Breasts are everywhere in popular culture. This is nothing new. And yet I’ve been struck in recent years by the resurgence of the breastfeeding body in visual culture and contemporary art. It’s apparently a big deal (i.e., magazine-cover newsworthy) that Salma Hayek, Alanis Morrisette, Tori Spelling, Kourtney Kardashian, Angelina Jolie, Christina Aguilera, and many other celebrities breastfeed their babies.
While Western art history offers an abundance of nursing Virgin and Child imagery, less often have artists pictured other mothers in this way. There are notable exceptions, to be sure – the breastfeeding woman as an allegory of charity (Rembrandt, Rubens); images of the wet nurse (Gérard, Morisot); portraits and self-portraits by Paula Modersohn-Becker; mother-child unions painted by Mary Cassatt. In the last decade, however, artists around the world seem to have newly embraced the maternal body, sometimes in direct opposition to public perceptions of breastfeeding, particularly in the United States.
American cultural prohibitions surrounding breastfeeding, where public nursing is often deemed inappropriate or even obscene, stand in stark contrast to the much-touted idea that “Breast is Best” for babies, which is promoted by pediatricians, lactation consultants, and even formula companies. States now must pass laws to “allow” breastfeeding in public. Major news outlets regularly frame breastfeeding as a controversial act, not only drawing attention to instances of discrimination (women asked to leave restaurants, health clubs, or airplanes for breastfeeding) but also perpetuating potential scandals. The recent Time magazine cover featuring a mother and nursing toddler specifically photographed the pair in a controversial position that sought to capitalize on potential controversy and public outcry over the appropriateness of extended breastfeeding.
Contemporary artists around the world now respond to and participate in these culturally constructed controversies as they make the lactating body increasingly visible. To name only a few: Jess Dobkin pushes the boundaries of public (dis)comfort with her milk-tasting events in the on-going performance, Lactation Station Breastmilk Bar. Catherine Opie, Katharina Bosse, Renée Cox, the M.A.M.A. collaborative, Sarah Webb, Jacki Skrzynski, and Zorka Project all address the loaded identity of the nursing mother. Marina Abramovic last year built upon the long history of Madonna and Child imagery to “breastfeed” Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy in The Contract (2011). Margaret Morgan and the Duende collective have used breastmilk as an artistic medium. Jill Miller recently created The Milk Truck in response to the unfriendly environment encountered by American mothers who nurse in public. Driving around to nurse-ins and to potential public breastfeeding emergencies, The Milk Truck empowers nursing mothers, creates community, and raises awareness – and, as a truck topped by a huge breast with a flashing nipple, is a sight to behold.
But do these artists seek to argue that “breast is best”? Some do, perhaps. The vast majority, however, picture the lactating body not to proselytize but to make visible all aspects of the feminine body, to embrace the fullness of maternal experience, and, sometimes, to rail against a culture that too often sees lactation as obscene, unnatural, and something to be hidden away. And just in case you were wondering, Beyonce breastfeeds her baby, too.