According to Friedrich Nietzsche, the death of Man follows the death of God. Man as a concept must be overcome. Yet Nietzsche extends humanism’s jargon of creativity that privileges Man over animal. To truly overcome the notion of Man, one must undercome Man, in other words go below Man. Once undercome, creativity devolves into a type of building and unbuilding, affording art the ability to conceive of the subject emptied of divine creation. This article will examine how Man is unbuilt in three works by three different artists: Francis Bacon’s “Study of a Baboon” (1953), Jan Švankmajer’s Darkness, Light, Darkness (1989), and Patricia Piccinini’s “The Young Family” (2002). All three artists evoke the animalistic in their depiction of what could be called the sub-subject, a diminished agent. Unbuilding the subject becomes the basis for building the sub-subject in these depictions of the human remainder.
Man, from this vantage, will be examined as a cultural construct. Man largely means human, yet the Renaissance concept favoured a certain type of powerful male. Instead of rescuing Man, Bacon, Švankmajer and Piccinini, present the remnants of the human amidst the animal rather than the human subject detached from the animal. Such works challenge humanism, expressed in Giorgio Vasari’s analysis of art and creativity as indicative of Man’s closeness to the divine, which in a strange way, is extended in Nietzsche’s writings. These artists dismantle and build a subhuman form of subjectivity and thereby provide a challenge to traditional conceptions of creativity that historically favour Man as the creator beneath only God Himself.
In the course of this article, I explore the violence of Bacon’s painted devolution, the deflationary animation of Švankmajer and Piccinini’s subhuman tenderness. I do not argue that we must abandon humanism altogether as there are a multiplicity of humanisms, or attempt to invalidate all the various posthumanisms, transhumanisms and antihumanisms. Rather, I attempt to show that Nietzsche’s posthumanism is a suprahumanism and that one possible way to frame the death of Man is through undercoming Man. Art, held in high esteem by Renaissance humanism, becomes a vehicle to imagine and engage with subhuman subjectivity.
What Is Humanism?
Humanism has numerous connotations from designating atheism to celebrating culture to privileging humans above other animals. The type of humanism I am interested in is not secular humanism, but rather humanism that celebrates and conceptualises Man’s place in the universe and does so through accentuating his (and I mean his given humanism’s often sexist, masculinist history) creativity and intellectual power. This celebration of creativity depends in part on a type of religious view, where Man is at the centre of God’s design. Such a view holds that Man’s power to shape nature’s materials resembles God. This type of humanism remains today but usually in a more humbled form, enfeebled by the scientific realisations that characterised the Enlightenment, namely the realisation that Man was not the centre of God’s universe.
The Enlightenment is sometimes characterised as the birth of modern humanism, where the human subject undergoes estrangement from his surroundings through the conceptualisation of the subject–object division, and gains control over nature. A common narrative is that the subject’s autonomy and power came to extend to art itself, which in turn, became valued as possessing its own aesthetic legitimacy and yet also becoming an alienated commodity. Yet Cary Wolfe, in What Is Posthumanism?, echoes Michel Foucault’s claim that the Enlightenment could be viewed in tension to humanism (“Introduction” n.p.). Indeed, the Enlightenment’s creation of modern science would come to seriously challenge any view of humanity’s privileged status in this world. In contrast, Renaissance humanism conceived of Man as the centrepiece of God’s design and gifted with artistic creation and the ability to uncover truth.
Renaissance humanism is encapsulated by Vasari’s preface to The Lives of the Artists. In his preface, Vasari contends that God was the first artist, being both a painter and sculptor:
God on High, having created the great body of the world and having decorated the heavens with its brightest lights, descended with His intellect further down into the clarity of the atmosphere and the solidity of the earth, and, shaping man, discovered in the pleasing invention of things the first form of sculpture and painting. (3)
Interestingly, God discovers creation, which is a type of decoration, where the skies are decorated with bright lights—the stars. Giving colour, light and shade to the world and heavens, qualifies God as a painter. The human body, according to Vasari, is sculpted by God, which in turn inspires artists to depict the human form. Art and design—God’s design—is thereby ‘at the origin of all things’ and not merely painting and sculpture, though the reality we know is still the product of God’s painting and sculpture. According to Vasari, God privileges Man not for his intellect per se, but by bestowing him with the ability of creation and design. Indeed, creativity and design are for Vasari a part of all intellectual discovery. Intellect is the mode of discovering design, which for Vasari, is also creation. Vasari claims “that divine light infused in us by a special act of grace which has not only made us superior to other animals but even similar, if it is permitted to say so, to God Himself” (4). God is more than just a maker, he is a creator with an aesthetic sense. All intellectual human endeavours, claims Vasari, are aesthetic and creative, in their comprehension of God’s design of the world. Vasari’s emphasis on design became outmoded as Renaissance humanism was challenged by the Enlightenment’s interest in humans and other animals as machines.
However, evolution challenges even some mechanistic understandings of the human subject, which sometimes presupposed that the human-machine had a maker, as with William Paley’s watchmaker theory. As Richard Dawkins put it in The Blind Watchmaker, nature “has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If [evolution] can be said to play the role of the watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker” (“Chapter One: Explaining the Very Improbable” n.p.). No longer was God’s universe designed for Man’s comprehension and appreciation, foretelling humanity’s own potential extinction.
Man and God’s Death
The idea that humanity was created by blind processes raises the question of what sort of depiction of the human subject is possible after the death of God and the Enlightenment’s tendency toward disenchantment? An art and self-understanding founded on atheism would be in sharp distinction to Vasari’s characterisation of the nature as an artwork coloured by the divine painter and sculptor in the heavens. Man’s creativity and design are, for the Renaissance humanist, part of discovery, the embodied realisations and iterations of the Platonic realm of divine forms. But such designs, wondrous for Vasari, can be viewed as shadows without origin in a post-God world. In Vasari, Platonism is still present where the artist’s creation becomes a way of discerning the origin of all forms, God himself. Yet, without divine origin, these forms are no longer discoveries and the possibility emerges that they are not even creations, emptied of the divine meaning that gave Man’s creative and scientific work value.
Nietzsche understood that the loss of God called for the revaluation of all values. This is why Nietzsche claims that God’s death signifies the death of Man. For Nietzsche, the last Man was such an iteration, a shadow of what man had been (Thus Spoke Zarathustra 9-10). The Post-Man, the Übermensch, is one who extends the human power of creation and evaluation. In Vasari, Man is a model created by God. Nietzsche extends this logic: Man is his own creation as is God Man’s model. Man is capable of self-construction and overcoming without the hindrance of the divine. This freedom unlocked by auto-creation renders Man capable of making himself God. As such, art remains a source of sacred power for Nietzsche since it is a process of creative evaluation. The sacred is affirmed against secular profanity. For Nietzsche, God must be envisaged as Dionysus, a God that Nietzsche claims takes on a human form in Greek festivals dedicated to creation and fecundity. Mankind, in order to continue to have value after God’s death, “must become gods”, must take the place of God (The Gay Science 120).
Nietzsche, All-Too Humanist
Nietzsche begins a project of rethinking Man as a category. Yet there is much in common with Renaissance humanism generated by Nietzsche’s Dionysian belief in a merger between God and Man. Man is overcome by a stronger and more creative figure, that of the Übermensch. By comparing Nietzsche with Vasari we can understand just how humanist Nietzsche remained. Indeed, Nietzsche fervently admired the Renaissance as a rebirth of paganism. Such an assessment of the rebirth of pagan art and values can almost be found in Vasari himself. Vasari claimed that pagan art, far from being blasphemous, brought Man closer to the divine in a tribute to the creativity of God. Vasari’s criticism of Christianity is careful but present. Indeed, Vasari—in a way that anticipates Nietzsche’s view that secular sacrilege was merely an extension of Christian sacrilege—attacks Christian iconoclasm, noting that barbarians and Christians worked together to destroy sacred forms of art:
not only did [early Christianity] ruin or cast to the ground all the marvellous statues, sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and ornaments of the false pagan gods, but it also did away with the memorials and testimonials to an infinite number of illustrious people, in whose honour statues and other memorials had been constructed in public places by the genius of antiquity. (5)
In this respect, Vasari embodies the values Nietzsche so praised in the Italian Renaissance. Vasari emphasises the artistic creations that enshrine distinctions of value and social hierarchy. While Vasari continues Platonic notions that ideals exist before human creation, he nevertheless holds human creation as a realisation and embodiment of the ideal, which is not dissimilar to Nietzsche’s notion of divine embodiment. For Nietzsche and Vasari, Man is exulted when he can rise, like a god, above other men. Another possibility would be to lower Man to just another animal. One way to envision such a lowering would be to subvert the mode by which Man is deemed God-like. Art that engages with the death of Man helps conceptualise subhumanism and the way that the subject ceases to be raised above the animal. What follows are studies of artworks that unbuild the subject.
Francis Bacon’s “Study of a Baboon”
Francis Bacon’s work challenges the human subject by depicting nonhuman subjects, where the flesh is torn open and Man’s animal flesh is exposed. Sometimes Bacon does not merely disfigure the human form but violently abandons it to focus on animals that reveal animal qualities latent in the subject. Bacon’s “Study of a Baboon”, expresses a sense of human devolution: Man devolved to monkey. In the work, we see a baboon within an enclosure, sitting above a tree that simultaneously resembles a gothic shadow, a cross, and even a smear. The dark, cross-like tree may suggest the conquering of God by a baboon, a type of monkey, recalling the old slander of Darwin’s theory, namely that Darwinism entailed that humanity descended from monkeys (which Darwin’s theory does not claim). But far from victorious, the monkey is in a state of suffering.
While the baboon is not crucified on or by the tree, suffering pervades the frame. Its head resembles some sort of skull. The body is faintly painted in a melancholy blue with smudges of purple and is translucent and ghostly—at once a lump of matter and a spectral absence. We do not see the baboon through the cage. Instead we see through the baboon at the cage. Indeed, its very physiology involves the encountering of trauma as the head of the baboon does not simply connect to the body but stabs through the body as a sharp bone, perhaps opaquely evoking the violence of evolution. Similarly, the baboon’s tail seems to stab through the tree. Its eye is an enlarged void and a pupil is indicated by a bluish white triangle splitting through the void.
The tree has something of the menacing and looming quality of a shadow and there is a sense of wilderness confronted by death and entrapment, evoked through the background. The yellowy ground is suggestive of dead grass. While potentially gesturing to the psychical confusion and intensity of Vincent Van Gogh or Edvard Munch, the yellowed grass more likely evokes the empty, barren and hostile planes of the desert and contrasts with the darkened colours. The baboon sitting on the cross/tree may seem to have reached some sort of pinnacle but such a status is mocked by the tree that manages to continue outside the fence: the branches nightmarishly protrude through the fence to conquer the frame, which in turn furthers the sense of inescapable entrapment and threat. The baboon is thereby precluded from reaching a higher point on the tree, unable to climb the branches, and underscores the baboon’s confines.
The painting is labelled a study, which may suggest it is unfinished. However, Bacon’s completed works preserve an unfinished quality. This unfinished quality conveys a sense in which Man and evolution are unfinished and that being finished in the sense of being completed is no longer possible. The idea that there can finished work of art, a work of art that preserves an eternal meaning, has been repeatedly subject to serious doubt, including by artists themselves. Indeed, Bacon’s work erases the potential for perfection and completion, and breaks down, through devolution, what has been achieved by Man and the forces that shaped him. The subject is lowered from that of human to that of a baboon and is therefore, by Vasari’s Renaissance reasoning, not a subject at all. Bacon’s sketch and study exist to evoke a sense of incompletion, involving pain without resolution. The animal state of pain is therefore married with existential entrapment and isolation as art ceases to express the Platonic ideal and aims to show the truth of the shadow—namely that humanity is without a God, a God that previously shed light on humanity’s condition and anchored the human subject. If there is a trace or echo of human nobility left, such a trace functions through the wild and violent quality of animal indignation. A scream of painful indignity is the last act approaching (or descending from) any dignity that is afforded.
Jan Švankmajer’s Darkness, Light, Darkness
An even more extreme case of the subject no longer being the subject, of being broken and muted—so much so that animal protest is annulled—can be witnessed in Jan Švankmajer’s animated short Darkness, Light, Darkness. In the animation, green clay hands mould and form a human body in order to be part of it. But when complete, the human body is trapped, grotesquely out of proportion with its environment. The film begins in a darkened house. There is a knocking of the door, and then the first green hand opens the door and turns on the light. The hand falls to the floor, blindly making its way to another door on the opposite side of the house. The hand opens the door only for eyeballs to roll out. The eyes look around. The hand pushes its clay fingers against the eyeballs, and the eyeballs become attached to the fingers. Suddenly with sight, the hand is able to lift itself up. The hand discovers that another hand is knocking at the door. The first hand helps the second hand, and then goes to the window where a pair of ears are stuck together flapping like a moth. The hands work together and break the ears apart. The first hand, the one with eyes, attaches the ears to the second hand. Then a head with a snout, but missing eyes and ears, enters through the door. The hands pull the snout until it becomes a nose, suppressing and remoulding the animal until it becomes human. As with Bacon, the violence of evolution, of auto-construction is conveyed indirectly: in Bacon’s case, through painted devolution and, in the case of the claymation, through a violent construction based on mutilation and smashing body parts together.
Although I have described only three minutes of the seven-minute film, it already presents an image of human construction devoid of art or divine design. Man, or rather the hands, become the blind watchman of evolution. The hands work contingently, with what they are provided. They shape themselves based on need. The body, after all, exists as parts, and the human body is made up of other life forms, both sustaining and being sustained by them. The hands work together, and sacrifice sight and hearing for the head. They tear off the ears and remove the eyes and give them to the head. Transcendence is exchanged for subsistence. The absurdity of this contingency becomes most apparent when the hands attempt to merge with the head, to be the head’s feet. Then the feet actually arrive and are attached to the head’s neck. The human subject in such a state is thereby deformed and incomplete. It is a frightened form, cowering when it hears banging at the door. It turns out that the banging is being produced by an angry erect penis pounding at the door. However, even this symbol of masculine potency is subdued, rendered harmless by the hands that splash a bucket of cold water on it. The introduction of the penis signifies the masculinist notions implicit in the term Man, but we only ever see the penis when it is flaccid.
The human subject is able to be concluded when clay pours from both doors and the window. The hands sculpt the clay and make the body, which, when complete is oversized and barely fits within the house. The male subject is then trapped, cramped in a foetal position. With its head against the ceiling next to the light, breathing heavily, all it can do is turn out the light. The head opens its mouth either in horror or a state of exertion and gasps. The eyes bulge before one of the body’s hands turns switch, perhaps suggesting terror before death or simply the effort involved in turning off the light. Once completed and built, the human subject remains in the dark.
Despite the evident quirky, playful humour, Švankmajer’s film reflects an exhaustion with art itself. Human life becomes clay comically finding its own form. For Vasari, the ideal of the human form is realised first by God and then by Man through marble; for Švankmajer it is green clay. He demotes man back to the substance for a God to mould but, as there is no God to breathe life into it and give form, there is just the body to imperfectly mould itself. The film challenges both Vasari’s humanism and the suprahumanism of Nietzschean spectacle. Instead of the self-generating power and radical interdependence and agency of Übermensch, Švankmajer’s sub-subject is Man undercome—man beneath as opposed to over man, man mocked by its ambition, and with no space to stand high. Švankmajer thereby realises the anti-Nietzschean potential inherent within cinema’s anti-spectacular nature. Antonin Artaud, who extends the aesthetics advanced by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy, contrasts the theatre’s sense of animal life with cinema. Artaud observes that movies “murder us with second-hand reproductions […] filtered through machines” (84). Thus, films murder creative and animal power as film flattens life to a dead realm of reproduction. Continuing Jacques Derrida’s hauntological framing of the screen, the animation theorist Alan Cholodenko has argued that the screen implies death. Motion is dead and replaced by illusion, a recording relayed back to us. What renders cinema haunting also renders it hauntological. For Cholodenko, cinema’s animation challenges ontology and metaphysics by eschewing stable ontologies through a process that entails both presence and absence. As Cholodenko points out, all film is a type of animation and reanimation, of making images move that are not in fact moving.
Thus, one can argue that the animated-animation (such as Švankmajer’s claymation) becomes a refinement of death, a Frankesteinian reanimation of dead material. Indeed, Darkness, Light, Darkness accentuates the presence of death with the green clay almost resembling putrefaction. The fingerprints on the clay accentuate a lack of life, for the autonomous and dead matter that constructs and shapes a dead body from seemingly severed body parts. Even the title of the film, Darkness, Light, Darkness reflects an experience of cinema as deflation rather than joyous spectacle. One goes to a darkened space, watches light flicker on a screen and then the light goes out again. The cartoonish motions of the hands and body parts in the film look only half alive and therefore seem half-dead. Made in the decaying Communist state of Czechoslovakia, Švankmajer’s film aptly acknowledges the deflation of cinema, reflecting that illumination—the light of God, is put out, or more specifically, switched off. With the light of God switched off, creation becomes construction and construction becomes reconstruction, filtered through cinema’s machine processes as framed through Cholodenko.
Still, Švankmajer’s animation is not unsympathetic to the plight of the hands. We do see the body parts work together. When a vulgar, meaty, non-claymation tongue comes out through the door, it goes straight to the other door to let the teeth in. The teeth and tongue are aided by the hands to complete the face. Indeed, what they produce is a human being, which has some sense of coherence and success—a success enmeshed with failure and entrapment.
Piccinini’s “The Young Family”
Patricia Piccinini’s sculptural works offer a more tender approach to the subject, especially when her works focus on the nonhuman animal with human characteristics. Piccinini is interested in the combinations of the animal and the machine, so her ideas can be seen almost as transhuman, where the human is extended beyond humanism. Her work is based on connection and connectedness, but does not emphasise the humanist values of innovation and self-creation often inherent to transhumanism. Indeed, the emphasis on connection is distinct from the entrapment of Bacon’s baboon and Švankmajer’s clay human, which half lament freedom’s negation.
The way that Piccinini preserves aspects of humanism within a framework of subhumanism is evident in her work “The Young Family”. The hypperrealistic sculpture depicts a humanoid pig form, flopped, presumably exhausted, as piglet-babies suckle on her nipples. The work was inspired by a scientific proposal for pigs to be genetically modified to provide organs for humans (“Educational Resource” 5). Such a transhuman setting frames a subhuman aesthetic. Care is taken to render the scene with sentiment but without a sense of the ideal, without perfection. One baby-piglet tenderly grasps its foot with both hands and stares with love at its mother. We see two piglets enthusiastically sucking their mother’s teat, while a third baby/piglet’s bottom is visible, indicating that there is a third piglet scrambling for milk. The mother gazes at us, with her naked mammalian body visible. We see her wrinkles and veins. There is some fur on her head and some hair on her eyebrows humanising her. Indeed, her eyes are distinctly human and convey affection. Affection seems to be a motif that carries through to the materials (carefully crafted by Piccinini’s studio). The affection displayed in the artwork is trans-special, emphasising that human tenderness is in fact mammalian tenderness. Such tenderness conflates the human, the nonhuman animal and the material out of which the humanoid creature and its young are constructed. The sub-agency brings together the young and the old by displaying the closeness of the family.
Something of this sub-subjectivity is theorised in Malcolm Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche, where he contrasts Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch with the idea of the subhuman. Bull writes that subhumanism involves giving up on “becoming more than a man and think[ing] only of becoming something less” (n.p.; Chapter 2, sec. “The Subhuman”). Piccinini depicts vulnerability and tenderness with life forms that are properly speaking subhuman, and reject the displays of strength of Nietzsche’s suprahumanism or Vasari’s emphasis on art commemorating great men. But Piccinini’s subhumanism preserves enough humanism to understand art’s ability to encourage an ethics of nurturing. In this respect, her works offer an alternative to Bull’s subhumanism that aims, so Bull argues, to devalue art altogether. Instead, Piccinini affirms imagination, but through its ability to conjure new ways to perceive animal affection. The sub-subject thereby functions to reveal states of emotion common to mammals (including humans) and other animals.
These three artists therefore convey distinct, if related and intersecting, ways of visualising the sub-subject: Bacon through animal suffering, Švankmajer through adaptation that ultimately leads to the agent’s entrapment, and Piccinini who, instead of marrying anti-humanism with the subhumanism (the procedure of Švankmajer, and Bacon), integrates aspects of transhumanism and Renaissance humanism into her subhuman vision. As such, these works present a realisation of how we might think of the going under of the human subject after Darwin, Nietzsche and the deaths of God, Man and the diminishment of creativity. Such works remain not only antithetical to Vasari’s humanism but also to Nietzsche’s suprahumanism.
These artists use art’s power to humble—not through overpowering awe but through the visible breakdown of the human agent, speaking for and to the sub-subject. Such art, by unbuilding and dismantling the subject, draws on prehuman trajectories of evolution, and in the case of Piccinini, transhuman trajectories. Art ceases to be about the grandiose evocations of power. Rather, more modestly, these works build a connection between the human with other mammals.
I wish to acknowledge Daniel Canaris for his valuable insights into Christianity and the Italian Renaissance, Alan Cholodenko for providing copies of his works that were central to my interpretation of Švankmajer, and Rachel Franks and Simon Dwyer for their invaluable assistance and finding very helpful reviewers.
Artaud, Antonin. The Theatre and Its Double. New York: Grove P, 1958.
Art Gallery of South Australia. “Educational Resource Patricia Piccinini.” Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia. 11 Dec. 2016 <https://www.artgallery.sa.gov.au/agsa/home/Learning/docs/Online_Resources/Piccinini_online_resource.pdf>.
Bacon, Francis. “Head I.” 1948. Oil on Canvas. 100.3 x 74.9cm.
———. “Study of a Baboon.” 1953. Oil on Canvas. 198.3 x 137.3cm.
Bull, Malcolm. Anti-Nietzsche. New York: Verso, 2011.
Cholodenko, Alan. “First Principles of Animation.” Animating Film Theory. Ed. Karen Beckman. Duke UP, 2014. 98-110.
———. “The Crypt, the Haunted House, of Cinema.” Cultural Studies Review 10.2 (2004): 99-113.
Darkness, Light, Darkness. Jan Švankmajer, 1990. 35mm.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.
———. The Gay Science. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.
———. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.
Piccinini, Patricia. “The Young Family.” 2002. Silicone, Polyurethane, Leather, Plywood, Human Hair, 80 x 150 x 110cm.
Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of Artists. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.
Wolfe, Cary. What Is Posthumanism? Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010.