Prompted by Laura Shill
The nude has played an ever-evolving and always ambivalent role in the works of artists throughout the course of recorded Western art history. It is such a rich source for artists to mine precisely because it is problematic. The human body is simultaneously the site of pleasure and pain, beauty and disgust, at once the center of our very existence and a speck of dust in the infinite expanse of time—it is paradoxical by nature, while being both personal and political. And female bodies in particular still serve as political battlegrounds where fights over agency, autonomy, and access are waged both publicly and privately.
The nude figure has performed a seemingly endless number of often contradictory roles in art—in one breath an expression of human desire and longing and in the next a cautionary morality tale; in one creator’s hands humanizing and in another’s objectifying; both a subject to be mastered in the course of artistic training, and the means of animating imagined dreamscapes. Artists have used the nude to both push artistic boundaries and also reinforce hierarchies.
For centuries, viewers have disproportionately gazed upon images of nude women made by men and have internalized a creative narrative whereby female material is given form by male creators. Historically, images authored by women have been largely ignored and routinely disregarded as being of a lesser quality or engaging subject matter that is frivolous, unimportant, feminine. Has the outsized number of female image—objects that we view daily impaired our ability as viewers to see nuance, complexity, humor, etc. of artistic material given form by female creators?
The conversations that have emerged in response to #MeToo—discussions surrounding female agency and authorship are challenging our assumptions about the nature of looking and being looked at and the gendered politics embedded within. At this point, discussions of the gender politics of artistic production, visibility, and representation often fall into a familiar trap. Arguments focus on censorship or defining acceptable codes of conduct for artists. Our challenge here is to instead examine our role as viewers and apply our criticality there.
Perhaps it is time to revisit the idea of the male gaze in our new economy of looking and being looked at. As spectatorship and performance has moved into the realm of the everyday—with each of us acting as both creator and consumer of images in our various feeds—are we challenging or reinforcing hierarchies and old power structures, or creating a new set of problematics? Are the power relationships embedded in the gaze fixed or fluid? A product of a biological imperative or cultural conditioning? And do we want to be freed from the objectifying power of the gaze, or is this a vital part of attraction and desire?
Could one function of the nude in the post #MeToo era be to turn our focus to women as subjects—as authors—and ask what is required of us as viewers to start reading these works from a perspective that acknowledges and seeks to understand our own implicit biases?
“Who’s Afraid of the Female Nude?” by Michael Slenske and Molly Langmuir. The Cut. April 16, 2018.
“Not Safe for Work” by Alina Cohen. The Nation. September 18, 2017.
“The Male Glance” by Lili Loofbourow. Spring 2018.
“Introduction: Learning to look at women.” Girl on Girl: Art and Photography in the Age of the Female Gaze. By Charlotte Jansen.
About the Prompter
Laura Shill is an artist based in Denver, Colorado whose work is a collision of sculpture, installation, performance, printmaking, and photography. Her work addresses ideas of the viewer and the subject, disclosure and concealment, absence and intimacy. Her works explore the transformative potential of people and objects through early and experimental forms of image making that pair the sinister and beautiful.
Shill earned an MFA in Interdisciplinary Media Arts Practices from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2012 and has exhibited her work nationally and internationally at the 2017 Venice Biennale at the European Cultural Center, The Gallery Of Contemporary Art, Colorado Springs, Redline Gallery, Denver, and Hyperlink Gallery, Chicago. Her recent solo exhibition, Phantom Touch took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver.