Ella Wilson Coates questions the extent to which we can remove the perspective of objectification from the practice of life drawing, explaining how the art form should instead be one of appreciation and pride.
There have been many definitions of art through the years and some argue it is wrong to define it at all. However, I am not here to define art, only to look for a definition that satisfies and includes life drawing (the artistic act of drawing the object or person in front of you). I will define art (within the context of life drawing) as man-made creations of aesthetic beauty.
Art historian Kenneth Clark suggests that to be naked is to simply be without clothes, and ‘nudity’ is the naked depicted in art. Is it then at the point of painting the naked form on canvas that the nude becomes art? John Berger in his book ‘Ways of Seeing’ offers an alternative, that nakedness is individual, “to be oneself”. To be nude is to be viewed, seen not as “oneself” but as an object.
Following Berger’s distinction, nudity is present before the committal of the naked form to canvas. The artist arranges the model in the composition, as one might arrange a fruit bowl – they are an object. The mere arranging of the naked body by the artist is art: an aesthetic image created by the artist. It is not therefore that the nude becomes art, but that art and nudity happen simultaneously.
The term ‘male gaze’ was coined by film theorist Laura Mulvey, who stated that films were made by men for men, and that this led to the objectification and sexualisation of women in the media. Very similar to how contextually these classical works of life drawings were also created by men for men. Under patriarchy, women are taught that they exist primarily as a sight. Understandably, this might lead women to adopt that same objectification of themselves, and other women. As Margaret Atwood explains, “You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
Lexi and Lindsay Kite discuss in their book ‘More Than a Body’ that by being your “own voyeur” through the male gaze, you are denied the privilege of simply existing and living as “yourself”. Similar to Berger’s idea that when the naked body (oneself) is viewed, it transforms into the nude, an object. Through an internalised male gaze, we transform ourselves into objects, no longer existing primarily for “ourselves” but for the “voyeur”. With this internalised objectification we unconsciously mould ourselves after an aesthetic created by men for men. We become art itself.
This feels very out of our control – is there not a way women can live more as “oneself” rather than art? Well, if we are now defining ourselves as art, we might look towards how feminists have reclaimed art, in the same way we might reclaim our selfhood. One such group of artists are the Guerilla Girls, whose work outlines the injustices faced by women in the art space. Their most famous work is a poster titled: “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?”. The work depicts a recreation of a famous nude by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, but in their version the woman’s head is replaced by a gorilla’s. Guerilla Girls wore gorilla masks to conceal their identity, and by donning the head of a gorilla the nude woman became one of them, critiquing the male gaze rather than performing for it. Unless this gorilla-woman hybrid is your thing, gorilla-woman mocks your attraction to nudes in this subversion of the male gaze. She challenges us to see her for more than aesthetics, she stretches the definition of art that confined her in the life drawing by Ingres.
The gorilla-woman is juxtaposed by the statistic that runs alongside her in the poster: ‘less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female’. To bring us back to Berger, “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”. The nude women in the life drawings are art, but they themselves are not to pick up the brush – especially if they are not middle-class and white. In recognising men’s privilege we must also recognise the intersectionality amongst women. Our fight as feminists is not simply over when white women gain more space in the Met.
In light of the Guerrilla Girls, perhaps the question: ‘At what point does nudity become art?’ still applies, but as our definition of art has changed, our answer too may be changing. Our definition no longer just covers life drawings and the aesthetic, but the radical and ridiculous. Like artists challenging the definition of art, we too have the power to stretch the confines of the patriarchy. If we are seen as art, then let us transform our canvases and reclaim our own life drawing in which we are the subject – whack a gorilla’s head on it!