Pathologizing The Venus

There’s a new exhibition opening at the British Museum on Feb. 7th.  It was reviewed last night on a Channel 4 news item.

“At the heart of the exhibition is this more representational sculpture, described, perhaps bluntly as a ‘mature, obese woman who’s had children‘.”

I’m making a fairly logical assumption – since the reporter himself indicated his surprise at the description – that it was the curator of the British Museum exhibit who  decided to ascribe the term ‘obese’ to the figure.

Is this an indication of how badly versed in semiotics curators are? Or an example of why critical theory should probably be mandatory for anyone attempting to gain a degree in any field? Or how curators assume a total ignorance of the variations possible in the human form in their exhibition audience? (Of course, it would probably be fairly useful if the exhibit descriptions were written specifically for aliens, since they wouldn’t necessarily spot it as a woman, or a mature woman, or a non-normative, reproductively active, mature woman. So, it would be helpful to off-planet visitors.)  In a museum as sophisticated as the British Museum, has Foucault’s theories of Power/Knowledge or ‘The Birth of the Clinic’ made absolutely NO in-roads? Perhaps Dr. Jill Cook, the exhibition’s curator really needs a wider education.

Obesity is a medical term to describe a body which is overweight and likely to suffer health problems as a result.  But, as Foucault has so persuasively argued, medical terms are not value-neutral. And the word ‘obese’ has infected almost every type of public discourse in the past 10 years with an insidious ferocity that rivals no other. It’s no longer politically correct to call someone ‘fat’ but you can call them ‘obese’ with impunity. And if ‘fat’ once meant rotund and jolly and perhaps suggested a lack of moderation on the part of object, it now infers non-normative, psychologically unstable, unfit, usually economically underprivileged and sick.

the Venus of Dolni Vestonice:  the mature, obese figure featured in the exhibit

the Venus of Dolni Vestonice: the mature, obese figure featured in the exhibit

The British talk about ‘obesity’ with relish. As if, having been restrained so long by political correctness from being able to call people queers or plebs or pakis, they’re reveling in the opportunity to identify at least one segment of the population they can look down on with smug, self-satisfied deprecation.

But getting back to the description of the statue.

Regardless of any awareness of why ‘obese’ has a negative, pathological connotation, it is simply an inaccurate description for this figure, since ‘obese’ is still chiefly – as it was in its first recorded usage of the word in 1651 (in Noah Biggs · Matæotechnia Medicinæ Praxeωs: the vanity of the craft of physick) –  a medical term.

Using the word to describe a piece of representative art from the Ice Age is profoundly inappropriate, unless the exhibit was a record of medical pathologies in pre-history – which it isn’t. Additionally, it is questionable as to how truly representative (as opposed to abstracted) this piece is, as it is the breasts and hips which are exaggerated, probably to highlight the fertile nature of the female body – as child bearer and feeder.

Finally, there is perfectly useful established archeological term for these sorts of prehistoric figures. They’re called ‘Venus Figurines‘. A term which carries much less negative value judgement with it. It has also been adopted by art historians.

There is no rational or scientific or medical reason on earth to pathologize the figure of an Ice Age woman, since we can’t send her to a nutritionist, or staple her stomach, and force her by hook or crook into thinness anyway. Whoever might have acted as model for this prehistoric sculpture is long dead and beyond our patronizing concern.

And, if after all my argumentation, you think I’m being over-sensitive, or over-reacting, let me ask you one question: why are the skinny carved figured of humans not described as ’emaciated’?

homesplash-Ice-Age-ArtDear British Museum. Rather than subtitling your exhibition “arrival of the modern mind’, I suggest you be a little more honest and call it “the imposition of the modern mind.” Honestly, I expected better of you.