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December 16, 2005

Art as Freak Show: Diane Arbus, Revelations at the V&A

Posted by Christie Davies

Diane Arbus, Revelations
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
13th October 2005 – 15th January 2006
Daily 10am - 5.45pm (Wednesdays until 10pm)

Diane Arbus' photographs could have been the illustrations for Erving Goffman's famous book Stigma. Indeed they date from the same era, mid-twentieth century America, a country gripped in a tyranny of normalcy that sat ill with its status as the great home of liberty and individualism. It was far easier to be eccentric in more hierarchical countries that did not believe so fiercely in egalitarian conformity. Arbus specialised in the portrayal of outsiders of all kinds, particularly those whose stigma, whose spoiled identity, was visible and could be highlighted in a photograph.

Here in the exhibition are dwarfs and giants, transvestites and dominatrixes in full gear with their clients, mentally retarded individuals, nudists in a nudist colony, triplets, Puerto Ricans, political demonstrators and even a pair of still joined together Siamese twins in a pickle bottle (dead, of course). No doubt the photographer would have said that she had rendered them all "human" by taking them seriously but the overall impression given is, at times, that of a rather tasteless freak show for voyeurs. You can imagine Archie Rice looking at them and singing "Thank God I'm normal" or sporting types shouting "Come on you normals". Ugh!

The impression is reinforced by the many photographs of those who actually did work in freak shows in circuses and theatres or television for a living such as The Human Pincushion, 1961, The Backwards Man in his Hotel Room, 1961, The Tattooed Lady with Dog, 1964, Muscle Man in his Dressing Room, 1962, The Man who Swallows Razorblades, 1961, Two Female Impersonators Backstage, 1961, A Naked Man Being a Woman, 1960, Albino Sword Swallower 1970 and even Wax Museum Strangler Coney Island, 1960. You will get the picture.

Others are normal, indeed sometimes very attractive, in appearance but their role in the entertainment business places them outside the gates of fiercely respectable America – Stripper with Bare Breasts Sitting in her Dressing Room, 1962, Burlesque Comedienne, 1961, Topless Dancer in her Dressing Room, 1968, and Feminist in her Hotel Room, New York City, 1971.

Arbus' obsession with the insulted and injured and with the floating world is not entirely surprising given that she was educated at an "Ethical Culture School" for the children of wealthy, secularised, progressive New York parents; while a pupil she wrote essays revealing a very peculiar attitude to her own identity. The curators note that in high career:

Beginning in the spring (of 1969) and for the next several years she pursues a photographic project on residents in homes for the retarded.
It was not several years. In 1969 she began seeing a psychiatric and shortly after doing so she killed herself – in July 1971. Does a fascination with freaks make you freak out? What drove her to such a fascination in the first place? Come to that why did Goffman write so brilliantly about stigma, "face" and embarrassment?

One is forced to wonder how the victims of her mocking lens would feel if they could see themselves now immortalised not "warts and all" but warts, a status guaranteed by the presence of other warts of quite different types. How would the Mexican dwarf or the patriotic demonstrator or the stripper or the nudists feel when placed in one another's company? How would the utterly, splendidly, gorgeous, unnamed, unknown feminist of Feminist in her Hotel Room, New York City, 1971 feel to be trapped in an aspic of gorgeousness for ever, her photo gawped at by lustful males not interested in her mind.

Many of the freak pictures are not merely tasteless but pointless, without either psychological and aesthetic merit. Yet every so often Arbus produces a work of genius that shows human or artistic insight.

Just such a photograph is Young Man in Curlers at Home in West 20th Street, New York City, 1966. He is not just in curlers but in lipstick, eye make-up, plucked eyebrows and long finger nails. The merit of the picture lies in its use of black and white. The long oval uncertainly-dusky face with non-European dark eyes is held between a black top-garment and a black hair-band. The shining curlers set off the black head-band and the photographer's friend, a high-white lit cigarette snaps out of his fingers. It sounds easy but it wasn't. Arbus had to set it up and had to capture it.

A photograph that holds our sympathies is Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents in the Bronx, New York, 1970. The giant is held within a corner of a room in a very ordinary Jewish middle class apartment, the top of his over-large misshapen head nearly touching the ceiling. He leans on a stick because his long spinal column could not possibly support his weight. His parents are both of normal size. They are about five foot two inches tall, the usual height for Jewish New Yorkers of their generation and well proportioned middle-aged people but they only come up to their son's midriff. The mother, a classic housewife in floral schmatters, looks up high at her son's face with bafflement and affection. The father in dark business suit with white shirt and breast pocket handkerchief looks straight ahead, unseeing, at the region where his son's pupik would be beneath his shirt. It is a very moving photograph.

Another telling photograph is Dominatrix Embracing her Client New York City, 1970. It follows on from Dominatrix with Kneeling Client, New York City, 1970. In the former the naked client kneels on the floor and embraces her high kinky leather boots. She stands sternly and rigidly upright behind him in her underwear prodding him in the back with the end of her quirt. There is a large prominent gold wedding ring on her left hand. It is a masterpiece of composition for his oblique white bulk and her vertical oblong body are held within the arc of a curved sofa placed behind them that stretches round to enclose them. In the second photograph they embrace, press their bodies firmly together, he still naked, she in revealing professional gear. You can not see his face, only the side of his heavy black spectacles like those worn by Henry Kissinger or Woody Allen. On her face is a look of utter cold detachment. Perhaps that is what he paid for. It is the closest and yet most distant of embraces. They are embracing estrangement.

There are also moments of sheer hilarity as in Santas at the Santa Claus School, Albany NY, 1964 and Young Waitress in a Nudist Camp, New Jersey, 1963. The Santas are incongruous because the very sight of a group of identically dressed Santas in training, all of them in red and white uniforms with cotton wool beards, conflicts with the idea they represent – the myth of the one omnipresent Santa believed in totally by American children. It has similar implications for the world view of American adults.

The naked waitress of Young Waitress in a Nudist Camp 1963 is laughable because though nude she still has to wear an apron and a head band presumably to keep her various hair away from the food. Besides, without a pocket where could she keep her order book. Pockets demand aprons. She is naked but in uniform. Today of course the naked waitress is a commonplace American figure serving obese teamsters in their greasy dungarees down from their cabs busy recycling burgers but in 1963 topless-bottomless was a no-no.

Unlike most of the nudist camp's inmates the waitress is young and attractive, which is probably why she got the job. Nudity is a great unequaliser that acts to most people's disadvantage by revealing and indeed stressing imperfections normally concealed except for brief and furtive dips in the sea in exiguous costumes. As soon as the nudists have to perform any task they need clothes. Arbus' best nudist photo is Retired Man and his wife at home in a nudist camp one morning, New Jersey, 1963. It is a masterpiece of the use of natural lighting and a carefully arranged setting. Light streams in from the windows and the door behind them to pick out the couple seated facing us on either side of their television set. A soft porn picture hangs on the wall – so much for the banishing of prurience and they both wear slippers. Given all the protuberances in an average house, it can not only be your toes you are in danger of stubbing?

Most people are ugly for most of their lives and some people are ugly even in their best years of youth and health. Only A Very Young Baby, New York, 1968 is exempt – a sleeping study in shades of white; a very skilfully cropped photo. Otherwise it is uglies all round and you realise how even a disproportion in a valued direction mars a person. When she is backstage you notice that the topless dancer Topless Dancer in her Dressing Room, 1968 is tanned except where she is topless and that that which has been untopped is over-large and over-white. The muscle men and the giants are freaks because although muscle and height are an advantage they are an advantage because of the way they can be used. The muscle man has steroidal, spheroidal, deltoidal muscles built for decoration not use. How long is he going to last with marbled veins like that? The giant we saw is but an extension of a tall man with a long spine who is plagued by back trouble.

The proof of Darwinian evolution lies not in our adaptedness but in our faults. The back problems of the tall are because people like that should still be going round on all fours. The back is meant to be like a towel rail but by standing up to gain the benefits of hands we have forced the spine to carry our weight vertically down its main axis. The two key agents of every small town in middle America, the fundamentalist preacherman and the chiropractor are part of a conspiracy to deny this. A perfect God has created our backs and the chiropractor is God's mechanic. It is a system that can explain why we are morally flawed but not why we are so badly constructed. Perhaps there ought to be a theory of unintelligent design.

Diane Arbus' everyday pictures of individuals just snapped on the street have been much hyped but these are no better than those in most people's photograph albums. If you take a large enough number a few are going to be inspired and come out appropriately. Her work in this genre is certainly not as good as that of the young rising Chicago street-photographer Julie Foreman whose work was exhibited in Strove in Tuscany last July. Watch out for her work next time it comes to Europe.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations, 2002 and The Strange Death of Moral Britain, 2004 both published by Transaction. He lectured on Goffman's work for twenty years and has published commentaries on it.

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I see the Devil is up to his old tricks again. Here we have a most reasonable article, possibly saving someone from a wasted trip to the V&A. Then in comes this bit about Darwin. Not that I object to that, but the Evil One often incites authors, witting or unwitting, to wrap up inside an exposition of Darwin (this one being quite good, as far as it goes) an attack on God. The author is, in his humorous way, suggesting that God is imperfect, which I can only describe as “Spike Milligan theology”. Or may I suggest that a “Richard Dawkins” bot has made its way into the SAU server and is inserting such bits where it analyses the text as being appropriate?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 20, 2005 07:26 PM

Hey, what's with that comment, Mr. Davies, about the statement, "Most people are ugly MOST of their lives and SOME people are ugly even in the best years of their youth and health"???
I take a real offense at this statement; I'd like to see you back that up! I would say you have a serious problem with the human race.
I'm not trying to be harsh; I think your statement is.
Learn to see the beauty in people. That's my advice.

Posted by: Vickie Fisher at September 2, 2006 09:40 PM

Diane Arbus'sportrayal of the human condition , would have been better served, if she would have told us , why she was so pre-occupied, with photographing, the bizare, the grotesque!

Posted by: Robert Berman at December 1, 2006 11:57 AM

This is a severely naive out look on Arbus' work. One must consider that over all, Arbus' subjects are smiling! They are happy! They are making eye contact with the photographer, embracing the camera. Never were the subjects unaware that they were being photographed. Arbus lived with and befriended out casts, who were by NATURE and some times by choice out casts, and what is grotesque and 'ugly' about that?
"Many of the freak pictures are not merely tasteless but pointless, without either psychological and aesthetic merit." This comment I find especially offensive- it is common to believe that in order to make a beautiful photograph, one must photograph something beautiful- nuts to "aesthetic merit." If that is the case, shame of many contemporary photographers! I guess its back to the drawing board for them huh?

Posted by: Christina at January 21, 2007 05:47 AM

I have submitted this site to the censor in Rome.

Posted by: Angela at May 24, 2007 08:16 AM

I can't say that I enjoyed this article. I've read a lot about Diane Arbus, and I think that i myself can understand why she has such a fascination with "freaks." She didn't photograph them in order to show the world that they weren't normal, she wanted to emphasize that they had been through rough times, more than the average human, that they had learned to beat the odds and make a life for themselves. She once claimed that they were arisocrats.

Posted by: Danielle at July 26, 2007 07:52 AM

after watching "fur" movie...diane arbus' imaginary portrait recently, coincidently brilliantly acted by Nicole Kidman, I have to say she was totally advante guard!COOL!extremely enlightened in her soul to the world's pretenses of people who judge ugliness, freakishness or oddities in such unfavorable and sanctimonious ways! she saw beyond all the bullSH*T of most people in society and psychically made creative/artistic expression thereof! I was enthrolled with her story and Nicole did a terrific job of showing her deep spirit/essence! I had never heard of Ms. Arbus and I was born in 1958. uncannily the same year FUR portrayed Diane having an affair with the hair freak. I had heard of the Fur "hair" disease @some point in my life and it was totally an idea of genius vision by the director/screenplay writer. I am left with sadness and sympathy for her life, her suicide and why she chose to end her life at 48!? the very age I am now! how ironic and uncanny to my mind. The sadness and empathy I feel for her two girls and how brokenhearted they must have been! I wonder how she contracted hepatitis? why she was so depressed when she had 2 awesomely talented daughters? and every advantage in life like wealth, fame, celebrity, artistic recognition... why would she not be happy? why so miserable? so unhappy? why did somebody not help her? where was her family? her children? did she have any man she ever loved past allan? the movie just brought so many questions and avenues to my mind? can somebody comment? relay back some answers? is her book good?

Posted by: Dee at February 12, 2008 07:46 AM

What an extraordinarily negative article. From the comments on how 'most people are ugly most of their lives' to the throwaway observation on the height of 5 foot 2 being 'the usual height of Jewish New Yorkers of their generation' to the dismissive comment on truckers and topless waitresses, one feels while reading that the author has difficulties with issues that have little to do with Diane Arbus' talent or lack of same.

How do these 'observations' lend anything to our judgement of her work? The short answer: they don't. And from a scholar of Goffman. Strange.

Posted by: Severin at May 31, 2008 01:33 PM

Im a student an DeMontfort University, England, and i'd like to thank all of you who commented because i've found both this article and comments fascinating, and would like to just add that i fully agree with Chistina in the fact that Diane lived with these people, followed them to their work places & homes, Talked and listened to them until them fellt comfortable, you could even say that she was friends with them.

Posted by: Dan at January 19, 2009 11:46 PM

This is a deplorable article; lacking in insight, understanding of the creative process, and empathy for a photographic genius struggling with mental illness. Such a narrow perspective mightily limited by ignorance deserves at best our sympathy.

Posted by: Laurayne at March 28, 2009 07:54 PM

Maybe Diane Arbus' shots are expressions of empathy with the unusual-looking people she chose to photograph. But photographs are so opaque! One person reads Arbus' project as embracing, empathic, inclusive; another as exploitative and voyeuristic. I think that both views are valid, that either view could be argued for and supported. Arbus seems to me to be "into" the coldness of the photographic medium - she shoots cold, maybe to emphasise the chill. The dissociative quality of photography seems to be part of her artistic project, deliberately built-in as an irritant, a worry: the picture won't settle. Maybe the chill, the sense of dissociation, comes with the territory - the photographic portrait itself. Portraits of celebrities trade on what we think we know already about the subject, what we feel for their image, the fantasies we project on them. Arbus' people are not celebrities, so I guess part of the artistic work for the viewer is to look at the individual in the picture and let the social label ('freak') kind of melt away. Does this happen? Even when we try? I liked the movie 'Fur' because it involved Arbus in a fairytale transformation through love. I don't know whether I believed any of it as historically-possible psycho-biography, but I liked that the movie's Arbus was given an imaginative journey, an emotional journey into difference, otherness, an unknown world where she found she could be at home despite the odds. Nicole Kidman conveyed that journey beautifully, I thought.

Posted by: Kerry Leves at April 26, 2009 02:01 PM

We are what we are. Life is what it is.

Posted by: Charles at July 3, 2009 10:31 PM

"How would the utterly, splendidly, gorgeous, unnamed, unknown feminist of Feminist in her Hotel Room, New York City, 1971 feel to be trapped in an aspic of gorgeousness for ever, her photo gawped at by lustful males not interested in her mind."

Sorry but that feminist is not unknown at all... it's Germaine Greer, a particularly famous feminist figure and prominent Australian woman.
She disliked the photos that Arbus took of her, but not for the reasons you have stated, which goes to show your lack of research in writing this article.
In fact, if you read quotes from Greer on the subject of her photoshoot with Arbus, you will find that she was aware that Arbus wanted to get behind her beauty and public persona, and reveal the other side of her humanity, the mind behind her 'gorgeousness;. And Greer actually tried to prevent this.

"I understood that as soon as I exhibited any signs of distress, she would have her picture. She would have got behind the public persona of Life cover-girl Germaine Greer, the "sexy feminist that men like". I concentrated on breathing deeply and slowly, and keeping my face blank." - Germaine Greer

So in answer to your question "How would the utterly, splendidly, gorgeous, unnamed, unknown feminist of Feminist in her Hotel Room, New York City, 1971 feel to be trapped in an aspic of gorgeousness for ever, her photo gawped at by lustful males not interested in her mind."
She probably would have been pretty chuffed, because it would mean she didn't let Arbus get a photo of the real her.

Posted by: Sarah at March 3, 2013 09:55 AM
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