Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Shifting of the gaze.

On Tuesdays I have my students bring in images they find compelling, and we discuss each one of them in turn and why - attempting to keep the discussion to elements of design, or the storytelling that might be going on in the image. (Thanks, Laura Eckelman, for this exercise!) Sometimes that can be difficult - why THIS IMAGE, not the movie it's advertising or the book that it's from or the memories it evokes, but the image we are looking at on this paper. It's also challenging to get students in both a digital world AND an increasingly environmentally conscious one to work with actual paper. I love that Mac students are as aware as they are and as enthusiastic about making change, but it can be a challenge for art and design classes where resources are consumed.

Recently one student brought in this image:

I don't actually know the story behind this image, where it's from, who to attribute it to, and I will be happy to do that if someone can tell me. The discussion that it sparked was interesting though, and has had me thinking on several different tangents since that day about this culture we find ourselves in, the direction of our "gaze" and what that means.

Given that I know nothing about the image I'm about to make all sorts of egregious mistakes and my art history friends will start shaking their heads at me and petitioning to take my MFA away, but here goes. What I'm seeing when I look at this is either a Greek or Roman or Renaissance-like statue, or one intended to be taken as such, which is supposed to depict a woman perhaps dancing, uninhibited, unaware of her self. The gaze through which we are seeing this is not her own but the artist's, presumably male, but the point is that it's someone else's. Through the addition of the cell phone the gaze turns inwards - now, instead of dancing or being uninhibited, she is extremely self-aware. She is watching herself, photographing herself, possibly even not dancing but arranging her hair to get the perfect selfie. We aren't really looking at this through someone else's gaze anymore but seeing her simultaneously through another's and through her own.

And here's where there is a cultural shift that I can't quite reconcile. To many, this shift is seen as a positive thing - instead of being trapped by the presumably male gaze, she is now admiring herself. And I get that, I really do. However I wonder if we are too quick to equate the motivations behind the sculpting of the human body during these periods with the obsession we have today with objectifying the female body. Not all art depicting nudity is the same, it's not all bad, it's not all objectifying, and it's not all done through a leering male gaze. Much of it was a celebration of the beauty of the human body.

At the same time I wonder if we are too quick to defend the selfie culture. I don't really have a problem with selfies, though I frequently have a hard time understanding the need to take them (other people take much better photographs of you than you do if you hold the camera out at arm's length, you know). I've seen defenses of it that talk about wanting to see people post positive images of themselves, which is great, that's much better than the swirling negativity I live with inside my head vis a vis myself on a daily basis. It could be said that a selfie celebrates the self in a way that Renaissance art celebrated the human body. But how much do we really need to celebrate OURSELVES?
I don't think it's unknown, but good try.
The above quote is on a sign that hangs behind the counter at the art supply store near my house. It's within walking distance which means I spend too much time and too much money there, and see this quote far too often, and each time I do I think the same thing - what if life just isn't about yourself at all? Forget finding yourself, creating yourself, celebrating yourself. We are wrapped up in so many issues today that revolve around the self and we forget just how privileged we are to even be able to think about those issues. We are so wrapped up in celebrating ourselves that we even have a tendency to vilify anyone who wants to celebrate another person - see: the male gaze regarding the above statue. I'm not talking about sexual harassment and women learning to take catcalling as somehow a "compliment" - that's gross and ridiculous, and obviously unwelcome. But we even have two presidential candidates that exemplify this - one who has spent her life in the service of others, and one who has spent his life in the service of himself, and she is being cast as the villain.

The other thing to remember about the selfie culture and social media in general is that we are NOT celebrating ourselves. We are celebrating a carefully curated version of ourselves. To say that who we are on Facebook is genuinely who we are in real life is a joke. We are all politicians online, all of us making sure that our "image" is what we want it to be.

Today I'm going to attempt to not think about myself beyond the necessities and practicalities. I'm not going to worry about who likes me, who doesn't like me, whether anyone finds me funny or reads what I write or likes what I post online, who respects me or my work, whether I do anything of any importance or not, what my "identity" is and if I've stayed true to it and if others have violated it. Or - whether I've been too emotional and have put off people with it - that's a big one for me. I'm just going to get my work done and try to be a good person.

I would like to be uninhibited by all of that, unaware of myself.
It really doesn't matter what I do, my cats won't respect me anyway.
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