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The task of the artist is to make the human being uncomfortable , and yet we are drawn to a great work by involuntary chemistry, like a hound getting a scent. . . . Lucian Freud Cure yourself of the condition of bothering about how you look to other people. Be concerned only . . . with the idea God has of you. Miguel de Unamuno I ANTHROPOLOGISTS, psychologists, and philosophers have apparently concurred that shame is the most social and the most visually conveyed of all emotions. It is directly involved with one’s social self. Along with sexual modesty and personal degradation, the word suggests familial or civic dishonor, with criminal justice and social ostracism. Most importantly, shame is profoundly visual, operating across an interface involving seeing and being seen. Shame, along with honor, its reverse, is “the constant preSOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2003) Losses of Face: Rembrandt, Masaccio, and the Drama of Shame MARTHA HOLLANDER occupation of individuals in small scale, exclusive societies where face to face personal, as opposed to anonymous, relations are of paramount importance and where the social personality of the actor is as significant as his office” (Peristiany, 1965: 11). Implicit in this description of shame is the role of spectators: the social personality of the actor “in face to face” relations. According to the late Bernard Williams, “The basic experience connected with shame is that of being seen, inappropriately, by the wrong people, in the wrong condition” (Williams, 1993: 78). Consider our expressions, “loss of face” and “not daring to show one’s face.” A brief tour through my thesaurus offers many synonyms for shame as adjective and verb; accompanying them are expressions such as “bad light,” “reputations shady and tarnished ,” “blush for shame,” “a crying shame,” “be exposed.” These symptoms depend on looking and being looked at, on the idea of a moral clarity and brightness, which can be compromised , literally dimmed, by the conditions of shame. The intersection of shame and visual art is a rich and varied space. Both naturally depend on the presence of a spectator. So much of Western art is illustrative, revelatory, performative. Images can be both shameful and shaming, about shame and arousing shame, whether deliberately or not. Shame is also frequently associated with guilt. While Williams refers to the actual or internalized spectator of the shamed, Paul Ricoeur, for example, characterizes guilt as intensely private: “a feeling of unworthiness at the core of one’s personal being . . . only the advanced point of a radically individualized and interiorized experience” (Ricoeur, 1967: 7-8). That is, the internalized spectator is oneself. In both emotional conditions, Gabriele Taylor observes, “the person concerned believes of herself that she has deviated from some norm and that in doing so she has altered her standing in the world” (Taylor, 1985: 1). Both emotions are self-conscious, whether publicly or privately articulated. Interestingly , shame as a dramatic subject in Western art is intimately linked with guilt. 1328 SOCIAL RESEARCH One type of interplay between art and shame is an image or mark that is meant to shame the subject. Pictures or signs, associated with a person or a particular group, have long been adopted or created by the authorities or oppressors for the purpose of social control. For example, the mark of Cain became represented in medieval art as a badge of shame as well as a mark of distinguished difference. In a similar spirit, social outcasts such as lepers and Jews were presented in northern Renaissance art as “shamed” through their clearly identifying marks involving clothes and facial features (Mellinkoff, 1981, 1993). A popular art form in medieval and Renaissance Italy, the pittura infamanta, was literally a “shaming picture.” These scurrilous portraits, commissioned by municipal authorities, depicted high-born citizens who defied the morals of the community in ludicrous, satanic poses, often hanging upside down with one foot. Hence, images become the source and mark of shame, and constitute punishment in themselves (Edgerton, 1985). Another kind of imagery, often with religious or political content, is meant to arouse shame in the spectator. We might also consider shame about art: the responses to such images that lead to bowdlerization , censorship, and vandalism.1 My subject...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. 1327-1350
Launched on MUSE
2015-04-01
Open Access
No
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