Skip to main content

The Real Real Thing

The Model in the Mirror of Art

Our era is defined by the model. From Victoria’s Secret and America’s Next Top Model to the snapshots we post on Facebook and Twitter, our culture is fixated on the pose, the state of existing simultaneously as artifice and the real thing.

In this bold view of contemporary culture, Wendy Steiner shows us the very meaning of the arts in the process of transformation. Her story begins at the turn of the last century, as the arts abandoned the representation of the world for a heady embrace of the abstract, the surreal, and the self-referential. Today though, this “separate sphere of the aesthetic” is indistinguishable from normal life. Media and images overwhelm us: we gingerly negotiate a real-virtual divide that we suspect no longer exists, craving contact with what J. M. Coetzee has called “the real real thing.” As the World Wide Web renders the lower-case world in ever-higher definition, the reality-based genres of memoir and documentary are displacing fiction, and novels and films are depicting the contemporary condition through model-protagonists who are half-human, half-image. Steiner shows the arts searching out a new ethical potential through this figure: by stressing the independent existence of the model, they welcome in the audience in all its unpredictability, redefining aesthetic experience as a real-world interaction with the promise of empathy, reciprocity, and egalitarian connection.

A masterly performance by a penetrating, inquisitive mind, The Real Real Thing is that rarest of books, one whose provocations and inspirations will inspire readers to take a new—and nuanced—look at the world around them.

Read an excerpt.

240 pages | 50 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2010

Art: Art Criticism, Art--General Studies

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


“Wendy Steiner is an original thinker, and I always look forward to her next book with pleasure, and with the anticipation that my education will be enhanced. In this study, she explores the apparent distance between artist and model as a space of the most profound and ramifying intimacy. In lucid prose she explores psychological, philosophical, political, and aesthetic relations at play in modeling. She draws on a wide range of thinkers from Kant to Judith Butler; writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a particularly rich reading of J. M. Coetzee; and artists, such as Bob Dylan and the architect Peter Eisenman. Against this broad background, Steiner—who once herself modeled for a New York Times piece on stylish women academics—writes with eloquence and precision about the unexpectedly rich body of questions raised by the act of modeling.”

Michael Holquist, Columbia University

“Surveying the field of contemporary culture with grace and wit, Wendy Steiner comes to the surprising conclusion that ‘a revolution is underway in the general understanding of beauty.’ The Perfected Form of the engineered celebrity and supermodel—and such things as Platonic architecture and sculpture—is giving way to a more interactive beauty. The real real engages the audience in vital interaction—does not petrify as a Medusa head—a Reality squared”

Charles Jencks, author of Critical Modernism

"An eloquent study of contemporary visual and literatur culture. . . What Steiner’s stylish study of our preoccupations with authenticity finally suggests, poignantly enough, is that no amount of verisimilitude can do away with the artifice of art."

Times Literary Supplement

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Philosophy in the Life Class
I: Backgrounds
1 What Is a Model?
2 Yesterday’s Models: Stories of the Creation of Women
3 I’m Not Being There: Artist, Model, Celebrity
4 What Happens to Art When Virtually Everything Is Virtual?

II: Models in Contemporary Art
5 “Ecstatic Cahoots”: New Hierarchies in Contemporary Art
6 Mother, Father, Mirror: Art That Changes the World
7 The Latest Models: Collaborative Creation Stories

III: Interactive Aesthetics
8 On Garde: Avant- or Derrière 151
9 The Aesthetic Gift: Hawthorne, Bioethics, Hairspray


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press