Bodies on Display, Then and Now

Bodies on Display, Then and Now

I witnessed a breakthrough this week, one of those “a-ha” moments that, as a teacher, is so terribly exciting. I’m teaching an undergraduate seminar this spring on Women and Gender in Art History. Since we’re a small school, though, we don’t have an art history major and many of my students come from non-art backgrounds. This means that most of the ideas and artists we’re talking about are brand-new for most of the students.

What was this “a-ha” moment? It was the realization, voiced by one of my students, that the display of women’s bodies that we see happening throughout the history of art is not really so different from the display of women’s bodies in contemporary popular culture. This may seem apparent to many of you readers, and the student in question was surprised herself that she had never made this connection. She is well-read in ideas of the male gaze, and considers herself savvy when it comes to critiquing mass media representations of women.

Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863
Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. (Flickr)

So what is the difference? Or, why the blindness when it comes to recognizing these issues in art history, rather than in popular culture? One of my theories is that, as a society, we’re simply not versed in looking at art like we do other visual images. We think that there is a big difference between the two, and many of us are intimidated by the idea of “interpreting” art. We may enjoy art museums as repositories of culture (if, in fact, we visit museums at all), but we are often quick to assume that artists represented what was in front of them, rather than seeing them as purveyors of political positions and cultural agendas.

One of the essays we read for class this week was Linda Nochlin’s “The Imaginary Orient.” In this piece, she looks at the way 19th-century French painters gazed upon the Orient, the exotic Other, and presented that gaze to the French public through their art. One of her main points, which I think was a new thought for many of the students, was that a realistically painted scene does not equal reality. In other words, in spite of the fact that painters like Jean-Leon Gerome created very realistic-looking images, we should not understand them as documentary, as direct transcriptions of Oriental life. Rather, they were constructions, intended to impart / reinforce certain cultural and Colonialist ideas – that the foreign Other was exotic and mysterious, that they were brutal and uncivilized, that they were idle (unlike the hard-working Europeans), and that their women were sexually available.

Eugene Delacroix, Women of Algiers, 1834
Eugene Delacroix, Women of Algiers, 1834. (Flickr)

Not that the sexual availability of women was not inherent to Western European scenes as well, but it was certainly made more explicit when the setting was a foreign one. (Let me tell you, none of the students think very highly of Gauguin anymore.)

One of my goals with this class, then, is to make the larger visual imagery bridge, to help these students not only learn how to look at and interpret art but also connect their visual knowledge across disciplines. Next week we’ll be visiting two art exhibitions, “A Complex Weave: Gender and Identity in Contemporary Art” – a nationally touring show from Rutgers University, home of The Feminist Art Project – and “Working on the Bias,” a pendant show of work by regional artists that explores the body and gender identity through art that physically or conceptually incorporates stitched, embroidered, or woven elements. Following those museum and gallery visits, we’ll gather with other area college students for a viewing and panel discussion of “Miss Representation,” a 2011 documentary that “explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women have led to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.”

Too often, art historical imagery is either used as illustration for someone’s argument or simply accepted at face value, as a representation of “what is / was.” Here’s to shaping a generation of critical thinkers and consumers of ALL visual imagery. And maybe the next time my students go to a museum, they’ll take a cue from the Super Bowl movement and tweet #NotBuyingIt.

Featured image caption: Victoria Silvstedt PMOY 1997. (Flickr)