Why Does the Art World Hate Fat People?

I can’t remember the first time I went on a diet. I know it must have happened in my childhood, but the event seems to belong to some geological deep time – it predated my actual existence and laid a complex emotional and ideological foundation upon which the foundation for my nascent subjectivity was laid.

As an adult I am now curating my first exhibition, Soma Grossa, opening November 17 at the Brew House Association in Pittsburgh. This mixed media group show showcases all the fat artists creating art about being fat, and working on it has pushed me to examine the entanglements between my identity as a fat person and my curatorial practice and philosophy in ways I didn’t expect would have.

Soma grossa, which literally means “gross body,” plays on the dual meaning of “gross,” both as disgusting and as an amount that exists before any deductions are made. The title is intended to draw attention to the simple but hard-hitting math fat people are constantly subjected to: without “deductions,” the fat body is necessarily grotesque. It’s only when deductions are made—weight is lost—that other important things can be gained: social capital, romantic fulfillment, medical dignity, etc. There’s a tension between spectacle and denial that’s so often at work when fat bodies are involved: Fat people are subjects to an imperative to hide, shrink, disappear, or cease to exist altogether by a population that nonetheless needs fat bodies that exist in certain acceptable ways—as entertainment, moral analogues, pre- After-horror story or as a vehicle for humor. The dueling desires of people whose worst nightmare is inhabiting a fat body often take the form of shaming fat people, leaving social spheres only to bring them back as objects for general consumption.

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You’re judging us for what you’re sure is rampant gluttony, yet jump at the chance to devour us whole. And the art world is no exception.

When I did research for this exhibition, the results were sparse. Fat body shows exist, sure, but shows that critically center obesity? The 2019 exhibition Beyond the body at the Fondazione Forma per la Fotografia in Milan claimed to “reinterpret [sic] the real-life stories of four obese people drawing their words directly onto their bodies,” which were then photographed for the exhibition. Acclaimed (fat-free) figure painter Jenny Saville is famous for her evocative, larger-than-life gestural paintings of fat people. Her so-called “fascination with obese people” apparently began when she received a scholarship to study in the United States and was greeted by herds of fat women in shopping malls. Saville’s paintings and the Milan exhibition span the impoverished spectrum from pity to fascination that typifies responses to fat bodies in the art world. I could go so far as to call these works anti-art: instead of grappling with new sensory perceptions, they merely rewrite the same tired tropes of fat-phobic hegemony.

The transcendent self-portraits of artists like Laura Aguilar, who have devoted themselves to the fact that fat bodies literally take up more space in a picture than non-fat ones, are few and far between. By photographing her own fat body in majestic natural scenes and subverting landscape photography history as a white cis male Medium, Aguilar embraced the fat body by turning it into a literal landscape.

When I made my first virtual studio visits for Soma Grossa, I had a pretty good idea of ​​what artists and what works interested me. During each video chat, I shared about the exhibition, why it was important, what kind of pieces were in it, etc., and then asked each artist to tell me about themselves and their work. Everyone who replied to me was kind, thoughtful and genuinely excited to be a part of this show. We talked about how mere representation is often a neoliberal solution to structural inequalities and too often results in fat bodies being palatable for public consumption – just another way to gratify the fat calculus. We’ve talked about the metaphysical censorship of fat lives in a world that tries to force them out of existence. Many conversations became emotionally charged as we bonded not just as curators and artists, but as fat fellow human beings, existing in a shared world despite sometimes being thousands of miles apart. We knew why this show was important – big – even bigger. But what is my role as a curator there? What does it mean that fat is part of my curating philosophy? How do I resolve the tension between empathy and objectivity, creating and experiencing?

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Before working on this exhibition, I assumed that curating would be an expanded version of my work as editor of an art publication: God’s Eye View, to help bring out the artists’ visions in a unified, thematic way. In a sense this is true; as author and curator Tim Clark writes in the introduction curator talk (2021), “curator” comes from Latin cura which means to look after or oversee something. The book contains a series of essays that aim to redefine – or perhaps refocus – curating as a practice of interpersonal and cross-object caring and ethical responsibility. I’ve always viewed nurturing the writers and artists I work with as an integral part of my role in interacting with them. However, I did not anticipate that in addition to immersing myself in the subject matter of the exhibition, I would also get involved in a number of communities and actively cultivate. Curating this exhibition requires urgent and caring attention not only to artworks and artists, but also to the vibrant ecology of communities that exist within the radical fat-liberation discourse that exists between the artists in the exhibition, between me and the artists, and between the artworks and created is the spectator. As a researcher and academic accustomed to viewing ethical responsibility as the kind of “thinking through and around oneself” that Isabelle Stengers describes, it was frankly shocking and disconcerting to go so viscerally back into the “personal.” to be brought – something that seems downright taboo and counterproductive of social and cultural responsibility.

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Long story short, I’ve always thought of good curating as community building; I just didn’t think I would really feel part of the community. As someone who eschewed food culture and body positivity long ago in favor of radical fat-loss, work on Soma Grossa made me realize that I was following these movements from the shadows. I’m still nervous about claiming obesity as a public identity. This show feels like there’s no going back.

I’m sitting at my computer applying to curate another exhibition, and the application asks me to sum up my curatorial philosophy in one word. Without hesitation, I type an emphatic “Fat!”

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