Art Lesson: The Male Gaze

I’m gonna use my degrees in this blog! Are you excited? I’m excited. Ok. Here we go.

One of the things that I learned about in my art history classes was the male gaze. The term was coined by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey and has been talked about by all sorts of smart people. Susanna Danuta Walters defines the male gaze as having three distinct “looks.”

First is the gaze within the representation itself: men gaze at women, who become objects of the gaze; second, the spectator, in turn, is made to identify with this male gaze and to objectify the woman on the screen; and third, the camera’s original “gaze” comes into play in the very act of filming; the camera here can be understood as an extension of the male eye.

The gaze within the painting is always interesting to me. I didn’t really start thinking about it until I took a class on Impressionism and noticed the way that the figures in the paintings looked at each other. And how those looks effected the way that I read the painting and what was happening in it. The play of glances in a piece of art can turn women into objects or empowered beings. They can change men from slaves into free soldiers and mercenaries. They can turn a relationship from sweet to sour, based simply on where the people in a picture are placing their eyes.

The act of gazing at a painting is another means by which we can experience the male gaze. There are a lot of paintings and pieces of art that make me feel as though I am being voyeuristic merely by looking at them. The most famous of which, to me, is Marcel Duchamp’s assemblage Étant donnés: 1. La chute d’eau, 2. Le gaz d’éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas). In this particular work, the absence of the face and the inability of the figure to look back at the viewer is particularly unsettling. Added to the fact that one must peer through too small holes in the wooden door preceding the work, the whole piece takes on a voyeuristic feeling which is incredibly difficult to reconcile for most viewers.

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When Walters points out that the camera itself is an extension of the male gaze, she is referring to the idea that the creation of the image itself is an inherently voyeuristic act. Art and voyeurism are bedfellows a lot of the time. It’s the nature of art and the artist to be looked at, after all, and the nature of the public to look. The voyeurism inherent in art is highlighted when it comes to photography, which allows the artist to capture something in a moment without the necessity of hours of work or even, and this is especially true nowadays, the consent of the subject that they are capturing. But photographs are not the only medium that can create the feeling of voyeurism. Sometimes that feeling is the intention of the artist. Sometimes it is something that is read into the experience based on what the viewer carries with them. And voyeurism does not necessarily have to imply the male gaze in any way.

The thing about the male gaze is that, once you are aware of it, you can’t ever unsee it. It’s kind of like feminism. Once you start to see the world through a certain lens, you can’t just flip a switch and turn that lens off.

So now that you’ve had a mini art lesson, here’s an object lesson in the extremity to which the male gaze is recognizable.

When I sat down the other week at Talking Headz and waited to get my side buzz refreshed, I did what I usually do, consummate art nerd that I am. I opened the issue of American Art Collector that was sitting on the table in the waiting area. I paged through it, then stopped when I was confronted with these two images, facing each other.

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Without even looking at the pictures of the artists, I knew that the image on the right was done by a male artist. Everything about her pose says “I am being looked at. I am here to be looked at.” She locks eyes with the viewer, her arms held over her head to expose her chest. Even her vagina is bare. She holds nothing back.

In his bio, J. Richard Anderson states that he wants to portray the modern woman of the 21st century. He says “She is empowered and takes control of her future and her destiny. She is, without question, amazing.” But that is not what he has given us in this image. Tamara, as this painting is titled, has no future. She has no destiny. She does not have anything in this image to put her into a societal context. She stands in front of a white background, totally divorced from the real world. She is ideal in that she is uncomplicated and exists only to be consumed by the viewer. Anderson’s version of “empowerment” is entirely a sexual one. He wants his women just empowered enough to bare their pussies for a nude photo shoot, but he is unable to conceive of a woman’s power beyond the moment in which it is given over in an act of sexual surrender.

Morning Light by artist Connie Renner also portrays a semi-nude woman, but the differences could not be more explicit. Rendered in a style reminiscent of Mary Cassatt, she sits up in bed, sunlight streaming across the wall behind her. Like Tamara, her arms are also behind her head, but it appears as though she is in the act of putting up her hair. Or perhaps stretching. Flowers adorn the background. The fabric draped around her waist warms her skin lends a sense of wanton immodesty to the scene that feels somewhat cheeky. She is not looking at us, but we do not feel like a voyeur. We are in her space, but it feels as though we have her permission. We are her intimates. Her trusted friends. Perhaps her lovers.

The strange thing is that the direct eye contact of Tamara tends to put me in mind of Manet’s Olympia and other women like Renee Cox that I tend think of as empowered and in control of their bodies. But eye contact does not always mean agency, and this woman does not seem to have any in this image. In a similar contradiction, I tend to associate anonymity with powerlessness in images of woman. But, although Renner’s woman is anonymous, she feels powerful even without a name. She is not looking at us, but the sense of voyeurism is mitigated by the soft Cassatt-like style that draws us in rather than holding us at arms length.

I have had several furious conversations about these works over the last several weeks with artist friends and feminists. And all of them have immediately commented on how gross and exploitative the work on the right seems, when compared to the work on the left. Part of me wonders if the pairing of these two was not a joke on the part of whoever laid out the edition. Because the pairing seems too strange and sarcastic and perfect not to be.

This is not to say that the male gaze cannot create things that are of great value and artistic integrity. It is merely to say that the male gaze is pretty easily recognized. And that this particular guy’s view of women is troubling, strange, stilted, and pornographic in a way that, I imagine, would make it hard to sell paintings. It is worth noting that, 5 years after this magazine was published, I can find Renner’s web site but it looks as though Anderson is not even online any longer. Which I guess is what you can expect when you create paintings of what are, essentially, overblown Playboy centerfolds.


The cropped image in my header is from Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting, Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (Wanderer Above the Mist).

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5 thoughts on “Art Lesson: The Male Gaze

  1. Loooove this analysis. I’ve tried, in my non-art-student way, to articulate the differences between sexy/nude female depictions that feel exploitative and those that feel powerful. To me it’s a very immediate, visceral thing, but saying why is difficult. So thanks!

    Another thing I’d love to read about — and if you know of any writing on this I’d love to be directed to it — is differences in ways sexy women are portrayed by artists of different genders and orientations. Are there patterns in the ways gay men portray women, vs het men, vs lesbians, vs het women? Etc. I suspect that would be a fascinating area of study.

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    • Thank you! It’s a really hard thing to articulate. I spent a lot of time talking about the gaze and the way in which we connect with paintings and photographs of people in my graduate work, so I’ve got a lot of practice. And even then, I have to sit with things for a little while sometimes before I can tell you exactly why they ping the way that they do for me.

      You know, I wouldn’t be able to really give you much direction on that because I’m not sure what – if anything – has been written on it. That is likely because being out and open about sexuality isn’t something that has been done for very long in society, so there isn’t a large body of work that has been analyzed by art historians or compiled in a cohesive way. It wouldn’t surprise me if this were coming down the road, though. And you can definitely look into LGBT artists and see how they capture various types of bodies.

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  2. Loved getting your view through these examples of woman seen through the “male gaze” frame versus woman seen otherwise. Learned about this feminist insight into female art subjects 20 or more years ago. How the art was created in the first place and then how the art is presented in the second show people what it means and why it’s a radical insight. But takes some pondering to achieve!–Thanks, Carol

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  3. I really enjoyed learning about an art history concept while seeing how it plays out in our every day life and media! Those two images next to each other in the art magazine make the difference in gazes so explicit. Thank you for writing and sharing!

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