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  • Acts of Stillness:Statues, Performativity, and Passive Resistance
  • David J. Getsy (bio)

The idea for this essay was sparked by reading Barbara Johnson’s “Muteness Envy” (1998), in which she interrogated the canon of Western poetry and its persistent idealization of female silence.1 Muteness, she argued, became a “repository of aesthetic value” in poems such as John Keats’s “Ode On a Grecian Urn” (1819) because of the ways that the inability to speak served to facilitate patriarchal power.2 In the tradition she critiques, a lack of access to speech is upheld as a precursor to the judgment of beauty. When reading through Johnson’s many cases of the ways in which muteness incited the desire to control, to ravish, or to protect, I was struck by an analogous feature in the history of sculpture. If, in Johnson’s formulation, muteness becomes the condition that both sparks and authorizes rape, paternalism, and objectification, then how does muteness operate in relation to surrogates for human beings that stand before us and do not speak? Muteness is a special feature of poetry and prose because of those media’s direct relation to language, and I began to question how, for sculpture, the related and more fundamental term is stillness.

What follows is a proposition for reassessing the history of sculpture with a view toward characterizing a wider range of viewers’ reactions to statues. In this, I consider the sculptural encounter as a theater of power relations between active viewers and passive statues. This dynamic is fueled by the bodily and spatial engagements of the viewer or artist with the three-dimensional representation of the human body, most pointedly at a one-to-one scale, that stands before them. My emphasis will be on statues in the post-Enlightenment tradition of European and American art, with an emphasis on the history of modern sculpture, but one could ask analogous, if differently inflected, questions of other times and places. I have pitched my argument toward recurring patterns in the history of sculpture, and I have avoided in-depth case studies in preference for a more wide-ranging and general assessment of the effects of statues acting [End Page 1] on us by standing there, motionless. The performativity of statues’ passive resistance has underwritten the aesthetics of sculpture, and a focus on stillness can illuminate the ethical contours and recurring historical themes of the sculptural encounter.

A three-dimensional figurative image—that is, a statue—both depicts a body in space and is a body-in-space. I can look at a statue of an athlete, of Apollo, of a fieldworker, of a politician, of a heroine, or of a fawn and see it in its representational distance. I am confronted by an image of something not actually present, perhaps never seen in everyday life, or maybe recognized as a character from books, poems, dreams, or the televised news. At the same time that it functions in this way as a three-dimensional image, the statue is also present for me as a physical object displacing space with its volume. It stands, sits, or lies in front of me. I can touch it. I do touch it. I walk around it. I move up to it. I walk away from it.

Sculpture differs fundamentally from the vast majority of two-dimensional, pictorial media in its coextensiveness as depicted image and depicting object. A statue can be equivalent in volume to the represented body, sharing its proportions and construction. Jean-Paul Sartre saw this as the paradox of the statue: “I have real relations with an illusion; or, if you prefer, my true distance from the block of marble has been confused with my imaginary distance from [the image it represents].”3 Because of this paradox, the address of a statue is necessarily corporeal, spatial, and relational. Sartre saw the statue as “depend[ing] on the relativity of the angles from which it is viewed. As for the spectator, he takes the imaginary for the real and the real for the imaginary.”4 The situation the statue presents is more akin to an encounter with another person than any two-dimensional representation could offer...


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