the question of identity in female nudes

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905 ): The Bathers  ,  1884

William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905): The Bathers, 1884

I spent most of Friday at the Art Institute of Chicago, unthinking with Magritte and wandering, as I always do, through as much art as my eyes and mind could contemplate.  This time I paid particular attention to the nudes, because the previous day, a friend of mine shared this Guerrilla Girls billboard online:  

Guerrilla Girls, 2012

Guerrilla Girls, 2012

It's a problem we should discuss: images of women and their bodies are a commodity in mainstream media, which mainly excerpt breasts, butts, legs, and/or pelvises in order to sexualize something and thereby make it appealing.  (See: every contemporary ad ever.)  This type of depiction removes the identity of the individual and uses her body to shill a product, which is the goal of advertising and fashion modeling.  Very few people want to see how Elizabeth (or Tania, or whoever) wears/uses something; they want to see the product and imagine themselves in Elizabeth's place.  It's probably a good thing (from the seller's point of view) that Elizabeth is not memorable.  Ads say: "Don't think about these people; picture yourself here."

Fine art, however, is different.

A recent photography show at the gallery featured a series of nudes, in each of which the model's face was obscured by her hands or a shadow.  Some wondered, "Why can't I see her face?  Isn't this a perfect example of the problem of erasing women's identities in media?" 

Short answer: sort of.

Better answer: you're asking the wrong question. 

Because despite the supposedly admirable intentions of the art critic, the root questions of this conversation are: Why do artists depict women this way?  Who is she?  Why can't I see her face?  Why can't I see more of her? 

Ultimately, what this conversation means is: How do I look at women? 

The conversation is a symptom of the exact problem it purports to address.  Rather than actually delving into a woman's identity, asking the model herself about the art, learning about her part in the collaboration, we tend to see female nudes as a pure objectification -- a form imposed on women by primarily male (see above) artists.  Forget the fact that a woman elected to pose, to use her body as a tool for communication.  Nope.  She shouldn't have to do that in the first place!  But wait, if she does, I want to see her face too.  I want to know her.  I want her identity as well as her body.  I want more.  I want it all. 

"The question of identity" is a deceptive title for this blog, because it's not really a question of identity.  It's a question of agency.  When we see a faceless nude, we should ask first why she chose to represent herself that way.  We should ask why we want to know more within the context of the artwork.  Because in some cases, wanting to see a woman's face is not in fact liberating her from patriarchal oppression.  It is demanding that she give something of herself to you. 

I realize this issue is interwoven with so many others.  I oppose the objectification of women for sales and titillation.  I oppose ingrained narratives telling us that female nudity and female sexuality (two different things!) are wrong.  But perhaps most of all, I am infuriated by people who tell women what to do simply because they are women. 

Several years ago, I told a friend my opinion that prostitution in the U.S. should be legalized and regulated, like, yesterday.  He was surprised that I, given my staunch feminism, would support female sex work.  I said something like, "I don't support trafficking.  I don't support rape.  I support women doing what they choose to do with their own selves.  Not being allowed to do what they want.  Choosing." 

Female agency means that if a woman wants to take her clothes off, she'll do it.  You don't harass or insult her for it; you don't goad her into doing more than she wants.  You listen to her, watch her, respect her by giving her what she wants.  If she wants to model, dance, film, sell sex, whatever -- she should do that.  She should not be exploited for it.  She should not be forced into something she doesn't want.  She must be free to make her own decision without being judged, threatened, or assaulted for it. 

I purchased one of the nude photos from that exhibition.  Before I read up on the Guerrilla Girls, studied the nudes at the Art Institute, and had this conversation with my gallery colleagues, I mounted that photo on my wall, and I don't regret that decision in the least.  The model is kneeling, her body turned away from the camera, with her beautiful long neck in the bright light and her raised arm and hand covering her face.  In that instance, her identity doesn't matter.  The photo, titled Despair, is about something else. 

I am glad that men and women are concerned about identity erasure.  I'm glad that more viewers of females in art are questioning the nature of women's depictions and their own reactions to it.  But if we're going to have a conversation, let's have it the right way.  If you're going to question one thing, question everything.  Language matters, and if we look closely, we realize that "I want to see her face" is just one more in a long line of irrational, contradictory, and useless demands placed on women. 

ARTR.E. Maleyart, identity, women