The Real Real Thing
The Model in the Mirror of Art
University of Chicago Press 2010
As the last of what Wendy Steiner refers to as “a loose trilogy” with her earlier works, The Scandal of Pleasure (1995) and Venus in Exile (2001), The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art (University of Chicago, 2010) sets out to establish the centrality of “the model” in art to our understanding of subjectivity and freedom and the ethical imperative that she suggests lies within it.
For Steiner, “the model,” historically conceptualized and understood as female and objectified as such, assumes the level of ontological importance and acts as a symbolic structure that not only lays bare the hierarchies and mechanics of power, but possess the unique ability to reimagine and “introduce new hierarchies into the world” (20). “The model” along with politics and power in Steiner’s estimation are closely linked and in fact bound together. The intriguing and theoretical tension between the seeming contradiction that what on the level of the symbol can be read as object can also be accessed in order to influence the real is one that is thrilling to see the author trace and work out. To this point specifically, Steiner does an incredible job. Her theoretical argument invokes the work of Kant, Roman Jakobson, Jacques Lacan, and Judith Butler to varying degrees.
Neatly divided into three parts, The Real Real Thing moves from a theoretical exploration of “the model” to several fascinating studies of artists and art works that have employed the model as Steiner envisions it.Bringing “the model” from the realm of the theoretical to that of the real, Steiner closes the book by returning to her notion of the ethical imperative inherent to it. She makes a strong and impassioned case for modern art and what she sees as its “democratic” and “progressive” nature in its ability to not just call attention to itself as art, as an end in itself, but to invite the spectator into a symbiotic union that creates. It is within this union that traditionally rigid aesthetic notions of beauty and perfection can be overridden and redefined anew.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art and I encourage anyone interested in aesthetics, the future of art, and the future of the arts especially to read this book.