The Complicated Role of Women’s Bodies In Art

Women have for centuries been a muse for artists and the main character in the narrative (or often the main decoration) where works of art are concerned. They were the subjects of paintings far before it was even acknowledged that they could be painters themselves. It is honestly rare for me to ever draw men. I always figured my pull to depicting women was because as a woman, that is the voice I can most comfortably speak from. However, even male artists tend to habitually depict women when figures are included in their works. I try within my own art to create a story and psychology around each figure I create, and so do many other artists working today and so have many in the past. However, just as many if not more use female figures in their work as a passive decoration, just as one may place a waterfall or flower in their composition, including many artists whose work I still enjoy. No matter whether the woman is portrayed as a decorative object or a narrator in a piece, they also all tend to follow the traditional standards of beauty for the time in which they were created, without a lot of deviation. This is something I had even noticed happening in my own art, a mold I worked to break out of in my most recent portrait based series.

These musings and observations are not a new topic, but it is a subject that jumped to the forefront of my mind last week when I read Manchester Art Gallery removed John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, one of the most recognizable pre-Raphaelite paintings in their gallery, not only from the walls but from print and postcard form in their gift shop as well. The room this piece hung in was titled “The Pursuit of Beauty”, a collection depicting women mainly as passive decoration as discussed above, or else tempting sirens, all in various states of undress. Guests were given the opportunity to post comments about the removal with sticky notes in the empty space where the painting used to hang. You can read the full story here, as well as some of the reactions to the decision.


I am a feminist myself (Though, sidenote, as feminism has gone more mainstream in recent years and grown to include a wider audience, I often compare feminism and its many schools of thought to a religion with multiple denominations – You can put two feminists in a room together and they may not agree on anything.). Given that, obviously this singular portrayal of women doesn’t fill me with joy. But, for most of history and even sometimes still today this is how women were viewed! Putting this fact on display doesn’t mean it’s a good thing – but it is a true thing. I am a big proponent of learn your history no matter how unsavory, or we are doomed to repeat it.

6-_thc3a9rc3a8se_dreaming_balthus_copy_80105371There has been a similar instance recently where there were petitions to remove a painting from the Met that New Yorkers felt sexualized a young girl, a painting by French artist Balthus titled Therese Dreaming. The biggest issue was exposure due to how she was seated, and the fact that it was known the mid 20th century artist had an inappropriate infatuation with younger girls.

I have always been against censorship at all costs, rolling my eyes at protests of books being read in school, movies being shown at theaters, art being hung in galleries… If you don’t like it, don’t view it, but you don’t need to take away others’ personal autonomy. The counter culture of American society has always been against the filtering of information to the populace, against some overreaching authority handing out declarations of what is good and evil in popular culture, but it seems now the roles have reversed. What you might call the counter culture today seems to be more for censure and removing from the culture entirely those messages or images which they deem undesirable.

My first thought after hearing about these paintings’ definite or potential removal was that we are erasing history, and where does it end? Immediately a red light went off in my brain that this was the same excuse used over this past year to air grievance about the removal of Confederate monuments, which I was all for because honestly some legacies do not deserve celebration. To me, the issues in that circumstance versus this one are apples and oranges and not at all comparable, but it did lead me to question, do I have a blind spot?

One of my favorite artists, Ray Caesar, depicts young women and girls in what many would deem sexualized poses. However, in an interview with Hi-Fructose Magazine he says he views his work as a personal exploration, something autobiographical, and the women to him are the different voices of his own mind (Caesar is affected by Disassociate Identity Disorder). In his bio from his website, Caesar also discusses his time working in the Art and Photography Department of The Hospital For Sick Children in Toronto from 1980 until 1997. He was responsible for documenting cases of severe child abuse, surgical reconstruction, and psychology and animal research. He affirms that this experience greatly affected the images in his work, and ends by saying, “I now live my dreams for those that didn’t get a chance to live theirs … to do otherwise would be a sin”. As an artist myself, injecting one’s personal experiences into the art they create, especially when those experiences have been as emotional and life altering as the ones Caesar describes, makes sense. Could it traumatize others who have actually lived those circumstances rather than someone who as Caesar was looking in as an outsider? Does it bring awareness to those circumstances or glorify them, or does it do a little bit of both? Is it that fine line that makes people’s reactions to his work so strong? Isn’t it art’s job to evoke emotional response from its viewers?


27285_533898609974622_435312268_nThis whole debate really offers a lot more questions than answers. If you were waiting for me to come to a conclusive opinion at the end, I will admit I don’t have one. Women are undoubtedly valued from a young age based on their physical appearance above all other traits. How important is the art world’s role in this? Does it matter? Does art and entertainment have a responsibility due to the fact that it can shape our society, or is it just about the individual artist’s personal expression? What defines a sexualized image? Can depictions of women that are more sexual still be respectful? How far does talent excuse a harmful character, as in the case of Balthus, or a handful of other modern day actors and entertainers that come to mind? I have a feeling that the answer is probably somewhere in the middle of life’s complicated web.

Both women and men, the artists and non-artists out there, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Please feel free to discuss and share what’s on your mind!



Art Is Not A Luxury

More often than not in this modern age, as we have multitudes of tools at our disposal to both vocally and textually communicate, art has been getting bumped into the category of a “luxury”; unnecessary, mere decoration, or else something for the unbelievably wealthy who don’t know the value of a dollar to irresponsibly blow their money on. In fact, art is an important tool for effective communication today, and has been throughout history. With the less than stellar economy, art has been the first thing to get cut in schools for awhile, and yet we as a society are facing a complete breakdown of productive adult communication the likes of which has never been seen. Spend 24 hours amongst other human beings in a department store or 15 minutes on the internet and you will no doubt see what I’m talking about. I notice art and creative writing both tend to get the same rep: entertaining fluff, imaginary stories, unnecessary tools. I know quite a few people whose opinions I, on the whole, respect, that insist you can’t learn anything from fiction. They assert that it’s just something for having fun and relaxing, nothing more nothing less. Now while some creative works may be just that (Let’s be real – you aren’t likely to come to any existential truths while reading the Twilight series), if all fictional literature and all art were truly meaningless, there wouldn’t continue to be controversy around their messages; they wouldn’t still get banned from schools or showings. People don’t ban things they find uninteresting, unattractive, or mildly annoying – they ban things they find dangerous – because art has the ability to change hearts and minds. Art communicates, to those who are listening.

Visual communication has some staggering advantages over verbal communication. Firstly, we are a culture of immediacy. We want things and we want them now, Veruca Salt style. Visual communication accomplishes just that. Facts and ideas come presented visually with no complicated explanation, no lengthy preamble, simply look and absorb. People’s reactions to visuals are also often quicker and simpler than their reactions to spoken word. It is easy to cause feelings of happiness and ease in a viewer (and thus happiness and ease in them towards your message) by presenting them with an image of something they find pleasant. Turn this around, and it is also easier to inspire fear by showing images of violence or things that cause worry or disgust to a viewer. This is why advertisements for products are always primarily images, not columns or articles. Visual communication is also more versatile, and gives you more tools at your disposal. Rather than just words in your arsenal, you have all the elements of design; color, shape, texture, space, form.

This is a blog post, not a book, so know that there are innumerable examples not highlighted here on art’s role in history (And, this just in American History, let alone the many examples to be found in the history of other cultures!). I figured I’d today simply touch on the real hot-button historical moments, those that we begin hearing about in social studies class as early as elementary school.

While cameras were certainly around during the Civil War, it was still common for the media portraying historical events and news to be hand-drawn.

The lithograph above was done by an unknown artist, and portrays a well-known victory of the famed Underground Railroad. Henry “Box” Brown made headlines in 1849 when he escaped from slavery in Richmond, Virginia in a quite unorthodox manner. Brown actually packed and mailed himself to the North, and to freedom, with the help of abolitionists. When the lid was removed, he allegedly said, “How do you do, gentlemen?” and quoted some Bible verses to celebrate his escape. The fact that he is dressed the same as the men standing around him upon arrival, in a fine looking, tailored suit, is probably not indicative of how he actually arrived on the scene, but a deliberate decision on the artist’s part to reinforce his equality with these other men.

A great historical change that art played a direct role in beyond immortalizing events was the Suffragist movement.

Art has the ability to visually re-frame stereotypes, and cause people to envision situations in a new way. The first illustration below turns the assumption at the time that suffragettes were “vain, idle rich women with nothing better to do” completely on its head by showing a working woman. For the working class, the ability to vote is vital, certainly necessity far more than luxury. It asks the question, if they are contributing to keeping the “machine” of society running smoothly day in and day out, shouldn’t they have a say in how it runs? The second illustration reminds me of a quote I read recently (I wish I could remember who/where, because I think it is just excellent!), “If you’re a man that says he’s not a feminist, I want you to go explain to every woman in your life why you think she doesn’t deserve to be treated equally.” The poster asks men to think of their mothers. You respect them, you revere their wisdom, so why don’t you trust them to help the country make decisions? By framing it in a personal way, a technique that is still used to combat societal problems of sexism today, women are taken out of being this distant, abstract category or group and humanized into your daughter, your mother, your sister, your wife, your best friend …

Fast forward in history, and art plays a fascinating and unexpected role in the two World Wars.

It is argued that without modern art, there would have been no camouflage, a vital tool in saving lives on the battlefield – the ability to hide in plain sight. The idea for the complex geometric designs on “dazzle ships” is credited to artist Normal Wilkinson. These hypnotizing designs confused the spotter with their sharp, contrasting colors and confusing intersecting lines bumping into and interrupting each other. The enemy had a difficult time determining how many ships there were, as well as their range and location making it more difficult to shoot. Understanding how patterns can trick the eye from a distance also became vital to concealing targets during the first World War.

Later on, two Australian modern artists, photographer Max Dupain and painter Frank Hinder, would experiment with applying some of the newer modernist techniques to modern day warfare. One of Max Dupain’s photography experiments with optical camouflage is shown below. They used double exposure and obliterative shading, techniques that make it difficult to distinguish between foreground and background.

Never before and never again since WWII have we seen such a unity in American patriotism and civic responsibility. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is up to you, but one thing is certain: the iconic propaganda artwork of the WWII era played an instrumental role in banding people together under a common cause, and inspiring a strong, almost blind sense of duty and optimism. The famous “Rosie the Riveter” piece is still to this day a feminist icon, and the inspiration of many Halloween costumes, both celebrity and pedestrian (and even some great face-in-hole shots. Girl power! I’d like to think I’m almost as fierce as Beyonce). Those at home were represented as just as vital to the war as those abroad, and given a renewed sense of purpose through this inspirational artwork.


In the 1960s, artists took up the cause of the Civil Rights Movement.

Jacob Lawrence’s 1962 painting “Soldiers and Students” is shown below. Lawrence was always interested in using his colorful paintings to document African American history, and during the civil rights crisis of the 60s, he began documenting the disturbing everyday scenes he witnessed in the struggle for equality.

The birth of feminist art also took place around this time. I have to admit, although I have always considered myself a feminist, I could never get into feminist art. I wanted to like it, I really did, but as someone who has never felt overtly in touch with their so-called “feminine” side to begin with, I felt a lot of the motifs and delivery methods were simply lost on me. It seemed strange to me to make art that was only accessible to a specialized group rather than reaching the whole on some level. Isn’t feminist art just a bunch of flowers growing out of vaginas and bad performance art? Male or female, if you feel like you don’t really get feminist art, watch the !Women Art Revolution documentary – it’s on netflix instant. While I still can’t pick out any iconic piece of work from that era as my “favorite art ever”, these ladies really paved the way for what I do today, and I owe them heaps of gratitude, whether their artistic style or methodology is my bag or not. By the way, there’s still work to do, ladies.

Today, though it’s easier for art to get lost in all the noise with people plugged into some media or another 24//7 and everyone and their great-grandma with their own website or blog, artists are still speaking. For this same media also gives us easy access to an unlimited stream of creative media to peruse. Below, Michael D’Antuono’s painting “Conservative Christ” critiques the marrying of Christianity with extremist far-right politics. Street artists have also done a brilliant job at visually speaking truths, placing their work right in the unavoidable path of citizen’s daily commute.

noharmI am reminded of this beautiful piece I saw at Art Prize in Grand Rapids last year, especially relevant in light of the recent supreme court decision. (And the subsequent vicious, mean-spirited attacking coming from both sides in the aftermath that made me want to delete my facebook forever.)

Throughout history, art has been used to both promote mainstream values and also oftentimes clash against them, and it has the potential to be wielded as a weapon of good or a weapon of evil, hate, and deception. You can see below how art can also be used to persuade people into harmful beliefs and mindsets. After all, at the same time as the victory garden posters were circulating, so on the other side were illustrations praising Hitler and demonizing the Jewish nationality. It can be used to justify withholding rights from a group of people, like the anti-suffragist poster (lol, chocolate). It can be used to poke fun at and disrespect people who look different than us as “less”, like the vintage soap ad (Nothing to laugh about in this next one. I felt uncomfortable even posting this particular ad, and it was not even close to the worst that can be found, unfortunately). It can be used to promote unhealthy lifestyles, and guilt people into feeling like without a certain body or certain clothes, they are ugly and worthless, like the current day Photoshopping controversies. As artists, we have to realize that what we create speaks. We have a valuable platform, and as Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker, (Ok, so Voltaire said it first but I’m a total Spiderman geek) “With great power comes great responsibility”.