms folded in satisfaction, presiding over the severed heads of Herod and John the Baptist—it seemed for a moment extraordinary to me that the plinth beneath her didn’t read #TIMESUP.

But verisimilitude is only half the story. There is how a body looks, and there is how a body feels. Hans Bellmer’s one-boobed, one-legged, clitoral-headed monstrosity La demi-poupée (1971) is a precise description of what it can feel like to perform and present, with your own body, “femininity.” Likewise, Louise Bourgeois’s trio of mutilated dolls (Three Horizontals, 1998) lends dimension to familiar warped conceptions of the female body as a series of orifices or sexualized appendages. Are we only our bodies? Are we our breasts? The deep connection, in our culture, between women and dolls, women and models or statues, women and their close (but pointedly silent) copies, can be traced through the galleries in two Pygmalions, an animatronic Sleeping Beauty (whose chest rises and falls), and many dead-eyed mannequins, culminating in Oskar Kokoschka’s perversely comic Self-Portrait with Doll (1922), in which the artist proudly points at the pudenda of the doll he had (in real life) modeled as a substitute for his beloved dead wife. The kinds of women who are “made to please,” starting with Eve, are the same living dolls whom Greer Lankton repudiates with her Rachel (1986), an emaciated, bald-headed punk who refuses to conform to the traditional male gaze altogether.

The piece that moved me above all others, though, was Donatello’s Bust of Niccolò da Uzzano (1430s). I cannot deny that verisimilitude played a part in my response. It was as if the doge had at that very moment turned around upon hearing his name. There are other, more realistic bodies in this survey, made with AutoCAD and 3-D printers, in fiberglass and silicone, that leave you utterly cold, that seem little different from a carnival amusement. You might gawk for a moment, trying to work out how it’s been done, but you pass quickly on. In the uncanny valley, our hermeneutic impulses are short-circuited, disallowed; there’s nothing to read or feel or interpret. Here is a body that looks exactly like a body. One great exception to this is Ron Mueck, who, in his games of scale and size, creates visual metaphors for the kinds of optical distortions driven by extreme emotion or trauma. How far away your father seemed on his deathbed, for example, or how diminished your granny looked during her illness. His figures are neither animated nor exactly realistic yet they are almost overburdened with what appears to be life. With the Donatello, this lifelike quality has been, historically, problematic. Scholars have long debated even the correct attribution of the piece, suspicious of the supposed de trop vulgarity of that naturalistically painted face on the principle that a sculptor of Donatello’s stature had no need for the cheap trickery of polychrome (which is perhaps only a more formal way of Platonically disapproving of mimeticism in the first place).

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But perhaps that sculpture’s power is not in the act of imitation at all but in Donatello’s manipulation of time. That the doge should be rendered so acutely in medias res—so clearly caught between one fleeting emotion and the next, one movement and the next, one second and the next—is where the “humanity” of the piece, to use an embarrassing word, may truly lie. Our lives are a series of such moments, which our technologies can isolate and “freeze” with ever more accuracy but which we can never, ever, arrest in actuality. Our own pity and wonder at this fact is the quantity that arrives preloaded within all portraits of humans. This accounts for a portrait’s unfair emotional advantage over fruit bowls and geometric lines, but also for the great aesthetic and moral risk of the form, for it can play on responses that it has not earned, emotions that are roused too easily and abused only too often. And so, for a time, we tried to turn away from the body entirely. But instead of throwing babies out with bathwater, maybe it’s best to place ourselves in a Shakespearean frame of mind, seeing ourselves in the round: of the spirit but also of the flesh, holy in our way but also, tragically, mortal. What a piece of work is a man! And yet, for Hamlet, only a few lines later, this same miraculous man is only a quintessence of dust.

Why not keep both truths in mind? Even when we try to ignore the fact that we are, along with dolphins and apes, one of those rare narcissistic, self-aware, mirror-gazing sorts of animals, it proves difficult to repress for very long the shamefully rich feeling we have for ourselves. This self-delight, and, yes, this pity, and, yes, this wonder. All of which it is easy to call sentimental and indulgent until you consider that without this sense of our own sacredness we would have had little cause to create laws to protect our suffering, vulnerable bodies (from one another) nor any reason to elicit (in one another, through art) so many individual responses to this strange existence, through which we are each passing only once, and only in this form.

Zadie Smith is the author of the novels White Teeth, The Autograph Man, On Beauty, NW, and Swing Time, and, most recently, of the essay collection Feel Free.

Donatello, Bust of Niccolò da Uzzano, 1430s
Polychromed terracotta
Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York