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The Modern Body, 1830-Present

Events

The Modern Body, 1830-Present

  • Humanities Research Centre Berrick Saul Building University of York York, UK

When Henry David Thoreau writes that: ‘We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones’, he attests how the body and expression are intrinsically linked. Bodies become not only a central subject, but a way in which we see and talk about other things. Bodies are not only created, but perform, communicate and create.

We use bodies to work, to express, to question and to reveal. Bodies are spaces and sites of concern, becoming central foci in art, literature, media, and every aspect of culture. We talk about bodies in relation to health, power, strength, beauty, personality. After all the body is the ultimate site of identity. We ascertain our individualism and seek to define our selfhood by delineating boundaries between bodies, and between what is personal and impersonal.

Yet the body persists as a site of tension, full of contradictions, and anxieties of personal agency and control. This is especially pertinent in the Modern period, from 1830 to present day. In a period which experienced the introduction to evolutionary biology; the industrial revolution; social and political upheaval and progress; along with numerous medical and scientific advancements, the ways we view and use the physical body have been radically questioned, with the result that the body is represented in numerous provoking ways.

 Aesthetics and questions of beauty have continually changed: for example ‘body image’ has become a prime focus, prompting concerns about how centrally we focus on the aesthetic form, as well as perpetuation of gender and sexuality structures. Technology has become an extension of the body: the camera has enabled images and movements of the body to be captured through photographs and film. Personal technological devices have enabled somatic simulation, where bodies can defy distance and physicality. Developments in science and medicine have enabled a greater understanding of the inner workings of both body and mind which has opened up new ways for treatment and healing, as well as the ways we talk about illness and pain.

Bodies can be tools of protest and resistance, of violence, or even self-defence. Of course bodies are not always singular and individual. Groups, crowds and masses of people constitute bodies, coming together. Nor are they always somatic; we have political, bureaucratic and governmental bodies; we have bodies of knowledge and bodies of work. What bodies tell us and how the body can be represented across artistic and cultural forms has and continues to be a contested point of discussion across various disciplines.