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.

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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?

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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!

 

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Art Discussion – “God As The Artist”

I have always loved paper dolls, although they were a bit hard to find already even when I was young. I used to get American Girl Magazine in the mail, and each issue would come with a set of punch-out paper dolls based on REAL girls, with an outfit from present day as well as 3 more from women 1,2, and 3 generations back in her family. The dolls were my absolute favorite part, and I really wish I would have kept them now. The American Girl paper doll sets were the only ones I really played with, because more than just the different outfits to try on, I was captivated by all of the different PEOPLE!

This brings me back … I definitely had this one – along with near 50 others.

I would lay them all out and marvel over all of the differences – in build, in facial structure, hair color, skin color, eye color, smile … and no two people look exactly alike, even twins; how can this be? It blew my little 8-year-old mind.

Fast forward about a decade and a half later, and I got this crazy idea – what if I made a paper doll in which the “doll” was a skeletal structure and the “clothes” were the skin that goes over them? I adore detailing internal structures of both humans and animals. I swear if computers were never invented and they still needed people to hand draw the illustrations for medical textbooks, I would be your girl (then again, I would not be typing this blog either. No lie, I love technology. Goodbye obscure dream career, definitely worth the tradeoff.).

"God As The Artist"; bristol board, ink, acrylic, corrugated cardboard

“God As The Artist”; bristol board, ink, acrylic, corrugated cardboard

At first this was just something quick I was going to do for fun for myself, but then I had to stop and think about why I was so excited about this idea. Both human beings and animals truly are moving, breathing works of art. They are living sculptures, filled with beautiful angles, textures and colors, and intricacies. We tend to idealize one type of beauty and overlook the artistry in anything that lies outside of that predetermined, narrow field. You would never walk into a gallery and say “My favorite color is violet, so I’m only going to look at the violet paintings. Any others, no matter how interesting or skillfully rendered, are completely worthless.” Yet how often do we write off other people in this same way?

Back view, depicted as a wall in an abandoned house complete with skeletal themed artwork and wallpaper print, "We are all living sculptures"

Back view, depicted as a wall in an abandoned house complete with skeletal themed artwork and wallpaper print, “We are all living sculptures”

"God As The Artist" aerial view

“God As The Artist” aerial view

I decided to include animals as well, because I really think we don’t have enough awe for how amazing they actually are. We get pumped about the unfamiliar and exotic, like lions and tigers at a zoo, but neglect to equally appreciate those living in our own backyards. In general, we kind of only notice animals when we need them for something, otherwise they are either an annoyance or just part of the furniture. I challenge you to go out for a walk on a nice day and pretend you are an alien from another planet who has never seen earth and its creatures before. Then really look, especially at the birds. Think of how tiny their skeletal system is, how it must interlock so that the framework of their wings can move as they need to in order to ascend into the air. Look at the colors and textures of their feathers. If that isn’t art, I don’t know what is. I guess that’s why I’ve never been one for hunting. There are increasingly less beautiful things in this world, why would you want to destroy something beautiful?

We are the most complex kinetic sculptures ever formed, and being alive surrounded by all this living and breathing wonder truly is a privilege. I forget that sometimes; we all do.

I still love drawing paper dolls for people to play with. Maybe every grown-up feels this way, but I’ve noticed that dolls, and the so-called “girl” sections in toy stores in general, kind of suck now. If I’m going to complain, I suppose I also have to do something about it! Since kids aren’t likely to play with skeletons, and also this crazy awkward giggling thing tends to happen when they are confronted with things like “boobs”, I have made many more child friendly sets since this one. I have two types of sets, one in which each girl has an “aspiration” theme (athlete, artist, chef, scientist …) and a pet, and another fantasy hero set in which your girl can save the world in various time periods and universes, from an imaginary world where superpowers exist to medieval Europe (Upon watching me draw the fantasy outfits, my boyfriend commented in surprise, “A girl knight?” and I swear to god, I almost clocked him. Exactly the kind of preconceptions I am trying to combat here ^_^.) Basically, I want to represent a wide variety of girls with a wide variety of personalities, styles, interests, talents, and dreams. I’m not done yet; as I touched on earlier, there are innumerable different types of people, that’s what’s so cool! But I’m working on it.

Zooey and Genesis Paper Doll Set

Zooey and Genesis Paper Doll Set

Fantasy Hero Layla Paper Doll Set

Fantasy Hero Layla Paper Doll Set

These paper doll sets and many more are available in my ebay store and etsy shop. If there’s a set you’d like to see, let me know! I take suggestions.