(This essay is a re-post from 2011.)
In 2002 Eric Fischl, an American artist from New York City, presented a sculpted piece entitled Tumbling Woman which portrayed a naked female figure falling from a building in commemoration of the people who died in the 9-11 World Trade Center attacks. It was met with a considerable amount of controversy. There were numerous complaints from the public that the statue was “too disturbing” and a columnist from the New York Post even called out that the statue should suffer “immediate withdrawal…it [is] not appropriate in such a public place.” As a result of this public outcry, Fischl announced, “It was a sincere expression of deepest sympathy for the vulnerability of the human condition—both specifically towards the victims of 11 September and toward humanity in general.” His sympathy continues five years later in another interview with Robert Ayers from ARTINFO, in which he states, “It was an absolutely sincere attempt to put feelings into form and to share them, and it was met with such anger and anxiety in a way that used to be reserved for abstract sculpture, really.” The sculpture itself was screened from view until it could eventually be removed from Rockefeller Center as a result of the complaints. Fischl’s experience with finding and exploiting such a disruptive image came to good use but at a price.
This is not the first time that Fischl’s work has elicited this kind of reaction. Many of his works, especially his paintings, are pieces that could be considered less than appropriate. They create an uncomfortable or disruptive space for the observer which has the potential to result in, at the very least, provocative and intriguing displays of libidinal energy or gripping terror. Jacques Rancière, poses a similar or paralleling concern such as this in regards to the “intolerable image.” He states, “Images change our gaze and the landscape of the possible if they are not anticipated by their meaning and do not anticipate their efforts.” The change of landscape that Rancière refers to is the reconfigurations of what can be seen, spoken and thought. As a result, the condition of the image changes the perspective of one who is not ready for these reconfigurations; one who is not anticipating the image itself and therefore becomes interrupted by it. It is here that we find an adequate springboard with which to delve into the intricacies of this kind of interruption. Focusing specifically on Fischl’s sculpture, Tumbling Woman and his painting entitled Bad Boy, I intend to analyze the possible intentions whose desired effects are meant to either draw in or repel particular interpretations. Are works of art such as these and their sense of aesthetics intended to work the observer into a kind of frenzy? Insofar as they cannot understand until they must eventually come to new interpretive terms with what they see before them: something very moving and at the same time requiring a quick wink of the eye to act as the key to unlock the piece as whole. Finally, what does this allow us to say about taste? Where is the line to be drawn? More importantly, I believe, is to ask the question of when does this line becomes blurred, such that matters of taste begin to play with one’s anticipations; could we say that there is a hesitation or fear present?
To begin, I want to first take a close look at Fischl’s painting Bad Boy. There is a moment of hesitance when approaching the image of a woman, a naked woman, lying in what is considerably more than just a mere erotic pose on a tussled bed basking in the half-light that is shone through the blinds. All the while, a young boy standing in the same room next to a table that houses a bowl of curiously innocent fruit looks upon her. This initial image that Fischl displays is not merely a moment per se, rather, it appeals to the senses in a series of events or experiences. That is to say, the painting has multiple intentions and already one is drawn into several different interpretations. One’s first reaction to an image such as this might produce anger or a disgust that instills a type of anger that relies on the reaction to the image itself. But obviously there is something more. The possible anger that opens up initially must also come into question as to why Fischl is showing the observer this scene. It is the questioning that evolves the anger into fear. Fear is more dangerous than anger in that it provides a more prevalent opening, acting as a catalyst in order to elicit a broader or more generalized response to the image. Anger, while initially reactive, has the potential to be the artist’s intention. Fear, on the other hand, is something reliant; one can always count on fear to come through and provide a foundation for what it is that truly sets a person off in terms of reaction. For if one is able to find themselves fearful of an image, then that image is speaking to something deeper, more profound, and ultimately to the space where one considers themselves absent. Or, perhaps, it is a way in which fear is drawn out whether someone likes it or not; something that is able to touch upon the notion of the sublime in that we are not supposed to understand why it does what it does. Rather, that one should be left in a state of fearfulness in order to truly be able to touch upon the aesthetics of it as such. Thus, one can be angry, disgusted, repulsed; but fear is what relies on a realization that there is a “why” and a desire to know.
Returning to the woman, one must indeed consider the bed on which she reposes. A number of things immediately come to mind when one’s gaze settles upon it. As mentioned before, the bed itself is mussed and disorderly; slept in, tossed; fucked in. Yet it is also low to the ground floor. There is no secondary mattress or frame. It is also backed up and cornered against the wall. From this one can deduce that this is not only a small room but also that this is a cheap room, possibly rented. The visible walls are bare and there is only a solitary table in view—perhaps a desk—that provides a break in the desolate space that is utilized most likely for the activity of the profitable sexual act. Yet something else becomes apparent. The bed is obviously large and, judging from the positioning of the pillows, probably king-sized. This presents suddenly a different element to the equation of the woman on the bed. Is she in some downtown room reserved for turning tricks…or perhaps not? It would be a bit of stretch that the boy would be there in some seedy hotel room. He would be too far from home or school. This suggests something more, in that they are both not far from home at all. Thus, they are both closer to home than one first thought. Insofar as one considers the size of the bed and what now comes into play with the age of the boy, it appears that the woman must be in her own home, and the boy must live somewhere close by. What is even more striking is when the idea of the positioning of the bed is utilized to corroborate with the idea of what the woman uses the bed for and where she actually is in relation to what she does. Suddenly the positioning of the bed is more provocative and enticing. But is this something one shies away from? Is this something that instigates fear?
Moving to the boy, one sees that he alone is not enough to show that the observer is prying upon some hidden away episode of suburban erotica. The purse that he is reaching into is what solidifies this space as being indeed, suburban. Her purse signifies her home and her own place where she is able to set personal items wherever she pleases, even if it means within range of a thieving little boy. He has his hand inside and he is reaching for something. If we continue on the path that I have set up thus far, then he is indeed reaching for money. If she is truly the suburban whore one believes her to be, then she keeps her money where she keeps her purse: on the dresser in the bedroom. But is he reaching for something else and, if so, what would it be? Is his attempt at theft meant to mislead the observer? His hand is not visible for it has sunk fully into the depths of her purse. Is what he wants to pull out so important because one can already deduce an answer based on the entirety of the image or is it a matter of what he could pull out that leads us somewhere darker and more erotic, even more taboo than initially proposed? What if it’s a condom? What if the woman is his mother? There is something fearful in the boy’s hidden hand in that it is not known just what his hand in her purse could reveal.
Returning back to the bed and now more importantly the woman herself, one could initially interpret her pose as traditionally erotic. Why traditional? I use this term primarily because the figure of this woman in this particularly revealing position, such that her vagina is fully exposed by means of her legs spread almost to their full ability, is relaxed and reclined. This alone speaks to the volumes and volumes of pornographic magazines that have portrayed this type of pose for, as it stands, generations of eager young boys. At first glance, it seems that the pose itself is all that one can notice, and that the intention of the painting itself is to be centered on her vagina. But hopefully, as this close interpretation has demonstrated so far, the eye dashes around the painting because of something else that the image appears to be touching upon that is beyond mere erotica. To the point in which, the erotica becomes boring and something else must be seen, must be known, in order to heighten the arousal and ultimately, the fear. One is drawn to the woman’s vagina first, and why is that? Is it that one wants to make the image erotic in order to more easily dismiss it as merely shocking? Or is it that the image is now leading the observer’s eye around the room to look and assist in finding something to fear? If this is the case, then one suddenly becomes critical of the situation, in that one now wants to know what is going on in the room. Moreover, if one looks closer at the woman, she is not in such an erotic pose after all. She is actually picking at the nail of her big toe on her right foot with her hands. She is not, as one might have presumed, holding her leg open so the boy can gaze upon her flesh. She is preoccupied and, in a sense, has no concern for the boy at all. Does she not care that he has his hand in her purse? Is it now no longer about money and its potential theft? Is it that she is stealing something from him? The image has become dangerous. From this I propose that she is not in an erotic position at all, that she actually is in a position of comfort and has no concern for the boy’s presence as a threat, and he is something to be disregarded or waved-off: she is not posing for the boy. Is this something suddenly fearful? Should one be afraid that what was first considered so sedentary in terms of the erotic is now something that one may know nothing about, something that now has the ability to traverse our definitions of what erotic is at all? This is why the image becomes dangerous.
The bowl of fruit, it is a still-life within a painting that exudes movement. This movement is so subtle that it needs a parody of a still-life in order to remind the observer that there actually is movement. Though the movement is not to be expected from the image, rather, from those who cast their gaze upon the painting itself. The bowl of fruit, in all its stillness, actually speeds up the action of the painting because of its subtlety. This simple reversal of roles on the part of that which is to represent reality in the sense of capturing its essence, is now utilized as portraying reality as becoming-motion, in that it announces that the image itself has motion which must be noticed regardless of the initial shock of what it contains. That is to say, it is not merely a snapshot of eroticism intended to be gasped at as one then moves on to the next piece in a gallery or museum. It is there intentionally in order to ground the reality of the image. It is the reality of the image which is most difficult to deal with and what I believe is at the heart of what Fischl is trying to achieve. That being said, it is the motion which leads back to my point of fear.
The light that is shining through the blinds is not static. It is the light of the fading day and it is slow but it is moving nonetheless. Coupled with the woman picking her toes and the boy inching his way into her purse one can see that the image is supposed to be taken in or observed slowly. That is to say, it is to be considered at a pace that is slower than one’s initial reaction to it. I believe that this is what becomes frightening to the observer; when the painting is watched for too long. Not only does one see things that were not necessarily intended to see—at least by the observer—but also things that one did not want to see. Things that one does not want to know. One’s own desires start working against them in that appreciating the image begins to move past the erotic overtones. Or, perhaps, one begins to appreciate the painting for those exact erotic overtones. Either way, I believe that it is the light through the blinds that connects the observer with the desire that they are trying to avoid. The brush strokes of each band of light are very hard and deliberate as they come through the blinds and intrude upon the entirety of the room. In this painting it is the light shining through that causes hesitation as to whether or not one should consider this image, in what context and why. When those considerations do not line up accordingly, there is a fear of what this painting is really about. It is the fear that one has been caught in the hesitation to which I have been alluding. The light that shines through and where it comes from is where we feel we should be, outside and safe in the normativity of mundane suburban life. But one is not. The observer is in the room and is instantly and fully exposed just as the woman and the boy are. The movement of the light across the image is the sense of time that is a reminder that one is indeed hesitating in that room and that is what creates fearfulness. Is the subtlety what makes the aesthetics of this painting so prominent? Granted there are many other ways to interpret a painting such as this and I believe that this was one of Fischl’s intentions when he created it, as he did many other scenes of this nature and which we will see with Tumbling Woman.
When first looking at Fischl’s sculpture one can see that there is something simpler going on, something much more direct. She is naked and exposed. The fragility of her exposure seems to align with the fragility of her body. Her body can, and will, break. There is nothing between her and death at this point, not even clothing. As the title of the piece offers, she is tumbling or falling. But this is not to say that she could not be hitting the ground as well. Could one assume from the posture of her figure that she is impacting the ground at the moment of observation? This intensifies the piece immensely in that one is not seeing her in free fall, rather, at the moment of impact when she ceases to be human and is turned into a body of mere meat and bone. Within a fraction of a second the woman will become absent from the observer. Death, in all its sacredness, is still death and the sculpture seems to come extraordinarily close to capturing the moment of exchange between person and body. The fact that she is nude may be a reminder of this insofar as when one dies, they go as they came: fully exposed.
One is also reminded by the context of this piece that the woman had to make a choice: burn or tumble. The people who leapt to their deaths during the tower attacks were left with this choice and there is video footage to prove this. I believe that this speaks to the incredible humanity of the sculpture and agree with Fischl’s astonishment that it was not well received. The fact that people who viewed the woman could not handle the fragility of her humanity, to the point that they could no longer look at her or be reminded by her is something that should be more closely examined and might possibly provide some insight on what I mean by questioning the intersection of intent and taste.
In the case of this sculpture, a naked woman falling to her death, there is a utilization of provocativeness in order to call upon the psychological, emotional and general intrigue on the part of the observer. The provocativeness evokes an image of the sacred. What is interesting with this sculpture and its brief history at Rockefeller Center is that it proposes the idea that maybe the piece is too sacred. It would seem that the image of the naked woman falling to her death was represented in excess and deemed offensive and disturbing, to the point of being intolerable. But is this intolerability necessarily a bad thing and what can we say about it in terms of fear? Is it not the intention of a memorializing sculpture to call attention to itself in order to not forget? The situation overall begs the question of whether or not a more aesthetically interruptive piece would be more effective. Or does the sacredness of the event of 9-11 represent something more penetrating than this? Here it seems that the question can be asked: whether or not the interruption is necessary or, rather, whether the kind of interruption that an image represents is beneficial to one who is forced to view it. In relation to this, Rancière has this to say:
The issue is not whether it is necessary to show the horrors suffered by the victims of some particular violence. It revolves around the construction of the victim as an element in a certain distribution of the visible. An image never stands alone. It belongs to a system of visibility that governs the status of the bodies represented and the kind of attention they merit.
If the image of the falling woman comes with a system of visibility that governs the status of the bodies represented, then the issue of what kind of attention or interruption that is produced seems to move beyond that of the original intention of the created piece. Thus, it appears that it becomes a matter of taste that surrounds the ethic of the piece itself. It is no longer a question of whether the sculpture memorializes the victims of 9-11. Instead, the intolerability of the image is displaced with an ethic governed by the observer or witness. That is to say, the observer of the falling woman must bear witness to the bodies that fell during the attacks. The observer must watch as a person is rendered what they—all of us really—actually are: a body of meat that can be easily torn apart at a moment’s notice. In this case, it may be that the sculpture itself, because of the way it evokes such a deep emotional and physical response, becomes incapable to return the gaze of the observer. The observer is unable to see themselves as a fragile and raw piece of meat and this has the potential to be, quite frankly, incredibly frightening. Perhaps the system of visibility that governs the bodies represented, as Rancière describes, has become so banal in depicting so many nameless bodies that the image that Fischl created becomes unbearable to deal with. But is this something that can be reduced to matters of taste that then fall back on the question of what is tolerable to display and what is not? And with a piece of art that is essentially meant to act as a memorializing representation, is taste something that becomes too delicate to test?
It seems plausible at this point to argue that a piece such as Tumbling Woman is intended to house the voices of a great many number of victims. The same way that a gravestone speaks out the name of a person who is buried there so that the visitor or passerby may remember, so too does this piece call out the names of the many who have died so that they may be remembered. “The system of information does not operate through an excess of images but by selecting the speaking and reasoning being who are capable of ‘deciphering’ the flow of information about anonymous multitudes.” According to Rancière, only certain people are able to come to terms with the image presented without reactionary criticism. Moreover, with respect to the sculpture, it would seem that though it was created in an effort for all to remember, not everyone is ready to accept it on its own terms. In a sense, there are those that fear it. But does this justify calling upon the offensiveness of the piece insofar as having it removed from contextual view? Is there something about having a sculpture like Tumbling Woman in Rockefeller Center, so close to the location of where the World Trade Center was that magnifies the event so much that it becomes intolerable, that it becomes bad taste? Arguably it would seem that the point here is that spatial aesthetics are just as important, if not more so, for remembering and that this would somehow trump any imposing ethical concern. Perhaps it is spatially in bad taste, such that it is the case that the piece itself is subject to somehow losing its sacredness, that which makes it so intolerable to the critical witness, when it is moved to another location like an art gallery or exhibit. Though, it would seem that if that were to happen—which it inevitably has—it would also be in bad taste to cheapen its intended effect by removing it from the space for which it was originally created. Yet this appears to be exactly what jeopardizes Fischl’s intention. The very act of removing the Tumbling Woman from its intended location submits not only the art, but also its politics to moral judgments about the validity of its principles and the consequences of its practices. Rancière believes it is even more complicated than that. Aside from the distance that is created between artistic representation and real presentation, it is because everything has the potential to become representable and there actually is no space between artistic representation and the presentation of reality. In fact, it is because of this lack of space that he argues that presenting particular subject matters become problematic when attempting to bring into light the possibility of representing artistically. This logical schema can be easily transposed to matters of taste when talking about the appropriateness of the sculpture. Precisely because there is the risk of no space between the artistic representation and the presentation of reality the piece becomes subjected to the ethic of the observer in that one does not want to know; they do not want to bear witness. Moreover, one becomes resistant to the representation. By utilizing his own provocative abilities, Fischl ran the risk of his artwork pointing directly to the lack of space between his sculpture and the actual victims themselves, which in turn becomes too much for the observer to handle and as a result they are afraid. Thus, Fischl’s work borders less on being an artistic representation and more of a presentation of reality.
Now it gets interesting! If one corroborates the hesitation in Bad Boy with the exposure of Tumbling Woman, then the fear that I have been leading towards comes more fully into the light. It suddenly becomes a question of the human body itself, what it can do and what its limits are. Not only that, but also what we as observers are willing to be shown what a body can do. Even further, what we know and what we want to know a body can do. The matter of taste seems to step in to govern this process. It would appear that taste acts as a judgment that applies an ethic to what one could consider a piece of art or something tasteful. Ultimately, one must look back to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment to gain a better—and final—understanding and to flesh out this examination completely. If the Critique of Judgment is to be read “as offering access to the originary experience of judgment, one in which a live, embodied subject engages with its world…[and that]…it is a finite, embodied subject which through imagination inhabits past, present and future, and which experiences the pleasure and pain of its judgments,” then it can be concluded from this and my examination thus far that the relationship to nature, in this case the role of the body, is intimately connected to a subjective experience. Yet we cannot ignore that Kant constructs a case for a teleological account of nature in opposition to a “mechanical one,” leading us to the finality that Kant talks about in nature in that purpose can only be considered a judgment “as if it were objective.” Or, in Kant’s own words, “they at least strive after something which lies beyond the bounds of experience and so seek to approximate to a presentation of concepts of reason (intellectual ideas), thus giving to the latter the appearance of objective reality.”
Therefore, the role as “human” in our assumed world is constantly subject to interruption as to what “human” is and, more specifically, what “human” can do. We, as fragile and delicate bodies, must protect ourselves, ethically, politically, socially, etc. Art holds the potential to dismantle this protection. Moreover, it contains the potential to allow one the consideration of how to dismantle one’s protection. This is simultaneously frightening and intriguing. It is frightening because it immediately pushes against what one believes is taboo or sacred, such as in Bad Boy and the fact that he could very well be gearing up to participate in sexually deviant activities with his own mother. Or with Tumbling Woman and the idea that the fragility of the body speaks immediately to the mortality of the observer in that they cannot handle it without a space between them and death. It is at the same time intriguing because we as observers desire to know what the intentions are behind such creations because we look to the artist and his/her intentions in order to justify somehow that their work spoke to us as something safe and directly understandable. And if the work is not immediately explicit, we become afraid of it as a result of the very intrigue that led us to the path of knowing and wanting to know what was going on in the first place. We become afraid of what we will find out and label it easily as “bad taste.” Overall, what I have tried to demonstrate is how the intention of the artist and the desire to know on the part of the observer first opens up on to the line of taste. The initial blurriness of this line must be hesitated in and the fear of not knowing should be embraced rather than discredited in order to fully realize the myriad different ways that a work of art can be interpreted. Finally, and most importantly, images like those that have been created by Fischl and other artists alike that strive to close or eliminate the gap between artistic representation and a presentation of reality should not be subjected to reactionary methods of judgment in order to distinguish taste. If one adheres to these principles, then works of art and the artists that create them that strive to push these boundaries can finally be ready to move forward to race against brand new, intriguing and above all, fearful horizons.
Eric Fischl’s Painting and Sculpture
Figure 1. Image of Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy (1981).
Figure 2. Photograph of Eric Fischl’s Tumbling Woman (2001).
Ayers, Robert. “Eric Fischl”. ARTINFO. 11 May 2007. Louise Blouin Media. 27 Apr. 2012.
BBC News World Edition. Ed. Herrmann, Steve. 19 Sept. 2002. British Broadcasting Company.
27 Apr. 2012.
Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1995.
Fischl, Eric. Bad Boy. Oil on canvas. 1981.
—. Tumbling Woman.Bronze. 2002. Phoenix Art Museum.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Bernard, J. H. New York: Hafner Publishing
Rancière, Jacques. Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Trans. Corcoran, Steven. Malden: Polity Press,
—. The Emancipated Spectator. Trans. Elliott, Gregory. New York: Verso, 2011.
 BBC News World Edition. Ed. Herrmann, Steve. 19 Sept. 2002. British Broadcasting Company. 27 Apr. 2012.
 Ayers, Robert. “Eric Fischl”. ARTINFO. 11 May 2007. Louise Blouin Media. 27 Apr. 2012.
 Rancière, Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. Trans. Elliot, Gregory. (New York: Verso, 2011), 105.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 96.
 Rancière, Jacques. Aesthetics and Its Discontents. Trans. Corcoran, Steven. (Malden : Polity Press, 2009), 109.
 Ibid., 125.
 Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), 141.
 Ibid., 142.
 Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Bernard, J. H. (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1951), 157. Italics are mine.