Disarming Venus (2007)

The marble sculpture of Venus de Milo has been widely regarded as an epitome of Western Classical feminine beauty, but the Venus de Milo is also famous for the mystery of her missing arms, which have been missing since the famous sculpture was first rediscovered amidst the ruins of an ancient temple in 1802 on the Greek island of Melos. It is interesting to note how her disfiguration does not appear to affect her reception as the embodiment of feminine beauty, although her lack of arms could also have been otherwise construed as a grotesque mutilation of the female body. As such, I wish to offer an alternative reading of the sculpture of Venus de Milo, of it having become a symbol of violence against the female body, rather than a passive symbol of feminine beauty. However, it should be noted that Venus is not truly disarmed through the disarticulation of her marble arms, but rather her real disarmament comes about when the viewer accepts her broken and incomplete body-a passive, armless body-as the much revered standard in classical feminine beauty.

This is not to say that the issue at hand is man’s intentional amputation of Venus de Milo’s arms, because there has never been any doubt that she had been originally sculpted with all her limbs intact. The existence of numerous inferior miniature replicas of Venus, bearing startling verisimilitude to the Venus de Milo, give hint to what might have been its original form (Alexander 245), and Venus de Milo is also said to have been originally found along with the fragments of an upper left arm, and a left hand holding an apple, although it cannot be completely ascertained if those parts belonged to the Venus de Milo as they have since been lost. In general, her arms were unlikely to have been intentionally severed from the rest of her body, but are more likely to have been damaged as a result of neglect, most probably during the Byzantine Iconoclasm when pagan religious symbols were destroyed. Restoration attempts were made while the Venus de Milo first came into the possession of King Louis XVIII of France, but in the end a decision was made to leave the sculpture in the same state it was originally found in.

What we should be more concerned about is King Louis XVIII’s final decision to publicly display Venus de Milo without a restoration of arms, as well as the subsequent propaganda efforts by the French to emphasis the importance and artistic value of Venus de Milo after France had to return the famous sculpture of Medici Venus to Italy in 1815, which Napoleon Bonaparte had seized from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in 1802. In order to compensate for the loss of what would have been considered one of the finest Classical sculptures known to western civilisation at the time, the French consciously chose to promote the Venus de Milo as an even greater national treasure — a symbol of “feminine beauty” — although incomplete in form. As a result of this insidous history of manipulation for nationalistic reasons, even when Art historians turn their attentions to the fact of Venus de Milo’s lack of arms, but most have chosen to read it as a matter of her “disarming beauty”, taking the “disarming” in the sense of a placatory, pacifistic disarmament that is pleasing to the eye because it is non-threatening, disregarding the fact that it is a matter of her body being broken. For example, as recent as in 1956, acclaimed art historian Sir Kenneth Clark argued that it is sculptures of the human form such as the Venus de Milo which have set the precedent of ideal beauty throughout art history as well as other aspects of visual culture.

The traditional reading of Venus de Milo as a symbol of feminine beauty thus becomes the tacit act of violence against the female body, justifying the voyeurism and the gaze which she is subject to because she is a standard to be looked up to. At the same time, it seems as if the Venus de Milo has been strategically disarmed so that she cannot defend herself against being used as a pawn to be fought over and traded between empires, a symbol of power to be manipulated by man. To relate this to the treatment of the female body in philosophy, the place of the female body has been disregarded in mainstream western philosophy, where Cartesian dualism has historically occupied a prominent place since the last three hundred years, becoming responsible for forging a system of reasoning that works upon dichotomised oppositions: oppositional pairs of mind versus body, male and female - and these pairs are correlated with each other, as well as hierachised. Society translates these notions of a “superior” male mind in opposition to an “inferior” female body, into practice through systems of human activity, and a reading of Levi-Strauss through Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Woman” suggests that social intercourse is regulated by kinship systems which are predicated on the giving, receiving and reciprocating of gifts between men. However, in these systems, women are also the gifts being traded between men, through marriage, or here in the case of Venus de Milo, being traded between countries as a “primitive way of achieving peace in civil society secured by state” (Rubin 199). In this, the woman is not able to realise the benefits of being exchanged, since only men can give and take and subsequently benefit from this trafficking.

If we take a Lacanian reading of this trafficking, our conscription into the systems of kinship take us into the realm of the symbolic where phalluses are circulated according to gender, and the phallus passes through the medium of woman from one man to another, which thus excludes women from any of the benefits of the exchange. It is perhaps also cruelly apt to have rendered Venus de Milo armless since without her arms, her remaining torso resembles a phallus even more. In Monuments and Maidens, Marina Warner notes that portraits and sculptures of men are usually construed as representations of very specific individuals, whereas the image of a woman’s body is more often than not, viewed as symbolic or an object of fantasy or desire, defined by everything that the male viewer wants, in terms of his potential possession of her. This may be why Venus de Milo has been construed instead as the ideal representation of the female body, since the amputation of her arms is a visible sort of castration that enables the disarticulated female body defines the male through its lack, in that she is everything that he is not. Thus the role of Venus de Milo is as an image or signifier, to reflect the subjectivity of the male rather than to represent the female body itself, and perhaps this is the cause for her overwhelming popularity in the largely male-dominated field of art history and criticism.

In more recent times, attempts have been made by women to reclaim their bodies, and as a start, more importance has been ascribed to the body by theorists such as Elizabeth Grosz. This is despite the fact that earlier feminists such as Rubin have shyed away from the question of the body, fearing the essentialism of the female body as a weak point at which women are prone to be attacked. Walcot’s study of Greek mythology suggests that the impulse to “disarm” the woman originates from man’s fear of being threatened by her. And so in trying to suppress woman, man exacts “justice” from the female through the most primitive form of “corporeal compensation”, which is visible in the bondage metaphor of amputation.

In light of all this, what Grosz suggests is that the body must be reclaimed by women and used to disrupt binaries through its corporeality, and she suggests moving the body from the biological to the social — to reconsider “the body as a site of social, political, culture, and geographical inscriptions, productions or constitutions”. In this we see a glimmer of hope for the possibility of rearming Venus de Milo. In order to empower the Venus with the ability to make meaning on her own, first we must dispel the notion of her being an “ideal”, and this recognition of the impairment of the symbolic female form will be the first step to rearming Venus de Milo.

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