Sunday, July 29, 2007

Nudity, Bananas

I am a circulation monkey! For 15 cents above minimum wage, I man (woman?) the desk in two different academic libraries. This keeps me approximately as busy as a bed-ridden, ventilator-dependent clown. I succumb to nasty, prolonged bouts of thinking. I have also been dive-bombed by the collected works of several prolific photographers and, worse, I have shelved no less than four scholarly books on bananas. Which somehow makes me believe the universe is on the wrong track.

There are compensations, however. Libraries let you skitter around, dipping your big toe into this and then that, tasting one lump of the world while crowding six more into your gullet. Libraries are dilettantes' playgrounds, and I am nothing if not a professional amateur. Last week it was the Bloomsbury Set, followed by a brief, disturbing foray into bananas. This week: naked women.

In case you were raised in a hermetically-sealed moon capsule, naked women are a big deal. Men like to paint them. (Women have painted them also, but I'm guessing these paintings are either rare or were expunged from the historical record.) Recently, someone returned a book containing full-color plates of female nudes through the ages. Most of the women looked like this:Meet Klimt's Danae. She's smooth-skinned, attractive, and currently being ravished by an incorporeal deity. We should all be so lucky. There are lots and lots of women like Danae. They were painted by Rubens or Renoir or one of a horde of others, and they are uniformly beautiful, young, and either sexually available or sexless. Lurking among the Danaes, though, is a another kind of woman. She's scattered through the book, here cast in stone by Rodin, there crawling out from under the brush of Stanley Spencer. Meet Otto Dix's "Three Wenches:"
These women are, shall we say, less than comely. Their sexuality is horrifying, bestial, fearsome. What to make of these women? You could argue that Dix, in particular, is dealing with some WWII angst. But I wonder if these paintings aren't also a kind of power play, a way for artists simultaneously to represent and defang objects of desire. Desirability, after all, is power: it draws something out of you, makes you look. The people to whom I'm most attracted are in some ways the people I most resent. What if Dix and the others are merely transacting business, participating in a complex, subtle economy of want? I lessen the value of what I desire; it loses some of its grip.

Maybe I should start painting deformed, ravening chocolate bars.


Ellie said...

Ah, so that's the painting you were thinking of.

I think you're right about grotesque images of the desired (mostly women) in art as attempts at exerting power over them. Gross, and misogynistic, and downright weird to strike out at all women that way, though, through iconic representation.

What do you think about those available, desirable images, though? Are they also an attempt to assert power, albeit a more pleasant one to look at? Is that lady in the Klee meant to be happy to be an object of desire and incorporeal ravishment?

My feminist training urges me to denounce all objectification of women as it limits us. Still, I gotta listen to the voice that says "C'mon! It's fun to feel pretty. It's fun to be desired. Lighten up!" I think it is a fuzzy issue.

I'm glad you're blogging, Anne. I like your thoughts.

Anne said...

Yeah, you caught me: I've been cravenly avoiding all feminist fulmination on the beautiful women as objects thing. I think it's because I can't seem to summon up much of an opinion. You've prodded me to think some more, though. Yay for you! I miss you, Ellie Marie.