A Jewish Nipple
Among the major things that painters do is portray and arrange and either one of these aesthetic accomplishments can also sustain meanings. Claude Lorraine portrayed what the Mount on which Jesus delivered his sermon might have looked like. He makes you aware of the distance most of the spectators might have been from the speaker and of the different postures listeners might take up. The splendor of the foliage and of the site contributes to a sense of the grandeur of the occasion. Nicolas Poussin, a contemporary and friend of Lorraine, arranges large numbers of people in balanced sets and triples, their draperies complementing one another, so as to convey, sometimes, religious obedience, and sometimes the terror of large scale kidnappings.
This distinction between portrayal and arrangement is deeper than the distinction between representation and non-representation. You can portray sets of symbols, which Poussin does, or you can use the arrangements of colors to represent feelings, as Rothko does. The painting as a thing in itself still represents one way in which arrangements can be made, and the painting as a window onto the world still arranges its parts. Usually representation is done of landscapes and cityscapes and people and historical events, but sometimes it is narrower in scope than that. Georges De La Tour, another painter from the French Baroque, tells a complex story from a close up of Mary peering at a candle’s flame. Is Mary distracted from her nature by the flame or does the flame sum up what her nature is?
A case in point as to the importance of the distinction between portrayal and arrangement is supplied by a photograph that appeared on the front page of the New York Times yesterday as an illustration for a report on genetic testing for breast cancer in Israel, where women of Ashkenazi extraction are trying to escape the disease by availing themselves of double mastectomies or even planning on marrying younger and so have children before it is time for their operations. We are all, more and more, the organ providers in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, though this time we sacrifice our own organs so as to save ourselves rather than our “masters”, one organ after another until our bodies can’t take it any more. It is a grim future, the same one forecast by Phillip Roth in Everyman.
What was striking about the photo, however, was how unsettling it was and that was because, I think, it portrayed rather than arranged and that the portrait was such in the usual narrower sense of the word. It was a picture of what a person looked like, a young woman having posed for the camera, even though the photo did not show her face. She partly pulls down her shirt, thereby exposing the top of a nipple, and above that is the scar from a lumpectomy and above that a tattoo of a small Star of David, all against the background of normally imperfect skin.
If you go directly for meaning, then you can make mistakes, as some commentators have. A Slate writer put out the possibility that this photo sexualized breast cancer because it revealed the nipple. Whether nipples are always sexual, and so revealing them is always a turn on, is a good question that has been around since Adam and Eve decided they had to cover themselves, but in this case the point might have been that a bit of immodesty is hardly of moment when one is dealing with matters of life and death. The photographer may have known what he was photographing, but the young woman may have hardly noticed or cared. The photo therefore turns itself into a story painting that entwines the life of the model, the artist and the model, the public service excuse for the photo, why The Times puts it on its front page, and all the other things that make this an event rather than just a piece of art photography—though it does that too in that it goes beyond the conventions of fashion photography in rendering the woman’s armpit as neither a flat plane that results from upraised arms or hidden because of a shoulder turned to the camera but as folds of flesh shaped by using the other hand to expose the scar. Another story the photo tells is of what it is like to be a Jewish woman. Shakespeare told us that Jews bleed when you cut them. This photo says that Jewish women are like other women in that they have nipples and imperfect skin. Is it still a disgrace to notice that?
A letter writer to The Times today says that the picture is unseemly and offensive because, among other things, the tattoo gives rise to the ghosts of the Holocaust. The letter is almost too good to be true. The Times must have culled its letters to make sure it came up with the most obtuse one to post as a criticism of the photo. The offense is not merely mitigated but eliminated if the photo is subject to a reading as a portrait rather than as an expose for either political or titillating purposes, or even as an arrangement of facts in support of the copy: the nipple, the scar, the tattoo, in ascending order, as if a hierarchical principle of interpretation were to be imposed, whatever is higher up more important. Rather, this is a study of what a young Israeli woman looks like. She is not an old lady, one of the last of the survivors—except of the Holocaust like proportions of people who die from breast cancer. She has decided on the tattoo. What does that mean in Israeli society? It may indeed be a reminder of the numbers tattooed on the arms of concentration camp inmates, but here it can be a point of pride: I have adopted a tattoo to show that I am a Jew, a tattoo that mimics concentration camp tattoos in color and scale but is not the tattoo of a number but of a symbol universally recognized as one of Jewish pride. Small and tasteful, more like the small heart on the ankle favored by American women, but a powerful reminder that we are here to stay. How could anyone object if that is the real story of the tattoo? But the photo does not say which story to tell: whether one of national pride or a fad discourteous to the past. That is why story paintings are so intriguing. They are often ambiguous in their meanings.
The portrait and its meaning become combined if the context of the article it is used to emblemize is combined into the experience of the photo. This is something we are allowed to do by the canons of post-Modernism: context gets moved inside the frame. Otherwise Andy Warhol would be neither funny nor meaningful. The body of the article says that the high tech surgery and gene screening is possible only in wealthy societies. That would mean Israel and the United States, where Angelina Jolie’s much publicized double mastectomy is taken as having set off the fad in Israel for genetic testing and preventive surgery. Most Arab women couldn’t afford these services; they would have to fly elsewhere, though not as yet to Israel. So Israel and not just Israeli young women have arrived. Israel has cultural fads and also social structural possibilities available only in a very successful, first world nation.
The photo personalizes and makes graphic that description of a nation that has accomplished itself, has become a normal ordinary nation, which is what its founders had hoped for it, however much it also thinks, as all nations do, that there is something “exceptional” about it, Americans thinking that applies to its morality, when it really applies to its pragmatism; Brits to their appreciation of everywhere on the globe, they still the center of a cultural empire, as can be seen every night on BBC World News; Germans of being, from bitter experience, the moral conscience of the world; all the way down to New Zealand, which is exceptional for not being a world power or of significant strategic importance, but just a wonderful place to live and prosper. The Israelis are what they are, in continuous residence on this sliver of land for three thousand years, and yet reviled by their neighbors, and yet materially successful. The photo suggests that they are also spiritually successful in that they have been able to craft new images that take their story in a different direction than that of a graveyard for feelings engendered now seventy years ago in Germany.