Hans BellmerStudy for Georges Bataille’s L’Histoire de l’oeil (1946)

Bellmer is one of a handful of artists that I don’t really know how to talk about.

I know more people are put off by his sadistic bent and his obsessed penchant for depicting sexualized pubescent female bodies.

I’ll never argue that the vast majority of his work isn’t pornography and I think that to the extent that it includes children, such work is actually unconscionably irresponsible.

The trouble is that the work is of an unusually high quality. Much of it has–rightly, in my mind–earned the distinction of Capital-A Art.

So the question is: does being of an exceptionally high quality give the work a pass when it comes to elements that toe over the line in terms of child pornography?

My background is academic. But–if I may confess something: I’m not a good academic. I have no patience for genuflecting at that Freudian shrine. Yes, the man suggested and subsequently implemented a ‘functional’ framework for quasi-scientific analysis. But the framework was gallingly sexist, heteronormative and largely misguided.

The criticism on Bellmer bends itself into pretzel shapes similar to several of his Dolls, trying to use Freudian notions or Sue Taylor’s ‘feminist’ defense of the artist or Catherine Grant’s Bellmer as ‘queer doubler’ tact.

I can abide pieces of each attempt to justify Bellmer but I can’t really follow them down the garden path to their various conclusions. It’s too much heavy lifting for something that in my mind doesn’t require it.

To my way of seeing, history is Bellmer’s justification. Think of that Picasso quip made when his portrait of Gertrude Stein was criticized because she did not look like her image: she will.

Bellmer’s rage against fascism and the cult of the perfect body do not read as if they’ve dated in 70 years. They very much fit in with the Tumblr erotica vein and with the current emergence of this sort of misplaced hipster nostalgia, these images could have been made a month or two ago. (Note: they’d still stand head and shoulders above similar modern images.)

Ultimately, what I appreciate about Bellmer is that–like Balthus–the mission of his work was to disturb. However, unlike Balthus–who one has the feeling was almost always the smartest person in any room her entered–Bellmer was open and in your face about the considerations underlying the work, while Balthus strenuously avoided any attempt to fuel equivocations about his motivations.

I find it curious that critics are so willing to give Balthus a pass but grin and rub their hands together when it comes to crucifying Bellmer. Yes, Balthus’ work is arguably of greater quality. But there’s something tempestuous, resonant and grotesquely messy to Bellmer. It’s as if Balthus sought to prompt people to ask better questions so that they might receive better answers; while Bellmer was more interested in leading folks to nothing more than being happy with better questions in the face of a world which is incapable of providing anything like what we think of when we think of an answer.

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