American Appropriationists and the Lolita-Complex

1. The story of Brooke Shields Photograph

"Children are always looking beautiful. […] They always have the perfect nose. I've never seen an unattractive baby. Small features and nice skin. This also applies to animals. I've never seen a bad looking animal. […] Beauty doesn't have anything to do with sex. Beauty has to do with beauty and sex has to do with sex."
(Andy Warhol)

"Childhood sexuality is an oxymeron"
(Sally Mann)

In 1983 a small gallery appeared in a store front on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The name of this gallery was Spiritual America and the only object of the exhibition inside the small room was a gilt frame hanging on the wall. It exposed a color photograph representing a nude child standing in a bathroom setting with the oiled body of an adult porno model.

The name of the child in the picture was Brooke Shields. The photo had been taken in 1973 by a commercial photographer for her mother Terri, eager to promote her daughter as a movie-star like the famous example Shirley Temple. The success was not to be waited for: Pretty Baby, the famous film by Louis Malle in 1976, made her daughter a celebrity as child prostitute. But what about the earlier photograph? How did it come into a gallery? And in 1983, ten years after beeing taken?

The author of this act/fact was the young artist Richard Prince who worked at that time as a picture researcher and so discovered the print, stole it and then exhibited it anonymously in the locations mentioned above, exspecially created for this purpose. For more than one reason he left New York immediately and went underground. The scandal was extraordinary, in respect of the position of the now teenage-girl-star, but the success of the whole venture was out of order as well.

Prince used or abused the issue to make the art gallery an extension of the lowest level of media-fascination. He subverted the neutrality of the context by confronting it with the stereotypical images of what he called Spiritual America, the essence of all the hidden but obvious desires of the american culture, and thus he made the visitors of his uncanny exhibition – in a double sense – feel complicit in a revelation of what should have been kept secret.

What kind of secret?

The secret of the child's body, exhibited in a way that stimulated and violated the fundamental myth of children-innocence as symbol of immaculate nature, a myth emerging from the modern anthropology of Rousseau, Schiller and Goethe, who initiated the significant ambivalence of adoring the child as neutre and as swain. With respect to the pertinent beauty of the child's, especially of the girl's body, as a, more precisely, androgynous specimen, we have, however, to take into account the iconographic aspect of what was called, at the turn of the 19th century in idealistic aesthetics, the sublime: in other words the collossal. The child thus becomes something like a monster, but in the etymologically double sense of obscene demonstration and exuberant withdrawal of what cannot be represented.

This is – in short – the essential problem of the key-novel Lolita of Vladimir Nabokov, dealing with the fatal attraction of the sublime erotic of a child-wife's glamour promise. It marked as well the beginning of the appropriation of a new "sense of the body" and especially "of power in its representation and control of a specific body: that of the child"; which led to the deplorable but undeniable conjuncture of "Lolita" as "generic, vulgate term for an item of what is known as child pornography". This reminds us of the picture appropriated by Richard Prince. What do we see in it? [ill. 1: Brooke Shields]

"An image of a child's body in the familiar flesh coulours of a pornographic picture appears out of a monochromatic self-enclosed world. Brooke Shields appears otherwordly, as though she were somehow occupying  a celestial realm. Her head looks huge in comparison to the human scale of the foreground statuette. The pose she adopts is a combination of coyness and availability, awkwardness an knowingness, exposure and concealement. Like most pedophilic representations, the child is made to adopt a deliberately inflexible, artificially aesthetic posture."

The representation of the body, the erect posture in opposition to the blur of artificial mist and the melancholic silhoutte of the inclining figure in the foreground: all this refers aesthetically not to the beautiful but to the sublime, to something that – according to the classical definition – cannot be represented, which is iconographically applying to a moral order of the spiritual. Thus, the title of Richard Prince's artistic presentation/performance, Spiritual America, is paradigmatically overdetermined, not only in the sense of a political acclaim, but also in the sense of the aesthetic tradition of the sublime and its latent eroticism.

Derrida compared the sublime to the colossal, a threatening representation of what is beyond human scale, but which nevertheless makes something visible which is at stake – implicitely – in the symbol order of reference as signifier of power, – an icon of male power, as the transcendental signifier of sexual difference: the unrepresentable phallus in the lacanian sense, playing its role as magnifying signifier but under the veil of the unrepresentable mystic blur of what Lacan called – with Hegel – "Aufhebung" as the withdrawl of visibility within the visible itself. What Richard Prince hence demonstrates is his set up of an exhibition of an exhibition, is the conjuring up of this `erectible' spirit in this ghostly form of a child's body, adapted as the last secret, the `secret garden' of male domination.

2. Appropriationism

The method Prince used in his first exposition of the series called Spiritual America insists on its criminal element: the stolen picture, the echo of thievery and transgression, probing the limits of ownership rights: Prince purloined a picture of a well-known celebrity as an artistic act – to make an illicit image illicit. The story was told before: not photographically but as the story of a purloined letter. Poe's so called story of his detective Dupin might be regarded as a paradigm for the strategy of the american group of artist represented by Richard Prince, named the Appropriationists.

Their work is caracterized by a specific concern in recycling or reentry of the preexistant cultural iconography by deferring or deteriorating elements of it in another context of artistic representation: a detour in which details can become larger than the total, the blow up of the reproduction can become more original than the original itself.

Prince thus became famous for his fragmentated blow ups of the Malborough-ads in which he demonstrated the pertinence of the american dream of a "smoke"-like spirituality. [ill. 2: Prince] Other appropriationists like Sherry Levine exprimented with the mere effect of reproduction, of simple doubling or copying by taking f. e. photographs of the famous prints of the Walker Evan's serie"Let's praise the most famous men" – thus transforming reproductions into authentic originals based on reproductions and so probing the life of artistic authorship "after `The Death of the Author". Of course the basic idea came from Marcel Duchamp's ready mades, real objects that become works of art by the simple effect of their exhibition in a museum or art-gallery. As elements of the every day life they now are no more ready to hand in their being at hand as artistic objects: isolated and exposed.

It is not by chance that the medium all these artist used to realize their artistic work is photography. Roland Barthes was one of the first to emphasize the ambivalent character of this medium of technical reproduction. It is able to record and store the traces of the real as the more denotational dimension of the picture, but at the same time to express or to mark mythological cathexis of cultural iconographies as its connotation. The photographic message thus constitutes a double bind of originality/authenticity and of cultural appropriation, of first and second nature, of literal and allegorical sense.

Barthes introduced this opposition between denotation and connotation in two texts of the early sixties about photography: The photographic Message and Rhetoric of the Image. The first example deals with press-photos, while the second one takes the example of an advertisement of Panzani for spaghettis and tomato-sauce. In both examples Barthes accords to photographie a special paradoxical status of picture: beeing what he called "a message without code". We have two messages in every photograph, the connotation as totality of all cultural codes (visual stereotypes, esthetics, morality, styles etc.), but these are developped from something real, an object in every sense, reproduced in an analogical way in the picture: as the physical trace of the real object. Speaking of photography as a primordial example, considering what Talbot called the "pencil of nature", of what is tracked down onto the sensible photo-plate, is the real challenge of the first order.

Semiologically speaking one could say that the most important insight was, that the technically produced image must not be read as an icon but as an index: the performative reference and context are relevant, and not the iconographic or symbolic order. So we have at least three dimensions of meaning: a first one of pure linguistic information, called by Peirce the symbol in its widest sense; a second, more imaginary one, described by Peirce as the icon and by Barthes as the "double" of the linguistic message, the "pure image". And a third reference to the object itself without any code.

"The signified of this third message are constituded by the real objects in the scene, the signifiers by these same objects photographed, for, given that the relation between thing signified and image signifying in analogical representation is not arbitrary (as it is in language), it is no longer necessary to dose the relay with a third term in the guise of the psychic image of the object. … we have here a loss of the equivalence characteristic of true sign systems and a statement of quasi-identity. In other words, the sign of this message is not drawn from an institutional stock, is not coded, and we are brought up against the paradox (…) of a message without a code. (…) The literal message appears as the support of the `symbolic' message. Hence, knowing that a system which takes over the signs of another system in order to make them its signifiers in a system of connotation, we may say immediately that the literal image is denoted and the symbolic image connoted. Successively, then, we shall look at the linguistic message, the denoted image, and the connoted image."

Into the culturel code thus intervenes the significance of the denotation as an at least ontological code, the reproduction of pure nature. But the problem is that if – to quote the famous sentence – the medium is the message we don't know about this referent but through the apparatus as disposition of representation as while the object itself has no representation. It is only given as withdrawal as what is disappearing behind the veil of the medium but what nevertheless is under cover, crossed over: off the records.

This problem is also articulated in the context of the psychoanalytical discourse where, in the terms of Jacques Lacan, the imaginary and the real are only discussed according to the universe of the symbolic. So what Barthes is really interested in, is not the real as a pure ontological entity but under its imaginary aspect as the dimension of withdrawal. The punctum only marks an absence in the presence of the representation which is at stake in this reevaluation of the imaginary as impact, as the paradoxical double message of index and icon. What constitutes the dominant meaning of the picture, is not the pure depiction of the innocent object, the mass of primordial datas, caught by the random access of the camera-lens, but the pre-processing of optical orientations, the in-forming of the visual data-processing by the pragmatic perspective of fantasy, to speak with Judith Butler:

"And this is not to say that fantasy supplies its own thematic, but that the boundaries of the real against which it is determined are precisely what become problematized in fantasy. Fantasy suspends the ontological claim of that which passes as the real under the usual description."

This is why american artists can use photography as a medium of appropriation of the "spiritual" values of the american culture. They track down the visual data of a social representation and they charge it at the same time with a force of fantasy which makes the mere reproduction ambiguous. So Richard Prince asserts being interested not only in the iconographic veracity of the seen pictures he used or abused by appropriating them, but in their phantasmagorial, phantasmatic intensity, picked up in the moment of a strange confrontation with what is called, in a lacanian sense, the look as object, the altered or alienated object of desire emerging from the field of perception:

"The pictures I went after, `stole', were too good to be true. They were about wishfulk thinking, public pictures, that happen to appear in the advertising sections of mass market magazines, pictures not associated with an author …. It was their look I was interested in. I wanted to re-present the closest thing to the real thing."

Closest to the real thing: what does it mean? Appropriation as approachement, a certain "unterwegs" (on the road) to the real in the sense of Heidegger's "Unterwegs zur Sprache"? Last not at least the original reveals itself as effect in the supplementary chain of reproduction, as differed origin, as retroactive `developement' (as well in the photographic sense) of a hidden constellation, re-presented to erect the look. As the real? No, but as the adress of a look which is more demand than impulse. The look is subject and object at the same time, and Prince is playing with the double sense of the good looking of the reproduced item and the active gaze returned from the viewed object.

It is this look as object, which asserts the iconographic power of the picture as representative for visual culture, what Prince wanted to get close to: just in order to reveal its iconic power. The exemple of the stolen Brooke-Shields-photo demonstrates this purpose perfectly. It also represents the latent gender-order of the Spiritual America, the difference of looking and being looked at as sexual difference maintained by discoursive procedures. There is a decise opposition in representating male and female vision concerning their presence as power. John Berger defined it as difference between male virtuality and female glamour:

"A man's presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies … suggests what her is capable of doing … By contrast, a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste – … Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura. … But this has been at the cost of a woman's self being split into two. A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image. … Man act and women appear …"

Speaking with Laura Mulvey's famous study on visual pleasure: the absence of the phallic signifier is constitutive for the substitution of male desire along the symbolic chain of the fetish, marked "by a sense of loss, by the terror of potential lack in fantasy". It is this fetishistic cathesis of the female body which is exhibited by Prince in the context of his gallery Spiritual America, reframing all the erotic references of the stolen picture within the phallic scene of an explicite voyeurism. On the contrary of the penis, the real organ, the symbolic phantom called phallus owes its significant power to its absence: the trauma of castration. Lack, withdrawal, absence, trauma are the transcendental conditions under which the stars of the phallic constellation are born. And so the artistic practice of the appropriationists becomes in a certain way itself a kind of fetishistic manipulation appropriating the phallus as something that could only be appropriate as stolen, detached from an original context.

This is why we are, in the picture of Brooke Shields, confronted with the whole investment of poses, ilumination, attitudes, significant gestures and objects/details: the screening of procedures, which may be called, in a classical sense, the investitures of the apotropaion, the shelter of symbolic arrangements, veiling the void of the other. Onto the exposure, the exhibition of the female body, is projected the significance of an iconographic overdetermination, the connotation of emblematic scenes, allegorical situations or aspects: in order to "unmark" the sexual difference of the female other in the name of the phallus as androgynous shape of the body.

Here we get in touch with the most significant aspect of the Spiritual America or, in other words, with a very specific obsession of the "american beauty". Why is it a girl, a child who represents this fetishistic impact of the cultural phallocentrism? The answer is given in the mythologie of childhood itself and its ideal of innocence. The american society as puritan culture adapted this idea of infantile perfection as the anthropological ideal of immaculate neuter. But as Foucault showed in his studies on sexuality and truth the child became simultaneously the object of the new developed pathology of medicalized sexuality. So the image is deeply ambivalent as the picture of Brooke Shields shows it: on the one hand we see – on the level of the denotation – the perfectly unmarked body of a child, on the other hand the pose and the situation – as connotation – evoke the fantasy of an unbound, pervertive lust.

Therefore the denotation of fantasy only functions as withdrawal of its real object: talking of what had been there, but of what we have no other testimony but the substitute of its referent, track, mark, signifier on the verge of real absence and fantasmatic presence. This is why the notion of youth becomes extremely important for the imaginary representation of the child as neuter, so to say: as unmarked suspension of adult sex. Artists before Richard Prince were aware of the puerile moments of the american culture, the pop-art emphasized all kinds of play and game, Andy Warhol represented the image of the artist as eternal child, and so:

"The work is not trivial or fatuous for that, because in this country in particular, adolescence has an undeniable power and mythology behind it, no less complex an redoutable than Freud's or Wordworth's childhood, in the sense that the adulthood that follows on it can be made to seem simply a limiting case of its extension."

3. The Lolita-Complex

But there is a special concern, deconstructed as a latent cathexis of the american culture, of the image of the child-wife. The notion, introducede by Charles Dickens in his novel David Copperfield, refers to the romantic tradition of 1800 when the first ambigous creatures made their poetic appearence in the fiction of Goethe, Novalis and Hoffmann. Besides this the most dominant name resounds in the famous expression of the Lolita-Complex which was first reclamed by Simone de Beauvoir, referring to the novel by Nabokov, a mile stone for all the adorers of the so called nymphets, "maidens who, to certain bewitched travellers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is , demoniac)"..

One of the most stunning adaptions of the topic, however, was given by Simone de Beauvoir in her analysis of the early success of Brigitte Bardot (in the film And God Created Woman) not in France but in the USA. Her explanation for this paradox – in short – resumes the history of women emancipation in the USA to come to the result that only a child can cause a real erotic tension:

"The adult woman now inhabits the same world as the man, but the child-woman moves in a universe which he cannot enter. The age difference reestablishes between them the distance that seems necessary to desire. At least thst is what those who have created a new Eve by merging the `green fruit' and femme fatale types have pinned their hopes on. … Brigitte Bardot is the most perfect specimen of these ambigious nymphs. Seen from behind, her slender, muscular, dancer's body is almoust androgynous. Feminity triumphs in her delightful bosom. The long volouptous tresses of Melisande flow down to her shoulders, but her hair-do is that of a negligent waif. The line of her lips forms a childish pout … Vadim presented her as a `phenomenon of nature'. `She doesn't act', he said. `She exists.'"

It is the fundamental opposition of the old-europeen ars amatoria and the modern scientia sexualis, in other words the difference between the imaginary of erotic fantasies and the real of a sexual impulse of mere biological value. BB owes her erotic attraction as a child-wife-hoyden to this natural value, so to say to the promise of denotation instead of connotation as cultural mask. But at the end, like the object of Humbert Humberts desire, she turns out to be a pure visual effect of voyeuristic fetishism. Its failure, however, is simultaneously due to a rigid system of the narrative transcribing phantasmatic attempts to violating acts which counterpoint the iconographie of imaginary power with traumatic effects of the real. [ill. 3: Adryan Lyne]

The same ambivalence is at stake with the exhibitions of the American nudist photographer Jock Sturges, to give another recent prominant exemple. Not only does he take pictures of naked girls – he is also, at the same time, violating the taboo against the invasion of privacy by exposing the intimate world of the nudist beaches. In the cool atmosphere of a show in a museum his assurance, offered by way of excuse, that he does not undress his models, but captures them as they are, in their natural attitudes and postures, seems unpalatable. It is difficult to rid oneself of a feeling of voyeurism, of seeing something in a public place that wasn't meant to be seen there – a display of the naked bodies of young girls who, in the period of transition between childhood innocence and the first intimations of sexual certainty, are exposed to a particular physical as well as psychological vulnerability.

Why young girls, why naked, and why in the setting of nudism, given the not exactly innocent ideological associations of the nudist movement and its implicitly racist claim to be promoting an ideal of physical perfection ?

If all that Sturges wanted to do was to document the paradise regained of nudism his choice of visual motifs could surely have been more varied. As it is, the mature body makes only a marginal appearance in a handful of family scenes; elderly nudes are absent, and the few and scattered portraits of boys serve only as ridiculous counter-examples. What is uncanny is the predominance of one particular type among these models: the white, Anglo-American girl in whom a historically determined ideal of beauty is made absolute – without being made explicite.

Yet it is precisely their incompleteness that constitutes the promise of these phenomenons and ensures the lasting, attraction of idols like Calvin Klein's star model Kate Moss, or Vanessa Paradis, or other youthful idols among the successors to the legendary Twiggy. So called nympholeptic men reject the opulent fleshliness of the baroque with its ambience of sinful pleasure,and much prefer a type, ranging from girl-chum to androgyne, which can be idealised as the "sister-wife". She made her first appearance among the European bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century, reemerged in the Victorian era, and has reached new heights since the First World War, evolving into the new ideal adopted by American society as the antithesis of the seductive, maternal and fertile woman. She is the femme fragile, whose slender-to-pathologically-emaciated appearance is celebrated in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Jugendstil, and partly also in the photographs and graphic art of the nudist cult of the Reformbewegung. The unor under-developed and infantile nature of the young girl's body provides a new erotic prototype. It is precisely the unwomanly and ill-proportioned appearance that constitutes what risque artists unmasked as its sexual appeal. Even in their poses the girls photographed by Sturges recall the child-women of Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele. A model by the name of Misty Dawn (a double entendre on "Confused Awakening"?) typically embodies this rejection of sexual identity in the form of anorexia: the pathological slimmer eschews all feminine roundedness in order to maintain the illusion of childlike innocence. [ill. 4: Sturges]

In his essay On Naive and Sentimental Poetry Friedrich Schiller suggested an answer to the question as to the source of the idiosyncratic ideal of beauty which could even be compared to the Spiritual America as utopian `going west': it comes from the feeling of an "immense openness to destiny" which the child, reduced to "predisposition and destiny", awakens in us. Sturges refers to this "romantically" transfigured image of Gracefulness, and in doing so recalls the qualities of silent greatness and noble simplicity as celebrated by Winckelmann and his followers, for whom the greatest attraction of ancient art was its predilection for the youthful and the spring-like.

What links the modern child-wife-motive to this cultural tradition is the fascination with this brief period of transition from the innocence and indeterminacy of childhood to the awakening of the senses and their stimuli. More precisely, it is the fact that this process of passage is momentary that leads us to realize that our wish that time might he cancelled or its passing interrupted can he realized in the medium of photography:

"The moment of puberty is the moment in both sexes at which the body can attain its highest degree of beauty: but one may truly say: it is but a moment!So Goethe, one of the greatest experts on the metamorphoses of the child-woman, draws his melancholy conclusion:   as a nymphet – i. e. as a pupating butterfly.n the fact that most of his models were much less than ten years of age. its censorship: is laid like a phantasmal ambiguity over the real presence of the objects.uth or remain young for ever.. f erotic desire:ny cut, opening or wound. like, postcoital, victimized, abused":laboration of illusion superrealism", as "constructionist vision of reality":*oticism through the sublime inappropriate fantasy of child-brides.elp of her pubescent daughter Eva) turns the sublime into the ridiculous.

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