female nude rant

Earlier this year, I found myself in California, indulging in tide pool voyeurism. It was the middle of a trip whose adventure to driving ratio was approximately 1:8, and whose premise was a Las Vega Latin convention––Latin, as in the dead language. Suddenly (explanations of how and why would be dull and insipid), here we were on Laguna Beach among rocks pitted with shells and flies swarming the sweating kelp. The tide pools were intoxicating– the way I had to step carefully to avoid crushing things that might already be dead, the way a space unfolded so that I saw crabs everywhere where before I had scanned only pebbles. There is something in a crab that wants to be found, yes? The pincers are so coy, the shell so demure.

On the way back, slightly sunburned but with the salt already licked off my lips, I wandered into a gallery near the bus stop. The gallery, I quickly realized, only represented one woman* artist. Her paintings were all of blotchy flowers. (Note that I have the highest respect for certain blotchy flowers. Joan Snyder is a deep love of mine.) My survey also concluded that two of the four men represented by the gallery addressed the female nude. One featured a selection of naked women, painted gruffly with a pallet knife, their backs to the viewer. The other had a fantastical style––less like World of Warcraft and more akin to a plump-lipped, cartoonish translation of cakes into people (but, like, skinny cakes).

The female nude has been done throughout Western history, viewed for a time as a necessary part of any artists’ repertoire. Painting female flesh has been compared to painting landscapes, which themselves carry complicated associations in America with manifest destiny and private ownership. Very often, women are painted with a blatant male gaze, a gaze that removes her individuality and reduces her to an object, able to be bought, sold, and swapped in and out of any picture. There are certainly challenges to this, painted by people of every gender. Edouard Manet caused a stir when Olympia drew her hand across herself, staring at the viewer as if to say, This is mine. Jenny Saville paints fat women in a way that insists beautiful and fat are not mutually exclusive terms.

I think that the question of objectifying is infinitely complicated, and I have a particularly complicated relationship with it. I believe we objectify people all the time. Sure we see them as sex, but also as cogs in the capitalist machine, as the verdicts of a trial, as numbers and generalizations. And sometimes it’s consensual and kinky, but often it’s really sad. What we are often talking about when we say something is “objectifying” is how it is combined with power, the power of systems of the oppression, which make painting a naked woman’s back a threat. It is a threat in that it says, This could be any woman’s back so long as she is thin and white and young and it is ours to define as beautiful. It says, This is, in fact, ours look at as symbol rather than individual, to transpose and use, to use again, to titillate. It is a symbol of sex and mystery, but by becoming mystery, she ceases to be real and by being woman, she is defined as sex. Her turned face is not the object of fantasy, but rather the excuse to imagine everything except her face, not having to watch her expression or grapple with body language of one who knows she is being watched. This is not even encompassing the complications of representing race, which has often been figured as all body, all sex without the beauty privilege of whiteness. This culminates in the double awareness of oneself as a woman and of the consciousness of the men saying, THIS is sexy. Vehemently voyeuristic, it insists upon tidal pool logic. This sample of the ocean implies all the rest.

This experience did not feel unique to me. In a modern to contemporary painting exhibit at a well-know museum, an entire room was devoted to the female nude. Every painter exhibited in that room identified as a man. While I refuse to believe that men should not attempt the female nude, but I would really really truly deeply love to see anyone painting the female nude grapple with its history. It is so easy to paint a naked back with a trendy style and have it suggest good taste or class. It is as done and bland as bowls of fruit.**

Perched at the edge of a tide pool, I sketched a small brown crab crouched between a rock and another rock. It was slowly creeping into the narrower recess. Hiding from me, as if it went slowly enough, it would escape before I realized it was gone. Like most of my drawings, it detailed from right to left. Read in reverse. Each shadow ended at the tip of a claw.

* I was making assumptions based off of names, though I realize that not everyone who uses a traditionally feminine name identifies as female or was born with that name.

** Bowls of fruit could be totally edgy too, come to think of it. I would love to see that.

{Kuntsrule stories are written by our readers. Share your own at Kuntsrule Submission.}

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