28 January 2008

"I have wondered what the connection might be between art and exhibitionism ..."

Fuck, Suck, Spunk, Wank (1993)
© Sam Taylor-Wood

On a quasi-regular basis The Guardian publishes somewhat cranky but typically very perceptive essays by Germaine Greer. I've noted a couple of these here and here. Today there is one entitled "Why do so many female artists put themselves in their work - often with no clothes on?" where she remarks:
It is a truism of feminist history that women have been regarded primarily as body, passive, fertile body, as essential to human survival as earth. If women artists were ever to engage with anything, they were going to have to engage with body as earnestly as Cézanne engages with landscape, and so they did. The model became the artist, but at the same time she clung to her role as model, so that she became her own subject.

Self Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996)
© Sarah Lucas

Greer finds this dynamic perplexing and, only somewhat unfairly, peppers her essay with unconfortable terms like "narcissistic," "exhibitionism," "solipsism," and so forth. Here is where she ends up in answering the quesiton posed in her title:
There is a possible answer, which is that the use of the nude is necessarily exploitative, and therefore a female artist who needs to use a body has no option but to use her own, but surely it can be no more than a sophistry. Why does a female artist need to use flesh in the first place?

The feminist art historian can no more ask these questions than she can ask why most women's art is no good. Her duty is to cry up women's work, to see it as reactive and transgressive, as dislocating tradition indeed, when the painterly tradition is always being jolted and set off on contradictory tangents, more often and more fundamentally by men than by women. The woman who displays her own body as her artwork seems to me to be travelling in the tracks of an outworn tradition that spirals downward and inward to nothingness.

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Anonymous a.m. said...

What about another thought: that these images force the viewer to collapse the distance between artist and subject. In conventional terms, that would mean a male artist and a female subject, a relationship that stands in for exploited and exploiter.

By doing self portraits, the distance between the two disappears and we must assume that the artist means exactly what she says as both model and creator. There can be no victim in the process.

We are also forced to engage the visceral aspects of her body, and most importantly, her gaze. These are no pictures of blushing maidens from the nineteenth century. This is the body and the person as direct and blunt. It is sexual without being seductive.

That discourse may have a life span, and maybe we are nearing the end of it, but it would be tragic to dismiss the importance of it over the past decades.

28 January, 2008 17:17  

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