I’m starting to formulate an understanding of feminism – firstly I am unsure though whether it should be Feminism or feminism, or whether that matters at all. Secondly I think I may form other understandings of feminism, in that what follows is a singular distance travelled in one direction, there are, I appreciate, many more directions that I could and may travel.
Of course I had a notion of the position of a ‘woman’ in society – John Lennon expressed it as ‘prone’ – and for many years I had always took that notion at it’s simplest level, the woman ‘laid out’ for the male, supplicant, available, subservient, exhibited much as ‘she’ has been for centuries by artists, nude or semi-nude for the gaze of the male. These notions weren’t conscious, they had been implanted by conditional means that seeped into subconscious via a multitude of visual, cultural and, now I think political mechanisms designed to keep the quo in stasis. However Lennon’s statement could be read as women’s political position in the patriarchal society as that of “prone”. Prone, by gender to under achieve, by their ‘other’s’ standards; to come second (if at all).
Much of ‘art’ until the democratization of the creation of visual media was destined for the privileged classes; patrons commissioned art for various reasons, to deliver their aggrandized view of themselves as a statement, to ease their passage to a better afterlife and not least to provide visual imagery for private, onanistic pleasure behind closed doors. Much as ‘Landscape’s’ traditional aesthetics have been driven by those with the ability to enjoy those landscapes, other than those who were destined to view them as toil, the view of the supplicant female entered the public consciousness by the same means of travel. When museums and mass printing became available the available aesthetic meant that what was extant, as visual imagery, became the de-facto norm in the lower reaches of the class system.
I am also coming to the notion that in our patriarchal, capitalist, consumerist economy, the objectification of the female image serves to reinforce those same value systems that have kept the male as the dominant role, bread winner, politician, King, President, Major, God. It all points to the same place, about three feet off the ground in a fully mature male body.
Reading De Lauretis’ book “Alice Doesn’t – Feminism Semiotics Cinema”, was a struggle at first – the usual issues with semantics covering semiotics, Marxian theories etc etc – but after a while, and by essay three: “Snow on the Oedipal Stage” things started to fall into place, pennies started to drop, it seems that what I had taken for granted may well be conditioning; either of a social/cultural or of a political kind. That, for example, I have always found the shape of a breast a thing of beauty could be associated with the Freudian notion of an Oedipal reaction, but nevertheless I still find that curve a thing of beauty, the same beauty of curve that I can see in so many commodities – especially those designed for male consumption, which is perhaps why we see it so much in visual media. That the breast has been iconified in Western media, and particularly by American mainstream media, and hence the motion picture, however I’m not sure why it is that don’t seem to have the relationship with the breast that the ‘media’ seems to assume that should have. My relations with the breast have been normal as far as I know, I was breast-fed, along with my twin sister – “turn and turn about” was how my mother described us, swapping over to ensure we got the same level of feed whilst both feasting at once. My wife breast-fed both our sons and she was not one to scurry away and hide in some ‘feeding station’ to do so (but that is her relationship with the breast and not mine). Femininity and body issues are though a current concern of mine and in particular the breast; I am working on a project to do with breast cancer, my wife had it, my sister had it, my mother had it and one of our best friends recently died of it, so it is current. The notion of breast therefore isn’t anywhere near as sexual for me as I suspect it may be for a lot of other people – male or female. But I am conscious that it is, in visual media, a strong symbol of sexuality.
If we look at Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting, “Cupid complaining to Venus”, about 1525 Oil on wood at the National Gallery we can see two bodies, one naked one nude; one a cupid figure, the other a young nubile epilated beauty. This beauty, or her like, has been painted a great number of times by this artist for a variety of clients and it would be unlikely that these commissions would have been on public view and, probably, not in a public place within the privacy of their owners premises. This nubile model is stated in a pose as to reveal most parts of interest to a male only gaze. Provocatively lifting her arms away from her body, twisting her pelvis towards the viewer and inviting our view. Compounding this immodesty is her wantonness demonstrated by her complete disregard for the infant cupid figure at her feet. This wretched child is being attacked by bees, it has clearly disturbed a bees nest that it is now, for whatever reason, holding. The infant is looking upwards imploringly to the young woman for help, but our Eve is ignoring him. This child, this young boy, isn’t a challenge to the viewer, the woman clearly is performing for the viewer’s alpha male gaze – we have as a viewer no challenge from this infant boy, any sense or potential of maternal feeling is subverted by her apparent need to serve her viewers needs and desires, that those needs are likely carried out in privacy of a secluded place and in a singular activity is perhaps seen as ‘job done’.
Why then would Tom Hunter develop his own rendition of the image? The Cranach image isn’t a particularly classical study, it is one that has been constructed for very little purpose other than for arousal I suspect. Developing a constructed image that professes to subvert the notion of class, as Hunter has done before and since, could have been accomplished with a range of different pieces, not least by the work he did on the Dutch masters such as Vermeer.
Girl’s Sex Acts in Club:Court.Cop:’It can only be described as having Sex through Clothes’ reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter’
Hunter’s image, references the painting by Cranach the Elder and depicts another young and nubile young woman, but instead of associating her with the notion of motherhood, this young lady has the dubious pleasure of being associated with the male gaze’s vision of her – of a woman who is there purely for the pleasure of the male gaze, and one assumes the private pleasure thereafter. Hunter’s female has a fully-grown male observing her, perhaps pleading to her not for protection from the sting of the bees prick but for use of his own. This male’s gaze portrayed in the image is twisted and turned in order to get a better view, leaning forward craning his neck to peer upwards to her vagina, he has no interest in her breast, nor anything that accompanies her genitalia. She though only has eyes for us, She doesn’t recognize the man’s presence, her gaze is for us, the viewer that has expressed a desire to look at her, or perhaps for the viewer who is the ‘owner’ of this print of her, bought and sold. Could this though be a feminist vision where the viewer is reminded of consequence of his gaze, of his commodifying gaze that makes a product out of the subjugation of women? Or is it, this depiction of the naked and not nude, what De Lauretis has it in her introduction to her book Alice Doesn’t?… “Let’s say that this book is about woman in the same manner as science fiction is about the future….From the present state of scientific theory and research, the science fiction writer extrapolates and projects the possibilities that, were they to be realized and concretized into a social technology, would effect an alternate world; that future, then, being at once the vanishing point of the fictional construct and its specific, textual condition of existence, i.e., the world in which the fictional characters and events exist. Similarly here woman, the other-from-man (nature and Mother, site of sexuality and masculine desire, sign and object of man’s social exchange) is the term that designates at once vanishing point of our culture’s fictions of itself and the condition of the discourses in which the fictions are represented. For there would be no myth without a princess to be wedded or a sorceress to be vanquished, no cinema without the attraction of the image to be looked at, no desire without an object, no kinship without incest, no science without nature, no society without sexual difference.”
The road goes ever on.