There’s a painting called L’Origine du monde (or The Origin of the World) that hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, by the French realist painter Gustave Courbet. The oil on canvas shows a nude body of the woman, from just below the breast, down to the middle of her spread thighs, and everything in between. This includes the focal point of the work – her vagina, with all the creases of skin, the luxuriant growth of pubic hair – as finely rendered as a master of realism like Courbet can do.
Seeing the work for one’s self, and observing other fellow visitors at the Orsay, attunes one to a certain sense of disquiet in how viewers relate to this work. It is a work that compels you to both look at it, and look away at the same time. The painting is hung right in the middle of a room full of other Courbets; it is practically the first thing you will see when you enter it. There are those who indeed see it first, but choose to shift their eyes to circle the whole round of other Courbets first before finally (perhaps after mustering some courage) standing in front L’Origine du monde. Those who approach directly do so tentatively, almost reverently. As they stand in front of it, one can notice a barely perceptible shifting of their weight from one foot to the other. Two young ladies are first deathly silent, then eventually giggle softly, as if in relief. Couples clutch at each other’s sleeves. A woman leans in to whisper something in her partner’s ear; a loving pair is often an open book, easy to read by any passerby – but at the moment it was an impossibility.
Certainly, this is not the first time a nude female body has been depicted in art. But prior to this, most artistic depictions, even if rendered in the realist style, usually still retained the air of the “unrealistic” in the sense that they still presented idealized notions of femininity rooted in men’s standards. What this means is that, even if the pictures are easily recognizable and not abstract at all, the story one derives from looking at it are those that men often project women to be – impossible beauties, submissive seductresses, untarnished virgins – quite different from how women often think of themselves. Part and parcel of this is the hiding or erasure or modification to the point of unrecognizability of the actual parts of women that is the object of that male desire – the vagina. Look at how Boticelli’s Venus demurely hides hers behind a lock of hair, or how her nether regions (in Borzino’s version) are smoothed into nonexistence.
For the greater part of the history of Western art this had held sway. The idea behind this was that art stood for the sublime, or was a way for us to experience it, even as the sublime itself was not directly tangible nor attainable. Moreover, the fact that most of these art were emplaced in churches, palaces, and the salons of the elite made this idea of the sublime inextricable from the values, norms, and social relations that these venues held dear.
By the end of the nineteenth century, however, this began to change. Artists rallied “pour épater les bourgeois” (to shock the bourgeoisie)* with confrontational nudes (like Édouard Manet’s Olympia) and Courbet’s own artful (but unromanticized) renderings of the working-class (for example, here and here). Courbet rightly knew that there was a tension between representations of the sublime (like art) and sublimity itself. The relation of the two are never fixed or calm, no matter how placid the world of art that we see for ourselves tries to make it appear to be. It is precisely at that tension that he delivered his masterful brushstroke that Žižek (in The Fragile Absolute) described this way: “The woman’s body in L’Origine retains its full erotic attraction, yet it becomes repulsive precisely on account of this excessive attraction.”
Courbet’s statement seems to be: “You want the (nubile, virginal, forbidden like the fruit) vagina? Well, here’s the vagina!” By showing us the vagina itself – in all its graphic realism – Courbet broke this most sublime of artistic subjects off from sublimity itself. This breakage effectively threw the old artistic order into disarray, as well as most of the feudal/medieval ideals and values associated with it that extended into the actual world. I do not think that it was an accident that it was the image of a vagina that signaled this point of no return.
Moreover, I think that it is the residue of the experience of this breakage that continues to give viewers of this painting that unnerving enthrallment I described above. As children of the generations since Courbet, we cannot help but experience at a visceral and vicarious level that delicious trauma that helped birth this contemporary world – and therefore “us” (or at least that general part of humanity that were drawn, willingly or unwillingly, into this phenomenon called global capitalist “modernity”).
In this sense Žižek reads this painting as the “vanishing mediator” between “art” that is traditional and the “art” of the modern: “Courbet’s gesture is… the dead end of traditional realist painting… that is to say, it represents a gesture that had to be accomplished if we were to ‘clear the ground’ for the emergence of modernist ‘abstract’ art.”
This painting was that historical instance that signified the demise of the old order and helped usher in the new one. That this coincided with the politically explosive end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth is no accident. Courbet himself was a political subversive, a socialist who actively took part in the Paris Workers’ Commune of 1871, was imprisoned for it, and then spent the rest of his life as an exile in Switzerland.
As a communard, Courbet would not have been unfamiliar with that most human of dreams – that of trying to make a better way of life for each other. The Commune, after all, was a working class experiment in living for and governing themselves; it also inspired Marx and Engels to believe that an alternative system was indeed possible. It was also another point of no return: the historical imperative for working class struggle was now something that, in millennial parlance, something we can no longer unsee.
In the same way that artists like Courbet and Manet (who, not surprisingly, has been argued to be sympathetic to the Commune; see his disturbing sketches of the violent repression of the Commune here) chipped away at the pretentiously placid veneer of established art, revolutionaries have likewise sought to surface the tensions of exploitative systems like capitalism to show its precariousness, and ultimately, its fallibility.
So when President Duterte makes jokes about shooting vaginas, at the first instance this is, of course, a grave form of symbolic violence against all Filipinas. But making light of the vagina – by joking about it, by devaluing it – is merely a cheap attempt to put the disarray back together to the old order, where vaginas are forced back into control as mere sites of misogynistic violence or objectifying sexual desire. That he falls back on such crass “humor” precisely to pertain to groups and individuals that oppose him and his government’s policies is indicative that not only does he yearn for the old order of gender-based subjugation and the dominance of a demeaning exercise of desire, but also the political-economic subjugation that allows the production of such a desire in the first place.
In defiance of this we can follow Courbet’s vagina, fully empowered and arrogating unto itself the ability and the task of originating a new world by presenting itself – naked and wholly present – in the historical juncture that calls for it. (davaotoday.com)
*Many thanks to historian and professor Zeus Salazar for calling my attention to this phrase.