The Dark Evolution Of Fetishism In 8 Works Of Art

April 20, 2017

|Julieta Sanguino

We often relate fetishes with sexuality. Generally speaking, a fetish is a fixation on an object. Freud assured that the most common one was related to shoes due to their bisexual connotations: on the one hand, they relate to female genitals due to the hole where the foot goes; on the other, the heel has a masculine connotation referring to the phallus. But fetishism isn't only a sexual thing...

In her book Make Me Yours, Laura González takes Marx's definition of fetishism as "the action of worshiping an inanimate object for its supposed magical powers." Moreover, as Freud states, it's "the action of giving an excessive and irrational commitment to something or someone." It's about going beyond the limits of what is deemed as acceptable, to cross over to the point of fantasy, where we are then able to reach towards anything that seems sublime, and pour all of our commitment into it.

Fetishism in art comes from contradictions, manipulations, and perversions that replace society's need for symbolism. For example, the cave paintings in Altamira intrigue us not only because they are the first artistic expressions of humanity, but also because the figures are fetishes of the mysterious dawn of humankind. Hands, bulls, and warriors are part of  humans'  first enigmatic view of life.

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During the Middle Ages, art became sacred. For instance, Byzantine paintings created the icons and symbols that we still use as references of religiosity. Thus, art became a container of fixations for icons such as Christ, John the Baptist,  the Virgin Mary, and other characters and symbols related to Christianity.

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Art continued its evolution, focusing on other themes and visions. Artists experimented with proportions, perspectives, and techniques. Hieronymus Bosch, one of the most important and influential painters of all times, developed his masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights, which would make him one of the most revolutionary artists of history.

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The enigma and fetishism surrounding The Garden of Earthly Delights is closely related to its religious backdrop, despite the triptych first being considered as sacrilegious and heretic. Contrary to this belief, many art critics have stated that this painting is, in fact, a moralizing satire of our sins. Others believe Bosch's painting represents humanity's values and weaknesses. The owl, for instance, embodies evil and sins, while elephants and birds symbolize strength and intelligence.

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Bosch's artwork has become the ideal fetish of religious representation and demons in a surreal setting, created centuries before the artistic currents that would use this device.

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Later on, Rubens broke down all the paradigms of art when he hired people to help him paint his pieces. A huge amount of wealthy patrons commissioned him paintings. He had no time to finish them by himself, so he hired up to a hundred apprentices to do the work.

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This raised the question of authorship and authenticity in art. Who's the real artist? Despite the fact that Rubens wasn't the actual author of most of the pieces, they acquired value just for having his signature. Rubens is still known for portraying naked, curvy women. His work methods raised questions on our fetishism for names, which is today's marketing scheme of supply and demand, as well as mass production.

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Rubens set the trend and the idea of the author as a brand. Contemporary art movements of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century focused on individuality and authorship as the ultimate artistic goal. Following that scheme, capitalism urged the commercialization of art. However, at the same time, exclusivity became more valued than ever before. With globalization everything is "more available" to anybody. Authenticity has become the embodiment of wealth and class distinction. A good example of this is the way Salvador Dalí practically made a brand of his name. 

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Those willing to make an economic sacrifice are the ones that can stand out from the rest. Baudrillard has stated this is precisely capitalism's dark side. Consumerism has provoked a fetish for what's considered valuable instead of functional. Artworks are now valued for their social prestige instead of their quality. The best example of this is contemporary art and performances

Nowadays people buy the concept and the idea behind a piece without caring for its quality. For example, Tino Sehgal sells his performances through written contracts and the involvement of lawyers. He actually sells the idea, not his participation in it, for around 85 and 145 thousand dollars. Then, how does art work nowadays? What happens when the artistic vision and concept aren't materialized? This fetish for owning things has taken art to a new different level, in which probably in some years we'll be buying the air that any pseudo-artist breathes.

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Another example of this is Mark Kostabi and his cynicism towards art: “Modern art is a con, and I’m the world’s greatest con artist” because "fame is love, and I need love.His "artistic" process consists of a team of creatives thinking on ideas and another team tasked with executing them. What's his job? Signing them. It's like a factory in which everybody manufactures the products that will end up coming out with a brand signature. With 14 employees, he has two studies in New York and Rome. Moreover, BMW gave him a car and 150 thousand dollars so he could promote the brand... This new level of fetishism towards a name is beyond common sense. Although he has never created a piece of art with his hands, the absurdity of people considering him a great artist makes him the best example of society's fetish of art.

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Laura González: Make Me Yours

Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards

Julieta Sanguino

Julieta Sanguino

Subeditora General