This note was written in response to some negative criticisms of a photograph I posted of myself and another woman in an erotic pose. Unlike the catch phrase however, criticism is not always constructive, as it is used to shroud morally judgmental points of view, as well as racist, sexist and homophobic ones.
Because I was accused of contributing to the objectification of women, I sought to explore objectification as a gendered concept and specifically how it applies to art.
"Ways of Seeing" - a breakthrough documentary by John Berger, outlining the historical nature of the objectification of women in art from the Victorian ages to modern day.
Art critic John Peter Berger in his video essay Ways of Seeing (I-IV parts are available for view) attempted to debunk the female nude. His work won the Booker Prize in 1972 and is often still used as a college text. Berger’s basic premise is that the female body has been interpreted through a particular lens … a male lens, not only by the audience but by the artists themselves.
Berger’s discussion pivoted around the male gaze, which refers to the objectification of the female body by a male seer. In a male dominated (art) world, women were portrayed in ‘classical’/European art as looking outward, as if on display – inviting/desiring the gaze of a male audience; seeking their approval for her beauty, body or nakedness. This tradition can also easily be identified in modern art forms such as pornography, with female actors and models being called to “make love to the camera”, as opposed to a person. Male control of female bodies either by the brush or by the lens and how these bodies are sexualized and interpreted through patriarchal paradigms is an age old story. In the picture (above), neither ‘actor’ seeks the camera for recognition of how their bodies – or sexualities are being perceived or consumed. No parts are exposed, no touch ups or airbrushing have been applied and there is no selling of product - bodies or otherwise. These are some of the characteristics that separate erotica from pornography…art from exploitation. The image is intimate as well as sexy, just as it is strong and liberating.
It is a widely held myth that heterosexist societies are typically more sympathetic to lesbians than they are to gay men, while in reality, female/lesbian sexuality is fetishized, exploited and distorted by heterosexual men. The image may still meet with disapproval from some male and female seers as it remains outside of patriarchal control and the heterosexual paradigm. Assuming that the image is more acceptable based on the sex of the actors is therefore based on hegemonic (i.e. homophobic and heterosexist) notions of acceptability.
Below are a collection of images that John Berger’s documentary explores comprehensively, the imagery spans from the Victorian period to modern representations of the female nude.
On the other extreme exists the puritanical interpretation, with female purity as a gendered concept being used by religions old and new, as a tool of making women ashamed of their bodies, its natural functions and sexuality.
This does not mean however that the image determines the sexuality of the actors, which is in fact irrelevant. The image does not make either woman lesbian and in similar fashion, the sexuality of the seer should not determine the credibility or appreciation of the art.
I am proud to have contributed such a powerful image to Trinidad and Tobago’s visual landscape and affirm sisterhood with all women who have dared to live outside the boxes of, patriarchy, religious puritanism, sexism and homophobia.
“The Master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” Audre Lorde
Originally Published by Arc Magazine