Women and Meat in Art and Fashion: A History

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You know the MTV Video Music Awards were boring when basically the only thing we’re still talking about a day and a half later is an outfit — but at least the costume that’s dominated the entertainment news cycle since Sunday night was worth discussing. Yes, friends, we are talking about Lady Gaga’s meat dress. PETA snarkily guessed that Gaga stunk to high heavens and was covered in maggots by the end of the night, but a Reuters blogger noted that the outfit “was not dripping, nor was it smelly or sticking to her skin.” Butchers are weighing in (see what we did there?) to take shots at the garment’s poor-quality cuts of meat, despite the evidence that it was locally sourced.

While we suppose there is some kind of ethical debate to be had here, we meat eaters sure aren’t wading into it. Instead, we’d like to put the meat dress in some context for you, with this history of women and meat in art and fashion, from the ’60s through America’s Next Top Model — including a sculpture that some are accusing Gaga of copying.

Carolee Schneemann

Among the best known of feminist artist Carolee Schneemann’s works, her 1964 Meat Joy performance featured what The New York Times delicately describes as “eight bodies ecstatically cavorting with wet paint, plastic, rope, paper scraps, raw fish, dead chickens and sausages in front of an audience.” The fleshy romp, which has been performed many times since its debut, was meant as a Dionysian celebration of naked human sexuality. As Schneemann put it, “the life of the body is more variously expressive than a sex-negative society can admit.” Watch a somewhat blurry, but as far as we can tell generally safe for work, clip from a Meat Joy performance above.

Jana Sterbak

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Was Gaga unaware of Jana Sterbak’s 1987 sculpture Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorexic, or was she knowingly ripping it off/riffing on it? Either way, critics are calling her out on the similarities between her get-up and “Sterbak’s 50 pounds of raw flank steak, stitched together into a slowly rotting garment and displayed, to a sizable hue and cry, in a 1991 exhibition at Canada’s National Gallery.” Art scholars will recognize “vanitas” as a term for Dutch still lifes depicting detritus, paintings meant to remind their audiences of our fleshly mortality. Of course, considering the anorexia reference, Sterbak’s sculpture is also a comment on the sick, tiny models of the fashion world. Although Gaga’s frock certainly looked fresher (a detail we’re sure everyone in the VMA auditorium was grateful for), the similarities are damning.

Hats of Meat

The concept is simple: This is a website of photos of people wearing hats made out of meat. Our favorite is the strapping Jew wearing a brisket yalmuke. Although Gaga has yet to acknowledge Sterbak’s influence, she did supposedly call out Hats of Meat on the VMA red carpet.

Ada Rajszys

As part of her Palindromic Project (2006), a series of “hybrid paintings ready-to-wear,” Ada Rajszys constructed this Meat Pattern. She calls the work “a humorous vision of our desire of consumption confronted with the image of daily beauty and our bodies” and wonders, “Are we wearing meat or are we becoming meat?” The 3D center of the flower/vagina/sleeve is an obvious riff on the subtly suggestive flower paintings of Georgia O’Keefe. [via Complex]

Betty Hirst

In 2008, artists picked up Schneemann’s Meat Joy thread with a show called Meat After Meat Joy . Among the bloody offerings was provocative sculptor Betty Hirst’s Hommage to a Meret Oppenheim — a copy of Oppenheim’s iconic 1936 Object , which was itself a comment on feminine domesticity and sexuality. The themes of meat, gender, and the body pervade much of Hirst’s other (largely NSFW) work.

America’s Next Top Model

Of course, you don’t have to go high art — or cycle back through history more than a few years — to find another possible source of inspiration for Gaga’s meat couture. A 2008 episode of ANTM features the whole gang of bright-eyed model wannabes in a slaughterhouse photo shoot, sporting beef briefs, with meat draped over their shoulders… plus some other clothing that we seriously hope they discarded once the cameras stopped rolling. While many of the artists above may have had lofty ideas about the relationship between women, meat, and the body, we’re fairly sure that Miss Tyra was primarily concerned with finding a challenge gross enough to occupy prime-time audiences and make models squirm. (In the clip above, the meat joy begins around the 3:30 mark.)