Ambivalence and Paradox, part 4

This post concludes my attempt to answer the question “How can a person technically excluded from the canons of her field and religion relate to them?”, begun in parts 1, 2, and 3.


salome mary cube 3 salome mary cube

These hinged blocks relate to a transformation puzzle Naoki Yoshimoto developed in 1971 “as he was searching for a way to divide a cube equally” (MoMA).  A simplified version of his hinged cube heuristically presents the equivalence of dualities (Figs 13-14).  This composite cube uses appropriation to discuss a theme in the canon of religious art.  Whether we refer to the psychoanalytic Madonna-whore complex, the feminist discourse on misogyny, or the colloquial term slut-shaming, the topic is a toxic bias by which female sexuality has been and continues to be vilified and commodified.

Both the bias and the cube depicting it have a curious mesmerizing quality which acts even after the viewer figures out their pattern.  When a viewer manipulates these blocks, the composite cube transforms from details of paintings depicting Salome to those of Mary during the Annunciation.  During the transformation, women’s faces are ripped apart and recombined with an interchangeability that reveals their ambivalence.  One is praised, the other is blamed, and both are pawns.  Unlike the insertion of the artist’s avatar in other artworks from this series, the relevance of this artwork is revealed in its heuristic quality.


The discomfort highlighted in the series to which these four artworks belong could have been avoided by ignoring the canons of art history and religion.  This tempting plan is impossibly facile.

When Michael Camille said that “a canon is not made up of the actual objects but only of representations of those objects,” he spoke of plaster casts of medieval sculpture and their presentation in ways that reflect the entire canon of art history (198).  The canon of art history is not reliant on the significance of each artwork within its original historical, social, and philosophical framework.  These origin stories are important, but artworks only remain in the canon on the strength of their value to the canon’s current curators.  Artworks that remain in the canon are concomitantly influential to contemporary artists.

In characterizing contemporary art, Arthur Danto pointed out that our preoccupation with historical eclecticism both negates and reinforces its authority.  In his words:

The sense in which everything is possible is that in which all forms are ours.  The sense in which not everything is possible is that we must still relate to them in our own way.  The way we relate to those forms is part of what defines our period. (198)

The canon is unavoidably modified with the passage of time, but does actively subverting a secular canon display disrespect?

Returning to the concept of humility, there is much more reverence and value in challenging a flawed system than avoiding it.  In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard argues that, in a sense, “the iconoclasts, whom one accuses of disdaining and negating images, were those who accorded them their true value” when deeming them threatening enough to require destruction (5).  Apathy, not anger, is the more devastating attack.

Bartky and other feminist writers highlight several uncomfortable ambivalences about misogyny, but they also point out the fact that awareness of one’s own disadvantages does not, repeat not, free the individual from guilt for the advantages and privileges she does enjoy (32).  Among the many things Heschel pointed out about intuition and social activism through long-dead prophets, one of the most poignant aphorisms was this:  “Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people:  Few are guilty, but all are responsible” (19).  As an artist, I either condone or challenge the path of my field through my actions.  Dissociating completely from the influence of history is impossible.

Works Cited

Bartky, Sandra Lee.  Femininity and Domination:  Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression.  New York: Routledge, 1990. E-book.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

Camille, Michael.  “Rethinking the Canon: Prophets, Canons, and Promising Monsters.”  College Art Association. Art Bulletin 78.2 (1998): 198-201.

Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers.  The Power of Myth.  Ed. Betty Sue Flowers. New York: Anchor Books, 1988. Print.

Danto, Arthur C.  After the End of Art:  Contemporary Art and the Pale of History.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1997. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  “Self-Reliance.”  Emerson:  Essays & Poems. Library of America College Editions. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. 259-282.  Print.

Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.

Kuhn, Thomas.  The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  University of Chicago Press, 1962. Print.

“Product Description:  Yoshimoto Cube No. 1.”  MoMA Store. 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.

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