Body Art

Body art has a long history. From the anthropologist’s perspective, decorating the human body dates back to the earliest times. Humans use art to communicate powerful messages. In late 2000, the American Museum of Natural History created an exhibition called “Body Art: Marks of Identity.” Dr. Enid Schildkrout described the modern practices of body art as “tattooing, piercing, body painting, body reshaping, henna, and scarification.” The virtual tour of a historical museum’s interpretation of body art provides one view of this diverse subject. Another view is from the post-Minimalist artists in the U.S. after Pop Art.

Throughout history, body art has captured the way that humans relate their experiences to their physical body. Examples of body art are recorded in many formats, including photographs, drawings, engravings, books, films, sculptures, and paintings. Schildkrout explains:

“Whether with permanent marks like tattoos or scars, or temporary decorations like makeup, clothing, and hairstyles, body art is a way of signalizing an individual’s place in society, marking a special moment, celebrating a transition in life or simply following a fashion.”

Two decades after World War II ended, American artists were still reacting to Minimalism and other Modernist styles like Surrealism, Dadaism, and Cubism. The new body art of the late sixties and early seventies represented the artist’s feeling about the commercialization of art. Honour and Fleming (2005) note that artists debunked the concept of objects and places associated with the new art system; “they hoped to find a way of eluding the system – especially the system’s elaborate structures for endowing their work with an exclusiveness, rarity value and luxury character they did not want it to have.”

Bruce Nauman (b. 1941) has been historically concerned with the artistic inspirations offered by ordinary life experiences. In 1966, the same year he graduated with an MFA from University of California, Davis, Nauman created a work of body art called “Self-Portrait as a Fountain.” His body formed the body of the fountain and his mouth served as the fountainhead from which water sprinkled.

In this period, body art was closely associated with performance art. In Europe, the use of human bodies as art forms emerged even before “Self-Portrait as a Fountain.” In 1960, Yves Klein (France), Lucio Fontana (Italy), and Gilbert and George (UK) created “living sculptures” with the assistance of live human models.

Whether you look to ancient history, Modernism, or twenty-first century art, you can find examples of adorning the human body or using the human body as a solid medium for artistic expression.