Living adjacent to Williamsburg which boasts a growing community of starving artists in $3,000 a month lofts, I’ve come across not only a population of artists, but also their social havens that feature their work and their undulating poems.
The social spots are considered by many to be a brewing pot of progressive thought where the next generation goes to nourish its mind and soul and yet some how the “art work” displayed consisting of red spray-painted bare-breasted torsos and vintage prints of pointy-bra pulp women just don’t seem progressive at all in my eyes. But these poor souls and their interpretation of acceptable art work does not only dwell in casual settings featuring $4 beers, but on top of the most elite mountain of art as well.
Upon my last visit to the MoMA, I passed by one abstract exhibit after another, ascending floor by floor to what I believed would be art bliss. On my journey, I heard rumors of the featured Venezuelan artist that tickled my curiosity. This interest peaked once I reached the top floor where his exhibit was stationed as I passed by a group of white-haired socialites donning Burberry trench coats.
“Mmmm, it is very fascinating.”
“I absolutely adore his work.”
“It’s a thrill to have his work displayed here.”
As I walked through the exhibit, I was met with the awkward greetings of boobs. In fact, there were so many of them that I walked around the exhibit counting on my fingers how many paintings there were with bare breasts for no apparent reason, and had to switch my tally to how many paintings featured women who were actually covered. My tally proved to be disheartening, and the bare breasts won 10-1.
Of course, this argument is met by defense from individuals saying “But, the female body is beautiful.”
Well, this is true. The human body in general is a wonderful thing to celebrate, but there is a sharp distinction between using art to celebrate and empower versus usurping. One must ask what type of role the female is playing in the art piece. For instance, is she taking a part in a significant action? Does she have a character? Does she even have a head? Is she a subject or an object?
In this case, the woman’s breasts splattered across the canvas took away any sort of subjectivity this woman might have and instead objectified the woman for her two circular commodities. In many paintings, the woman was headless, lurking naked in the background. In some pieces, there was a male character, dressed of course, but always accompanied by the two perfect and perky bulls-eyes, which, all ladies know simply don’t exist in reality. Keeping all this in mind, one must ask what kind of position do these paintings place women in? What story is being told and most importantly, whose point of view is this story being told from?
According to the Guerilla girls, only 3% of the artists in the Met. are female, where as 83% of the nudes portraits are of women. This does not mean that there are less female artists in the world it means that male artists are more likely to gain recognition. Not only are these males picked to share their works with the public and gain publicity, they are the ones who get to choose what images will be shared with the public. The nude portraits, therefore, are mostly created by males who, no matter how many times will study a nude model, will never quite understand how the female body works and who many times, have a distorted notion of sexuality.
There are still individuals who simply don’t see the harm in any type of imagery, seeing an invisible line between fantasy and reality that can never be breached. Art, in this case, is the vessel for imagery where the imagination can go off to play with no expense, yet this holds no verity. Every image and every piece of “art” whether its meant for one’s twisted fantasy or not has an impact on what our society deems as normal and acceptable. Not only this, it paves the way for sexism to survive in a helmeted shell as carrying the “art” label usually puts the skeptics glances at ease.
A perfect and fairly extreme example of life imitating “art” comes in the form of a December 1984 issue of Penthouse that featured a photo-essay by photographer Akira Ishagaki. Ishagaki basically played into a necrophilia fantasy entitled Sakura which he explains:
Sakura is the word for the cherry blossom. From my childhood . . . I recall the resemblance between the petals of the cherry blossom and a woman’s body. In the spring of my twelve years, I caressed the petals with my fingers, kissed them gently with my lips.
His words pave way for what one would think to be a flowery and beloved portrayal of women. Instead, his images depict an array of women’s bodies in sexually charged post-mortem positions. The images, all taking after Asian influence, are bleak and reek of death. One picture in particular, had a woman with a Japanese-looking outfit hanging limp from a tree, her arms bound behind her back, her head slumped forward, her leg exposed up to her thigh.
Two months later after the issue hit the shelves, Jean Kar-Har Fewel, an 8-year old Chinese girl, was found raped and murdered hanging from a tree.
Once a piece of art meets our society’s artistic standards, that piece, the image it beholds and the story it tells sets up invisible social structures and defines the norm. The norm, in many cases, seems to be that women are itching to be topless, and as Ishagaki portrayed, disposable. The Venezuelan exhibit told me that women are dispensable. All of the portrayed women are alike, have no character and submit to any sexual advances. The most likely cause of the problem is that this is the story that men are telling. These men are setting the roles and putting the pieces into place from their point of view, and it comes to no surprise that there are both men and women out there that believe many of these images are true and normal because they’ve been handed a set script of how they should act at a very young age.
Every aspect of media has a consequence on our society, and the art world is no exception. The usurpation of the female body is all too commonplace, and many pieces of art illustrate this quite well. Just because an individual is an artist, does not make that artist all-knowing or that viewpoint the truth. For the most part, the images we see of women are through the eyes of men, and those works created by women are too far and few between. In this case, art is not imitating life, but changing our lives to imitate a lie.
-written by Elena Gaudino