Society Deforms Our Psychical Self
Social expectations place stress on the human mind and body as the issue of conformity can become a struggle for some. Various theories, such as Strain Theory and Social Learning Theory, acknowledge that society has an impact on behavior (Akers, Jennings), but artists through their work can show how societal expectations can also have an impact on the psychical self. Values, constraints, norms and conventions are all issues that effect how individuals hold themselves, judge themselves, shape themselves and develop themselves. The social expectation, for instance, that persons should be fit (evidenced by the mass marketing of “fit watches” that monitor one’s heart rate in today’s marketplace) can cause some to feel insecure about their weight, to feel body shamed, to be depressed and to isolate themselves from the community. Degas’ Girl Putting on Her Stockings (1876-1877) is one such example of artwork showing conveying the effect of social expectations on the psyche. In the image, the girl is hunched over, with her head down and knee bent up as she pulls a stocking up her leg. She is nude and therefore exposed and vulnerable within the privacy of her own bedroom — but she is also exposed to the viewer and therefore the public: she is witnessed as she truly is without any pretense or faAade. She is depicted in her natural state before she has dressed herself according to the conventions of her time — but as she is also depicted in the act of conforming to these conventions Degas represents her in a particularly depressed manner as though she felt the weight of this conformity upon her shoulders. There is no suggestion of any impropriety on her part — only a kind of world-weariness evident in the contrast between stark nudity and the downturned face hidden in shadow, as though there were a conflict between body and mind of the girl.
This is but one example of what this paper intends to discuss, which is that the fear of not fitting in can compel us to try to prove ourselves or to hide something in a manner that is dishonest about who/what we truly are. Another example is Munch’s Scream (1893) which essentially depicts an individual buckling under the weight of his mental anguish. The painting depicts a pleasant scene — a dock, a pair of lovers in the distance, a sky and swirling horizon; yet the central figure is looking right at the viewer with both hands pressed to either side of his face as he lets out a terrifying howl. The figure is somewhat abstracted and swirls in conformity with the swirling, impressionistic brushstrokes of the horizon — but inwardly the figure is not in union with his surroundings; there is a deep tension that exists for whatever reason (the artist makes no suggestion as to what this might be — jealousy of the lovers in the distance? — crippling ennui giving way to existential frustration? — despair in the face of modernity? — the guesses could go on and on). The mood of the scene is what makes the painting so startling: Munch uses color and lines that are distorted and maddening as they push and pull one another out of their contextual boundaries so that sea swirls against sky, sky against light and so on.
Or there is Antoni Tapies’ Composition with Figures (1945), which depicts an individual caught between the disapproving stares of two anonymous twin figures, who seem to disapprove of the central figure’s response to the “celestial light” raining down on him from above. The central figure has an androgynous appearance, so it is unclear if the person is male or female. The symbol hovering above the figure, however, is clear: it is a bird — a religious symbol of the Holy Ghost, which gives wisdom and light to souls. The two figures on either side of the individual in the center bow their heads respectfully in prayer, communing with the divine presence — but the central figure stares at the viewer — like Munch’s Screamer — and his eyes are wide open; his facial expression conveys a feeling of fear and mistrust. It is as though the individual is being pressed into partaking of a socio-religious experience or ritual that he does not necessarily know that he wants to be part of. As a result, his features are distorted, his physical body contorted and quaking with fear. Like Munch’s Screamer, whose physical being is literally warped like the swirling backdrop and pulled all out of shape, Tapies’ figure is pressed in on all sides signaling that society wants him to accept the religious customs that it embraces and upholds — but his true self senses something wrong about this custom and there is a struggle within himself about whether or not he should conform.
The descriptive “he” of course is used to refer to the figure but in the painting it is unclear what gender the figure is. This issue of gender is one that society today is struggling to define. In particular, in North Carolina, a public law focusing on whether transgenders should be able to use one or both bathrooms or whether there should be a bathroom solely for them is making headlines all across the nation, which celebrities, athletes and politicians all weighing in on the law as though it directly impacted them (even though it is only a state law not a federal law). The majority of voices in the mainstream media represent a liberal bias, purporting that in a politically correct society, it is indefensible for any state to deny transgenders a right to use a public restroom that is designated for the particular gender with which they identify. For the state it is an issue of gender being defined by one’s biology, which is not the way in which the politically correct world of the 21st century depicts gender. In today’s modern society, gender is a social construct that depends solely upon how one views oneself and how one chooses to identify oneself. It is not something that any one person can define for another — and this is the point that the Wachowski siblings have made (the directors of The Matrix who changed their genders in the years following the success of this film) as well as men like Bruce Jenner, who recently had an operation to become Caitlyn Jenner. Gender is, in other words, a major issue today that is receiving a lot of attention in the press. Some of it is negative and some of it is positive. Some of it is even satirical, as South Park has shown in its 19th season, in which it satirized Caitlyn Jenner in numerous episodes throughout the season and utilized Social Control Theory to challenge the issue of gender identity (Schreck, Hirschi).
The point here is that society itself is typically divided about what should be viewed as a norm and what should be viewed as accepted — and gender is a major example of a social issue today that is controversial. It is no surprise, therefore, that individuals can feel physically affected by the social pressure and demands to conform to social norms if they themselves identify more strongly with beliefs that are accepted by other factions in other parts of the world but not necessarily in the part of the world where the individual lives. This could easily be the case in North Carolina, and, indeed, one recent news story suggested that this is exactly the situation with a transgender individual who took a picture of herself in a public restroom to which she is not supposed to have access under the state statutes (Rodriguez). This individual showed in her picture that she was not deterred by the state’s laws and that she had no intention of conforming: her face is beaming with peace, confidence and happiness. Her physical features show no evidence of strain or depression. She is being true to herself.
What the artists’ works discussed in this essay have shown is that when an individual is struggling with society and with the issues such as gender, or race, or equality or religion or any other issue that might be prevalent in society at a given time, there is a tension and negative impact on the individual’s physical features: the individual becomes depressed and slumped as in the Degas sketch, or the individual becomes contorted and loses possession of himself as in Munch’s Scream, or the individual becomes frightened and fails to have any physical identity at all, as with the case of the androgynous figure in Tapies’ Composition. The end result of an inability to either reconcile with society or to stand up for oneself is a frustration of the psyche that manifests itself in the physical body: what should be pure and radiant becomes disfigured, depressed, ugly and frightening.
Thus, in conclusion, artworks can engage with a public issue like…