The body matters, more than at any other time in history. As Abi Titmuss appears in a Sapphic embrace on the cover of FHM magazine, Morgan Spurlock expands his waistline and strains his heart in Supersize Me. Nip/Tuck wins an Emmy and a bodybuilder-turned-actor is the most popular politician in America. Where should a history of the body in art begin? asks Nicholas Blincoe.

Where should a history of the body in art begin? I am not thinking of a dry history, but one that takes account of our own bodies and those around us? Because there seem to be a lot of bodies around. A magazine ran a cover feature on the world’s thinnest celebrities (Lara Flynn Boyle? Calista Flockhart? I don’t know, I only saw the publication in passing, but she was very thin). Another ran a cover showing Abi Titmuss in a sapphic embrace with Victoria Silvstedt; in the same week a supermarket chain announced such covers would be hidden from view. A television drama about plastic surgeons in Miami has won an Emmy. A documentary on McDonald’s-fuelled obesity and another on the pornographic film Deep Throat have received theatrical releases and excited reviews. A bodybuilder-turned-actor is the most popular politician in America. Clearly, the body matters; perhaps more so than at any other time in history. I am 40 years old, six foot tall and weigh less than thirteen stone. It doesn’t sound bad, so why am I so worried about my visibly bulging stomach?

So where should the story begin? Why not with Christian Dior’s 1947 New Look collection? Pre-war designers had dispensed with whale-boned corsets, but it was Dior’s triumphance to put a pleasure in the body at the centre of fashion, over and above cutting, embroidery and fabrics. Sixty years later, I can see legs, breasts, the tops of bottoms and the innermost insides of thighs. And that’s just on the bus. Yet in contemporary art this obsession with the body is largely absent. Of course, one could say, thank God: anything for a rest from this manic, often dysfunctional body consciousness. But it is, at least, strange.

Or why not start 24 years ago, in Rochdale’s municipal art gallery? I was sixteen years old and a foundation student at the local college when Stuart Brisley came to town to give a rare performance. The problem is I cannot remember his piece. A photograph in a cheap Phaidon paperback shows Brisley sitting in a bath of blood. Is this what I saw? Probably not, though the image overpowers my memory. What I do remember is that the performance was ridiculous. Forgettable and ridiculous – a bad combination. At the Documenta in Kassel the next year, I saw photographs of Viennese Actionists strapped to crucifixes. It seemed crazy, yet silly. What happened to it all: the artists who leaped from windows, disappeared at sea, scarred their bodies, drew blood, rolled naked? I caught the end of a movement that was fast disappearing because it was already out of touch. The people who cared the most - and no one could care more than a teenage art student, ready to hitch-hike across Europe in pursuit of art - were embarrassed by these middle-aged self-flagellators.

Yet the strange thing is that Brisley and his cohorts are far closer to contemporary culture than younger artists. The generation gap between myself and today’s students can be measured in piercings and tattoos. Excoriating the body has become mainstream. This aggressive ambiguity towards the body – whether practised by Stuart Brisley or Marilyn Manson – has always pulled in two opposite directions, both towards and away from Western civilisation. Tribal cultures have often adopted painful initiation rites. The film A Man Called Horse (1970) shows Richard Harris suspended by hooks pierced through his chest muscles in a scene that could have been directed by Fluxus artists, but is said to be a rigorously authentic depiction of the rites of Native Americans. The tattoo parlours of the East Village conjure up a myth of man’s tribal nature through Maori and Celtic-inspired designs, breaking with the idea of the city as a civilised, stable regime (tattoo parlours within New York were illegal until very recently and at least one of the city’s dominant religions, Judaism, expressly forbids tattooing). The practitioners call it body art, and it proclaims that the city is chaotic and tribal: a jungle, I suppose. Yet at the same time a part of me recognises that there are no initiation rites; no one is compelling today’s youth to attack or adorn their bodies. More than an expression of tribal identity, body art is another way to assert a Western identity: a love of liberty and individuality. And the method of asserting this identity is also very Western: drawing attention to the weak and mortal body in order to proclaim the nobility of the mind or the soul. What could be more Christian, more in keeping with our classical paintings of the martyrdom of St Sebastian or of Christ himself?

If contemporary artists are uninterested in such trends, is it because they find them stupid? Or trite: the oxymoron of the urban primitive? I suspect something more radical – that today’s artists do not even notice that the body has slipped out of art. I realise that this is a strong claim. Yet we live in a time of conceptual art, and conceptual and figurative art exist in such different worlds; they operate as though they were alone in the universe and the other does not exist.

Is this too bold? For the argument to pass muster, one would first have to agree that performance art is a kind of figurative art, and its exponents certainly did not think so. Pulling a naked woman through a pool of paint is not the same as painting a nude on canvas. But bear with me. Although physical performance art emerged in the post-war period, and part of its appeal must have been its antipathy to the beautiful bodies of the fashion world, its roots lay in pre-war philosophy; specifically, in the school of phenomenology (or existentialism, as it was also known). Phenomenology dealt with mankind not as a thinking being, but as a body within the world. It was profoundly anti-conceptual. Above all, phenomenology was a quest: its Holy Grail or Ark of the Covenant was a pure and direct experience of being. The philosophers associated with phenomenology are, at one level, an heterogeneous group: Heidegger was a fascist; Husserl and Levinas, Jewish; Sartre a Marxist. Yet all were united by the idea of stripping away the inauthentic paraphernalia of culture to arrive finally at an unmediated sense of being. And none of them was glib: they fully recognised the difficulties, even the impossibility, of such a project. What would it mean to feel the pure presence of being? A presence that existed for itself, without the weight of preconceived ideas (Heidegger), or alienation and commodification (Sartre), or before the fracturing of our experience into millions of limited, subjective viewpoints (Husserl and Levinas, in which I see an echo of the Talmudic belief that our shattered world will be completed and repaired only at its end).

The post-war performance artists attempted to strip away everything unnecessary to a pure experience. And they fervently believed that what was left would be art. Gallery walls, gone. The art market, abjured. Permanence or solidity, rejected. But what was left? On that day in Rochdale Art Gallery, all that was left was a man noodling - and I cannot even remember what this noodling consisted of exactly, except that it was vaguely physical.

The emphasis on the body, and the supposed purity of being fully-present at the moment of experiencing, does not make performance art the same thing as figurative art. But it makes it similar, at least in terms of how philosophers were thinking about art in the immediate pre-war period. Heidegger’s essay The Origin of the Work of Art (admittedly, concerned with a painting of a shoe by van Gogh rather than a body) relies upon such a notion; that is, how an artwork can determine its own sense of presence as a thing in the world. Similarly, Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction asks, with a profound sense of melancholy, how a piece of art can exert a unique and immediate pull on its audience once industrialisation has erased all sense of uniqueness.

Conceptual art is different from figurative or performance art because it does not recognise the world in which these issues matter. The anti-conceptualism of the phenomenologists emerged in reaction to the work of Immanuel Kant, who was famously uninterested in objects – in things-in-themselves. Kant described his philosophy as a Copernican Revolution, by which he meant that we should no longer concern ourselves with things, but only with the relations between them. These might be time and distance, but they were also relations of comparison and contrast, of similarity and difference. In short, he was interested only in what thinking brought to the table, not in the table itself. The truly radical thing about Kant – at least for me, as someone who loves him more than I could ever love any other writer or thinker, even while I recognise his many failings (he was a terrible writer and not very interested in art) – was that he defined thinking as judgment. All thinking is judgment; that is, criticism.

We once more live in a Kantian world. Everyone is a conceptual artist. No one now rejects the art market, Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, NY © the artists or museums, or comparisons and contrasts thrown up by the history of art. All artists realise that this is part of the web through which we enjoy or evaluate artworks. The Young British Artists, who as everyone points out are no longer very young, are remarkably good at negotiating this environment. Which is why I love them (but then, we are all the same age, all contemporaries together). Damien Hirst put a dead shark in a tank, which really ought to have had presence in the phenomenological sense, but it did not: it was an impossibility, and the title laughed at the very idea. Hirst’s shark is a bigger and flashier version of Koons’s floating basket balls; it is a Joseph Beuys vitrine without the metaphysics; it is a Ripley’s-Believe-it-or-Not aimed at turning the gallery into a funfair sideshow.

My thesis is that contemporary artists - and let us concentrate on the YBAs, why not? – are not only uninterested in the body, they cannot even see it. But what about the mannequins of the Chapman brothers? The black Madonnas of Chris Ofili? The gunshot wound of Mat Collishaw? The cucumbers, melons and stuffed tights of Sarah Lucas? What about the giant nudes of Jenny Saville? Well, it would only be Saville’s work that would disprove my thesis, for none of the others has looked to real-life models. Rather, they have conjured up relations and created unsettling or provocative ideas. And even Saville’s large-scale fleshy nudes do not amount to a style, but to a concept. Which is to say they are closer to repetitions and elaborations of an idea, in the manner of Warhol, than the refinement of a unique way of capturing the world, which we assume to be the sacred mission of artists from Rembrandt to van Gogh.

It is true that women artists, insofar as they want to foreground the experience of being a woman, must bring in the body. They have to assert a kind of difference, whether in feminine sensibility or in the concrete facts of gynaecology. And Mona Hatoum’s experiments with endoscopy are, of course, profoundly interested in the body. Is she not then comparable with the performance artists of the previous generations? I think not, because she is demonstrating the ways in which medical technology determines how we see our bodies. She is showing a body that is never present, but only ever recorded. There is, too, an element of autobiography in Hatoum’s medical observations, which is the route that Tracey Emin has chosen to explore the experience of being a woman in this world. Autobiography, which is always recorded and always places under question the reliability of the memory, again whisks us out of the corporeal world into the realm of ideas.

We have to step outside the group usually seen as YBA s to find an artist interested in the experience of being in the world. To Jeremy Deller, perhaps, who asks others to record or re-enact their experiences of living (the fans of the missing Manic Street Preacher, the miners of Orgreave). Or to Martin Creed, whose works very much foreground an experience. But in his very minimalism, Creed expresses a profound scepticism that this experience could ever be nailed down; and, if it could, then only in the most formal and small way. On three separate occasions I have visited Creed exhibitions and had to ask the gallery assistant to point out his work, because I could not find it. And neither Deller nor Creed are interested in the body, no matter how keen they might be on experience. It is as though the body is an unnecessary adjunct to the experience of experiencing. Which, one feels one ought to point out, it isn’t. It is very necessary.

The idea that the body is unimportant might come from Kant’s work. I hesitate to write this, because one wonders how profoundly Kant’s book on aesthetics has influenced real artists. But his Critique of Judgement stands at the forefront of many modern concepts and perhaps the most important one: that the world is moved by ideas. Without this thought, we would be condemned to the most basic and simplistic materialism; we would see ourselves as simple clusters of ping-pong ball-like atoms, buffeted by material forces. Without the argument that ideas affect the body, we would have no politics and no psychoanalysis, for how could ideals or even irrational phantasms cause changes in behaviour unless ideas affected our material world? But in the course of making this argument (Kant touches upon jokes, which make us laugh, and upon music, which affects our sense of well-being) he draws a distinction between real art and agreeable art. In order to be a serious artist, one cannot be merely agreeable. If one’s ambition is only to produce pleasant bodily sensations, what is the eternal worth of art? I see Kant’s point, yet wonder about this downgrading of any pleasure taken in and through the body. Again, one sees the spectre of a rather morbid form of Christianity.

So I am back where I started, with Christian Dior’s New Look, a collection that expressed optimism in the body and the pleasure we could take in it. The pursuit of pleasure has turned out to be a neurotic obsession: did illnesses such as anorexia, bulimia and body dysmorphic disorder exist before 1947, I wonder? The carefree attitude espoused by Dior has resulted in tattoo parlours and piercers on every city corner. It has also, perhaps, left us with a body-shaped hole in the world of fine art. The world of fashion, with its emphasis on bodily pleasure, has reasserted the Kantian distinction that the serious arts are above such concerns. When, I wonder, will I ever take pleasure in a body again?