Humanist art

Little thought on the occasion of Crack a Fat Circus show at The Spiegeltent. I’m sure this is not particularly original – in effect, it would be strange if no one has written a book on this already – but I wanted to jot my thoughts down anyway.

Circus may be the most humanist of all artforms – certainly of all the performing arts; and by humanist I mean something like atheist.

Circus is crafty tricks and a huge amount of skill, a spectacle of the human body, infinitely capable human body trained as close to perfection as one is ever likely to see. To watch circus is to feel awe in front of the animal that is homo sapiens sapiens: how agile, how strong, how dextrous..! To watch circus is to feel the sort of silent admiration of someone who isn’t me, but who is of my kind, therefore a version of me, someone who represents me – in their anonymity (circus performers are never stars), in their muteness and any-man-ness (there is rarely character in circus), even in the generic nature of the tricks (there is a repertory). To watch circus is to watch a hymn to the capabilities of the human species – no different from watching a well-oiled factory full of workers, or an IKEA warehouse in full productive swing. No wonder that Trick Circus, in their most philosophical show a few years ago, quoted largely Nietzsche. What other philosopher could suit the art of circus better than the one who refuted God and talked about the ubermensch, the superhuman, the one who has overcome the any-human?

Even clowning; if the physical tricks are circus celebrating the human as a body, as non-divine, as pure matter, as not standing for anything but itself, as non-metaphor, then clowning, with its inherent absurdity and sadness, is the Camusian, existentialist, melancholy side of the coin. The humour of the circus, when it’s not about piss, shit and sex, is the terrible humour of death and meaninglessness, its bleakness, its fleshy finiteness, completely un-alleviated by a transcendent or immanent divine.

I feel very 19th-century in the circus – not because of costumes and mood, but because circus is a 19th-century form, and the 19th century was one long panegyric to human ingenuity and effort. The circus trick is the precursor to the Nazi gymnastics and the Soviet slet (rally), to Tito’s Relay of Youth, and the entire boom of athletics and sport that came at the turn of the century, together with garden cities and seaside holidays. I don’t know if circus contains within that original seed of fascism (it possibly does – what a thought!), but it seems, to me, to be the only artform viable without God; in fact, one that has never had to consider it this way or the other.

I like circus. I like it very much, and I particularly like it in Australia. I like its relationship with the audience: the element of execution, the possibility of it going wrong, the gasps, the successes and failures, the rapturous applause. I like the predictability, the lack of narrative, the lack of uncertainty about where it is all going, what it is trying to say. In that sense, circus is like Olympic ice-skating, baseball, Dancing with the Stars, David Hare’s plays or Damien Hirst’s art. But unlike any of them, there is pure tangible poetry in the material of circus: the naked human body, young or old, awe-inspiring or laughable. Circus is never cliche, even when it sort of is, because that human body is always there, hanging precariously a metre or two off the ground, always able to fall and break into pieces.

6 thoughts on “Humanist art

  1. Samuel Robb says:

    Great bit Jana. Not too sure about nazi gymnasts, I think you'll find it originated much further back – ancient Greece even. I love thespiegeltent.

  2. Jana says:

    But the revival of interest, Sam, appears in the 19th century for no frivolous reason! Although it is a great quandary of mine how Ancient Greek humanism relates to the 20th-century atheist kind. It is one of those big, unplugged holes in my general education.

  3. Circus-Humanism-Nietzsche-Nazis. I love the stream of consciousness flow here, Jana. I must confess, I have never been to the circus and found myself pondering existential questions or 19th century humanist philosophy … you have a marvelous mind. Though, like Sam, I’m not sure about the Nazi link. The Nietzschean ideal of Aryan strength and health that appealed to the Nazi aesthetic was used as political propaganda–and all propaganda is rooted in competition. The nude Nordic torsos of the Hitler Youth boy gymnasts were a symbol of Aryan military power. On the other hand, I find that circus arts, although they do resemble gymnastic sports, entirely non-competitive, but rather, a celebration of the skill of the artists. I could see the link between gymnastic sport and Nazism–a parallel would be the Cold War era state sponsored gymnastics teams from the Eastern Bloc that competed for national pride and as a symbol of ideological and military superiority. (My uncle was one of them.) Fascinating idea though.

  4. Jana says:

    Hi Daniel.

    I would like to hear you unpack this sentence of yours: “all propaganda is rooted in competition”. Competition between whom?

    Let me expand on the Nazi link. The interest in the human body really picks up in the American/European civilization towards the end of the 19th century, and is closely related to the nation-state. Simultaneously, we have evolutionary or biological interest in human beings, and differences between branches of the species (studies into the ‘primitive people’ and Darwin), an interest in public health (driven by the needs of industrialization and the advances in the medical science), and a boom in practices of classifying human bodies (driven by the emergence of nation-states, understood as self-managed, relatively uniform ethnic groups occupying an area). The interest is multifold, and includes both typology of the human body, the best practices of upkeeping such a body, and best and highest examples of individual physical achievement.

    Almost simultaneously, the American/European civilization gives birth to physiognomy, phrenology, eugenics, anthropology, psychoanalysis, public welfare, public health initiatives, the emergence of sport as mass practice endorsed by the state due to health benefits (swimming, gymnastics, morning exercise, the revival of the Olympics), beauty contests, modern circus, the first concentration camps (in the Boer Wars), and the first groupings of children/people by ability (rather than family): in schools, in the army, in hospitals, in camps. There is no substantial difference here between France, Britain and Germany – not until the fact of the Holocaust. (Foucault is an excellent person to read on this.) There we have, all together: human body powering industry; a group of identifiably same human bodies powering the nation-state; same nation-state as a power structure exercising itself primarily over such bodies; a scientific interest in prolonging the longevity and enhancing the strength of such human body; displays of excellent specimens (beauty contests, circus, Olympics). I don’t know that the presence of overt competition is a crucial differentiator.

    I am not sure that one can draw a particularly clear line between the moment when the human body is simply celebrated, and when the less able among us are in some way punished (think of the discussions still had about beauty contests). The practices are all fuelled by the same sentiment, which is as atheist as human endeavour gets (the inspiration to meddle in the human body cannot be reconciled with the conception of the same as the image of God, not in any substantial way). And I am unconvinced by the way you separate “state-sponsored gymnastics teams… that competed for national pride and as a symbol of ideological and military superiority” from the present day. I know where you’re coming from, but how is that in any substantial way different from, say, Australia’s participation in the last Olympics? Or, more pertinently, have you ever experienced how, in the Australian discourse on circus and dance, it is always repeated that the Australian dance/circus contain more physicality and strength than the European dance/circus, and how this is always related back to our large expanses of land? These are no trivial links.

    I am not trying to say that we are all Nazi at heart, of course. My point is more subtle: there is a continuum in the Western thought, in which the management of the human body is necessarily linked to the nation-state, and the scientific interest in it naturally linked to there being no dependable God. This has brought us bad things (the Holocaust), and good things (comfortable lingerie and banning child labour). It is fine to get off the philosophical train before it reaches Auschwitz. However, what stop does one get off on? Does one need to renounce the idea of dwelling as related to territory and the Volk (because Hidegger was a Nazi), does one need to make oneself blind to Leni Riefenstahl’s incredible depictions of the athletic human body, and should one also be suspicious to the present-day Australian attitudes to sport, to the physical/spiritual deformities that are professional athletes, and is it alright to hate circus because of its fascist undertone (as some of my friends do)?

  5. Jana says:

    Ah, I forgot the punchline: capitalism in developed countries (tertiary-sector-oriented) no longer needs the healthy human body, and instead demands something altogether less positive – lifelong learning with all its subterranean totalitarianism – and the nation-state is bending over backwards to provide it.

    In this context, watching circus is simultaneously somewhat of a guilty pleasure (Nazi overtones) and a quaint little thing, like reading 19th-century etiquette books for young women.

  6. Hi Jana,

    I must confess I am no expert on 19th century physical culture. It sounds reasonable that the popular Humanism of the time gave rise to a renewed interest in the human body–particularly with its attack on Christian demonisation of the flesh. I’m not sure how much emphasis one should place on this–after all, it is not unique to this period; the celebration of the human body was certainly alive and well in ancient Greece and Rome (classical Greek sculpture, the nude Olympians, gladiatorial games…) or Renaissance humanism (Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Michelangelo’s David…). I would think the modern age brought with it a rather prudish scientific abstraction to the human body–a kind of academic alienation of bio-medical science, a Darwinian ‘classification the species’, a kind of biometric humanism, not the raucous circus sideshow–full of non sequitur, ritual and at the best of times, faux-mysticism.

    Similarly, I see what you are saying about industrialisation: the ‘human body powering industry’. But one could argue the opposite: that industrialisation is the process of replacing the body as the biomechanical instrument of labour, with mechanical contraptions that require the human body to limit its physical function to near machine-like movements. In short, total mechanisation of industry negates the human body entirely.

    I agree with you that human bodies power the nation-state. This is as true for the Roman centurion, the Bolshevik utopian, the Chinese economist, as it was for the Nazis. Traditionally, states have always derived their power from the human body, but again, I would argue that 19th and 20th century science, technology and industrialisation have reduced nations’ reliance on the human body for their source of power. The combined armies of the Persian Empire once dominated the Middle East with sheer human numbers; today Israel dominates a region with 1:50 odds against the Arab world. To me, it seems, industrialisation and technology in the modern nation state have diminished the importance of the human body.

    Does celebration imply the ‘punishment’ of the rest? Not sure about this. When we celebrate, must we concurrently denounce? Sounds a little pessimistic … but you may be right.

    RE: ‘I am unconvinced by the way you separate “state-sponsored gymnastics teams… that competed for national pride and as a symbol of ideological and military superiority” from the present day’ … ‘how is that in any substantial way different from, say, Australia’s participation in the last Olympics?’

    There is no separation. My distinction was between circus arts and competitive sport. I don’t see a connection between circus and Nazism, but I do see a link between competitive sport and Nazism.

    RE: ‘capitalism in developed countries … no longer needs the healthy human body, and instead demands something altogether less positive – lifelong learning with all its subterranean totalitarianism – and the nation-state is bending over backwards to provide it.’

    Too much here for me to tackle. I’m interested in: Why is ‘lifelong learning’ necessarily totalitarian and necessarily negative? Is there an esoteric meaning of the phrase I’m unfamiliar with here?

    ‘“all propaganda is rooted in competition”. Competition between whom?’

    The aim of all propaganda is to ‘win over’ the masses in order to achieve victory over an antagonist. In war, propaganda is used to win ideological battles, to recruit soldiers to win military battles … in capitalist economy, corporate propaganda is used to increase market share and wipe out the competition … nation states use the Olympic Games as propaganda to strengthen nationalistic fervour through competition as well as demonstrate their competitive superiority in … table tennis … I cannot think of one example of propaganda where there is no competitive antagonist.

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