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).

Amanda Palmer, being an artist, and the question of “What is art?”

On Saturday morning I woke up early. I stared at my phone trying to transcribe digital readout into conscious thought and realized that I really had to get up right then if I was going to make the long drive up to  Annandale-on-Hudson in upstate New York to see Amanda Palmer’s play.

I had been excited for The Bed Show for months. With the things that had been going on in my life over the past two or three years, my bed was filled with all kinds of tension and joy and stress. The areas underneath it haunted by memories too real to handle, dark corners lurking behind brightly lit childhood photos and the familiar faces of stuffed animals. All I could think of as we drove up through the morning was how our beds are full of things we carry with us, even as we lie on them at night, shoving our bodies into the space between that baggage. I thought about how the things we carry rise up in us as we sleep. How they lift us up or press us down into the sheets, gasping and afraid or even ashamed of what we keep inside.

Sitting in the theater, I waited for some glimpse of Amanda. This woman that I felt that I had come to know all those years ago when she had sat in front of me on a stage at the TLA, legs spread beneath her piano, eyes intense and voice cracking with emotion, beating out a tempo that I have marched in sync with since then, from time to time. When I saw her come in stage right, I felt an unfamiliar stirring of excitement in my gut. The kind of feeling I have not had about an artist since meeting Neil Gaiman in college, and had never really felt before then.

If you can watch a laughing Amanda play ukulele while singing about ice cream without getting a severe case of The Warm Fuzzies, you're basically not human.
If you can watch a laughing Amanda play ukulele while singing about ice cream without getting a severe case of The Warm Fuzzies, you’re basically not human.

There aren’t a lot of artists that I feel a huge bond of kinship with. Oddly, Amanda married one of the other ones a few years ago. A fact that continues to make me smile a wry smile, like a friend who introduced two other friends and watched their romance blossom. I don’t know them, but somehow their connection seems very real to me, having grown up with Neil and having found something very adult and real to connect with in Amanda.

At any rate, I sat and watched her show. I laughed a lot. And I cried a lot. Particularly when an old man wandered onto the stage and sang a song about how he didn’t want people to feel pity for him as he moved through his life after the death of his wife and child. “I actually like it,” he told me, “with a hot cup of chocolate. And a cat in my lap.” He explained how people think your life ends when the people you love die, but it doesn’t. It just changes. And I was in the second row with my shoulders shaking, trying not to sob out loud at how beautiful and touching and soft and gentle this song was as it pried open everything I love and left me feeling exhausted and blessed all at once when it was finished.

Afterward, on the ride home and for two days afterward, I found myself looking around me and feeling genuinely disappointed with myself for not being a “better artist” or doing more artistic things with my life. I looked at Amanda from the audience and thought to myself “I could be doing so much more” and immediately felt a sense of guilt for not really using the talents I have. For not nurturing the artist inside me in the way that I should be.

Talk about a kick in the ass.

I think one of the reasons that I feel such a kinship with Amanda as opposed to other artists is the realization that she’s given me that I’m still sort of teasing out in my brain.

Most artists are so remote. They’re so far away from us that they seem super human. They don’t make their own posts on social media. They don’t really want to talk to you. And that distance leads to the feeling that, not only are these people super human, but there is no way you could ever do what they do. And that’s not a really good feeling and it leads to all sorts of issues with fame in this country that I could write a whole other blog post on.

The difference between Amanda and a lot of other artists is that she stands up and says she’s an artist but doesn’t exclude the rest of us from the conversation about her art. About art in general. In a way, her accessibility to her fans serves as an open invitation to come join the artist party. And, in the aftermath of The Bed Show and looking forward to her book tour here in Philly on Thursday, I feel more motivated than ever to get my art out there. To be heard. To do the things that I know I am capable of doing. And some of the things I’m not so sure about, because being scared of failure is bullshit.

One of the biggest bees in my bonnet when I was going through the ringer in the field of art history was this idea of trying to define what “art” really is. As if anyone has the right to tell anyone else that what they’re doing isn’t art. It was all wrapped up in this notion of the construction of “high art” and “low art.” It bugged me. I remember sitting down with my adviser and talking about my thesis paper and having him say “where’s the high art?” He didn’t like my response. Because there wasn’t any. Because I don’t think that high art is more important than low art.

In fact, I will even go a step further than that. I think that low art is more important than high art. When you define low art as vernacular photos, which is what my thesis was on. Or advertising. Or any of the million other things that we are surrounded by everyday. I mean, if vernacular photos are low art, what about the art of computer programming? What about the art of a love note in a lunch box? Or a home cooked meal? A thoughtful gift?

The point is, there is an art in our everyday lives that I think it is difficult to find when you constantly look at the untouchable artists around you. They distance themselves from us with the amount of money they can throw at a project or the amount of talent they can pay to surround themselves with.

Artists like Amanda invite you to reach out and touch the art around you. They invite you to participate in the artistic process. And that is the kind of art I can get behind. It’s beautiful and big and complicated and it invites you in in a way that is vital and alive. “Real art” (if we can ever define such a thing) inspires and communicates with the viewer. The world needs more real art.