This brief article on a recent international ad campaign highlights exactly what’s wrong with the female body in public spaces – that we just can’t distinguish between nudity that is erotic and nudity that is irrelevant to sex. I have loved Egon Schiele’s work since my first trip to NYC’s Neue Gallery when I was 14 or so – aside from the amazing Café Sabarsky that you should absolutely save up for and splurge on, the Neue Gallery exposed me to this incredible artist who was exactly what I was trying to express in my own art at the time. I should back up here – before I was a historian, I was all about art, and I had plans to be a high school art teacher. I worked in watercolor, and although my subjects were typically fantastical, they were very grounded in anatomical drawings and playing with the human form. It’s obvious to me in retrospect that I was struggling through body image issues and playing with physical expression. I stopped painting right around the time I started college – I was overcoming my depression and body anxiety and painting just didn’t serve a function for me anymore – but I continued to love art and have a passion for teaching, which is how I ended up doing material culture history. What grabbed me in Schiele’s work was how incredibly weird it was. Women (and men) in his work aren’t there because they’re beautiful (even though they often are), they’re there because they’re human. Their bodies are contorted, sickly, angular even when they are full of fat, skin sallow even when it’s pink. But more importantly, the implied relationship between Schiele and his subjects, and therefore the viewer and the naked lady in the painting, is invasive. Schiele presented people in intimate moments, private moments, and their total lack of concern, or seeming irritation at the viewer, betrays that their subject-ness is not normal, it is an unwelcome interruption. Their bodies are for themselves, and you’ve overstepped by looking at the painting.
If you’ve ever seen the classic art history tv special “Ways of Seeing” or read the book produced from it, (or of course if you’re in any way educated in art history) you know that Western art is heavily dominated by depictions of women that present them as the objects of male desire even when they are doing totally innocuous things. We call this the male gaze, and it has occupied a prominent position in public discourse in recent years, ever since feminist academic language has started to become common parlance. The male gaze and the concept of female objectification is so much more than sexualizing women, though. It’s about exactly what Schiele’s work is in response to – the male gaze is the framing of women in any situation as objects of desire for men, so that even when men are intruding, the subject of the painting doesn’t really seem to mind. The demure downward gaze, the look of mock surprise, even the mortification that comes with rape, are all presented under the purview of the male gaze as implicit consent – these women are sexy and they know it, they just can’t help it and you the (heterosexual male) viewer shouldn’t be able to help looking either. It goes so far as to make this little girl and her dog sexy. It’s not the male viewer who sexualizes or makes pleasurable these scenes that shouldn’t be, it’s the presentation of women in them. It’s “their mouths say no but their bodies say yes” – the faces of these women might suggest that they don’t like what is happening to them, but their bodies show no sign of anxiety.
Schiele’s work is so opposed to that model, it’s easy to see why it’s still considered radical. It’s uncomfortable – it tells the viewer that he shouldn’t be there. And I do mean “he”. For me, Schiele made me feel welcome in a way, because the paintings acknowledged that it is not normal to look at a naked woman you don’t know, that this body has a life outside of this naked moment. Around the same time I discovered Schiele I also became a huge fan of Artimesia Gentileschi , a Renaissance artist whose entire story is a feminist banner. She is probably most famous for here “Judith Slaying Holofernes”, which depicts the extremely violent decapitation of a rapist, as well as for her personal life in which she accused another artist of raping her and took him to court. Although Gentileschi’s work is a bit more typical – Judith somehow manages to display some cleavage even as she hold Holofernes by the hair and forces a sword through his neck – it’s just as discomfiting, because Judith’s sexiness is placed next to a violent murder. These works are empowering because they depict female subjects objecting to their objectification, plain and simple.
And yet, this is a concept we still have a lot of trouble with. We still need to argue about when something is sexual and when it is not. And for the simplest primer on this issue, I direct you to this video about the butt.
The butt is sometimes sexual and sometimes not. We understand this concept – that when you kick someone’s ass you are not committing a sex crime, but when you stare at their butt in tight pants it’s not because you’re angry at it. And yet we don’t understand this concept, because we still need to be reminded that breastfeeding is not sexual, or that going to the doctor is not sexual. We somehow can’t get past the idea that there are some parts of our bodies that are private, not because they are used for sex, but because they exist in a space that only belongs to each of us individually. And yes, in that space, sometimes we do things that are sexual. But sometimes we do things that are simply private. Or, more importantly, that regardless of whether what we are doing is inherently private, we have the right to decide whether we want company in it.
Schiele’s work is still radical because the male gaze is still a problem – we still get confused over what is sexual and what is not. But ads depicting his work are, ironically, censored because of that confusion. The original campaign, which chose to present some of Schiele’s most brazen figures, was smartly in the spirit of his work – it recognized that the viewer should be confronted with the discomfort of looking at something that is not theirs. The censors, however, are deeply confused. They pixelated just genitalia because genitalia are sexual – the rest of the image is the same, and the viewer knows exactly what they’re blurrily looking at. That pixilation is for the male gaze only – for people who would not see these images as sexual, it’s something of an affront. It’s like bleeping “drat” – why make a fuss over something that’s not offensive? For people who know these are not meant to be erotic paintings, censoring them not only misses the point, it contradicts the point. For me, these paintings are empowering images of people being laid bare and made unattractive, saying “it’s no fun when I don’t also like it, is it?” To cover them up, not entirely, but just the most immediately offensive parts, is to treat them like all of those coy vixens, whose bodies are willing and whose eyes don’t matter. You might say “but is it appropriate to have a giant poster of a naked vulva in public where children are forced to see it?” and I would say yes. It’s appropriate because the painting is its own context. The painting explains that there are times when people don’t want to be seen, that you should always have a say over who looks at you or touches you and in what ways. Nudity itself is not the problem, it’s the context, the presentation, of nudity. And that’s a lesson that’s just as important as sharing or playing nice.