Simona Drăgan

Abnormality, Deformity, Monstrosity: Body Transgressions in Contemporary Visual Culture

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Studies in Visual Arts and Communication – an international journal / June 2016 3(1)


With the development of cultural studies about the human body, predominantly with regard to body perceptions in certain forms of contemporary culture (including popular culture and mass-media), my study investigates the reflection of abnormality and corporeal monstrosity in some forms of contemporary visual culture, and proposes to illustrate, in a large context of historical anthropology, how a form of voyeurism first incriminated in the 1930s (once the exposure of ‘monsters’ in fairs and salons was prohibited) reappears in indirect ways in the contemporary culture, particularly in certain elite forms of visual art and theoretical studies.

The study first documents how, with the passing of time, old voyeuristic practices have gradually evolved, in principle, to total interdiction and dissimulation, even to the denial of people’s curiosity, fears or instinctive disgust towards physical abnormality.

And, if trivial observation can account for the fact that nowadays popular culture still tends to maintain old voyeuristic practices under some false pretences (like certain American medical dramas in search of high TV ratings), my study would like to point out at two different ways of monstrosity approach, one from the inside (when the subject-artist accepts to exhibit his/her own handicap), and the other from the “peaks” of high art. Both ways (German film director Niko von Glasow and art photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, respectively) propose artistic and ideologically credible approaches to contemporary monstrosity or physical disabilities. In this second section of my study, I chose to focus the title theme on a medical leitmotiv: the thalidomide.

Keywords: monster, corporeality, transgression, freak shows, thalidomide, popular culture, German documentaries, shock art

Biographical note

Simona Drăgan, PhD, is Assistant Professor, Faculty of Letters (Department of Cultural Studies), University of Bucharest; Since 2014 – student in fine arts at Bucharest National University of Arts, Faculty of Art History and Theory.

Areas of research: cultural history and cultural criticism, comparative literature, art history.