Monday, June 27, 2011

Adventures in Heidi-reality II: Postmodernism and Plastic Surgery

“I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” – Andy Warhol

As I wrote in my previous entry, “Adventures in Heidi-reality,” when I saw a tabloid article about Heidi Montag and the continuing saga of her G-cup breast implants, two things came to mind.

Still Life with G Cups (2010)
OK. Four things came to mind.

One of them was Umberto Eco and another was Tom Wesselmann.

Eco was the Italian cultural critic who coined the word “hyperreality,” which seemed to me useful for describing not just Montag’s augmented assets but the whole trend for anatomical enhancement among female celebrities – which can be found in the general population (at least those who can afford it).  The hyperreal is an example of the fake which becomes more desirable than the real.  It is perceived as “more real” than the real.

That this D-cup desire has reached the street is illustrated in the new movie Bad Teacher, in which Cameron Diaz plays a school teacher going to great and improper lengths to purchase a “boob job” so she can land the sugar daddy of her dreams.

Wesselmann, on the other hand, is famous for a series of paintings called Great American Nude.  As I contemplated Montag, I realized that Wesselmann was really on to something way back when in the 1960s.  He foresaw American popular culture’s obsession with an idealized, plasticized female breast.

When Americans think of the early 1960s, they probably think of Happy Days and Mad Men.  They think about Joanie loving Chachi and not fire-engine red nipples on large canvasses.  They think about Don Draper smoking cigarettes – lots and lots of cigarettes – and not a small group of artists in New York City giving birth to Pop Art.

Great American Nude #38
Actually, Madison Avenue and Pop Art go hand in hand, since many of the Pop artists used the visual language of advertising.  Although Wesselmann resisted the Pop Art label for himself, early in his career he was very much associated with it.  Why he was is clear in Great American Nude #38 from 1962.

He combines longstanding artistic conventions with images from American magazines. The basic structure of #38 is that of an odalisque, a painting tradition depicting a reclining nude woman.  Originally these paintings represented attractive young women from a Turkish harem, appealing to a European sense of the exotic and erotic.  But odalisque conventions were transferred to non-harem settings, such as the famous female nude portraits by Modigliani and Gauguin. 

Odalisque and Slave (1839)
Wesselmann’s nude woman reclines in much the same way as the woman in Odalisque and Slave by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, but she also seems to have been literally cut from a magazine ad and then pasted onto the canvas – after he removed her bikini.  Or she is a pin-up girl clipped from a men’s magazine.

This mash-up of high and low culture – the odalisque tradition with a Playboy centerfold – is a hallmark of postmodernism.   

Great American Nude #58
Wesselmann’s borrowing from advertising culture is even more apparent in Great American Nude #58 from 1965.  Here, the entire image could have been taken from a magazine ad -- except Wesselmann has again removed the clothing from the female and again has revealed startling tan lines. (I think I could do a whole blog entry on the meaning of tan lines.)  The revelatory nature of her nudity suggests Wesselmann’s message, if there is one: Beneath the surface of the advertisement’s message, sex is being used to sell the product.

But as his work developed, his nudes became more stylized and the breast became a major focus.  To become stylized, a sign or symbol loses detail.  One or two elements gain in their emphasis and others are de-emphasized or even disappear.  This process is true for what semiotics calls an "icon."  An icon tends to be created when a part of a person or object comes to stand for the whole. 

Great American Nude #85
For example, take Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #85 from 1966.  Note how few lines there are, how few details.  Red lips, red nipples, and a handful of curves have come to the foreground and other details have disappeared.  This is what we would call “an economy of style.”  Saying as much as possible with as few elements as possible.

Great American Nude #38 creates the sign of “visually and sexually appealing nude woman” with many more lines, curves and colors (we see the woman’s entire body, for instance) .  Great American Nude #85 creates the sign for “visually and sexually appealing nude woman” with fewer lines, curves, and colors than does Great American Nude #38.  The breast, or even just the nipple, becomes iconic of "woman," but also sex and pleasure.  Advertising and Hollywood then, in turn, associate that icon with their products.
By 1967, the breasts become even more pronounced, perhaps swelling in relation to the amount of meaning they contain.  Wesselmann also increased his focus on the individual elements of the female nude until some works depicted just one body part to convey the erotic ideal.  Lips.  A breast.  A foot.

So what does this have to do with Heidi Montag?

I think we can view an obsession with cosmetic surgery as a kind of stylizing of the human body.  In order to achieve some ideal of human physical beauty, certain aspects get emphasized over others – cheekbones, chin, breasts, lips, etc. – sometimes obsessively so.  As with Wesselmann’s increasingly stylized female nude, the pursuit of the ideal human body often eliminates the details that had existed before.  We could say that human “flaws” (or individuality) reside in the details – wrinkles, for instance, or curves that deviate from the ideal.

Those are removed in the pursuit of the ideal.  As the details are lost, the expressions of the ideal begin to resemble each other.  Botoxed faces lose their wrinkles, but also their expressiveness.  As someone who lives in Southern California, I think I can say with some confidence that augmented breasts really do start to look alike.

In Pop Art and the Contest over American Culture, Sara Doris states that post-modern art depicts not encounters with the real but encounters with mediated images, with representations of the real.  (Hyperreality is about preferring representations over the real.)  She cites another critic, Douglas Crimp from 1977:

To an ever greater extent, our experience is governed by pictures, pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema.  Next to those pictures, firsthand experience seems to retreat.

So women in Hollywood, and to an extent the rest of the country, begin to imitate, through surgery, those images that surround us.

Through its reptition from Madison Avenue and Hollywood, the breast became increasingly iconic for "sex and pleasure."  So a celebrity, such as Montag, could associate herself more closely and immediately with "sex and pleasure" by emphasizing her breasts.
Tony's hangout.

Montag is not alone in this career move.  The Bada Bings of the world are filled with examples, and several web sites are devoted to chronicling which female celebrities have implants.  And it should be noted that Montag has apparently followed through with her desire for breast reduction surgery (recent pics here).

Doris discusses post-modern art’s penchant for imitating advertising imagery and borrowing from other traditions and artists (in a way similar to contemporary musical artists sampling the works of others).  She describes this as a rejection of modernism’s “fetishes of authenticity and originality, as neither form nor subject were unique to the artist.  Thus art making became an act of self-negation rather than self-revelation or self-realization.”

That sounds harsher than I would like.  I do not judge Montag for what she did.  It is her body.  She is free to do with it what she wants.  As is any human.  I am not judging anyone, male or female, who elects to have cosmetic surgery.  I simply am trying to understand the origin of and the influences on the recent mania for mega-breasts.  And I am not saying it started with Wesselmann's art, but I think he somehow saw it coming.

I realize that Montag probably would disagree with applying Doris’s assessment to her.  She might say that her cosmetic surgeries (she has had several) helped her realize her potential rather than negate her individuality.  I also realize she is not indicative of most people who have cosmetic surgery.  A nip or tuck does not make one Cher.

But the extreme lengths to which she went do illustrate, I believe, something in the national consciousness about the beautiful and the erotic.  The ideal being pursued by some people has its origins in our media-saturated lives – or perhaps more accurately, its origins are in our media more than our lives.


  1. I forwarded this to my friends! They should all be very excited to read this one (especially because of the photos and since everyone in Lebanon has fake breaths regardless of their initial breast size, mostly because it is very inexpensive). I'd always preferred fake lips than fake breasts! Imagine the back ache!

    XxxN <3

  2. A great post . . .made me think of the cover of Dolly Parton's first album.

  3. This was one very interesting article I have come across on plastic surgery.