The local commuter paper ran an interview today with John Currin, a painter who deals in explicitly physical and sometimes pornographic images of women. (The first picture on the linked slideshow, actually, is NSFW.) I find his work interesting, if sometimes (deliberately) disturbing; I wouldn’t exactly count him among my favorite painters but I have no beef with the guy. However, I found this bit of the interview rather telling:
Express: The majority of your work is of the female figure. Why is that?
Currin: The simple answer is that I enjoy looking at women more than I enjoy looking at men, but the more pretentious answer is that I find it easier to think of metaphors and allegories when I’m using women in paintings.
This got me thinking. Part of the reason we show such public interest in — and sense of entitlement to — women’s bodies is that they’ve historically been used to represent things that are at once greater and smaller than “individual woman.” When we’re accustomed to women’s bodies signifying virtues and values and cultural mores — instead of signifying, you know, a woman’s body — it’s no wonder we start to feel they’re public property.
Imagine walking into a museum room containing representative samples of figures in the history of Western art. Some of the female figures you see will be representing Venus, the Madonna, and so forth — but many will be allegories of love, virtue, chastity, poetry. Think of the Graces: three women usually represented from front, back, and side, a 360-degree view of the female form. That’s what “grace” is. Think of the Muses. Think of the Sistine sibyls (not to mention Brittania), who are not just qualities but places. Male figures appear in these paintings too, but almost always as gods or Biblical figures, people with names. Men are characters, women are symbols.
They’re still symbols today. The female bodies used in advertising rarely stand for actual people — they mean “smooth,” “tasty,” “appealing,” “sexy,” “expensive,” “new and improved.” Half the time they don’t even have faces, just a flank or a bust being used as a backdrop — the Nymph of the Liquor/Aftershave/Cereal/Beer. That repugnant series of Bacardi ads got one thing right: they gave their female images names and characteristics (at the expense, of course, of dignity — can’t have them getting too uppity). Most advertising bodies and body parts don’t even get that far. The much-maligned Headless Fatty is the other side of this coin, of course; she’s not a real person, but a metaphor for gluttony or ill health or consumerism or the downfall of society (if not all of the above).
Is it any surprise that women’s bodies are treated as a public concern? The entire culture is accustomed to seeing them used as metonymies for our highest (and lowest) values. The long historical pedigree of anti-woman sentiment means that the fact that women’s bodies contain women’s minds has always been elided, in favor of metaphorical elevation or degradation. We always have to stand for something, and what we stand for is everyone’s business.
This is why objectification isn’t just the province of misogynists, by the way. Often you’ll hear Nice Guys protest that they don’t objectify women — no, they worship them! So instead of just being sexual receptacles, women stand for all that is good and beautiful in the world. How original. How healthy.
In some ways we’ve come far from Elizabethan sonnet cycles where the beloved is Virtue and Wisdom Personified, but in other ways the female body is still being treated like Humpty Dumpty treats words — it means whatever people want it to mean. How do you get people to get their figurative thought off your actual figure? That’s probably a long and complicated process involving, more or less, overthrowing the patriarchy. As we get back control of our bodies and images, we’ll regain control over what they signify. Until then, just remember that you don’t have to be somebody’s metaphor. Don’t stand for just “standing for” — your body deserves more than a symbolic existence.