Gender identity and reactions to art

I still remember the experience I had, many, many decades ago in my apartment as an undergraduate at Berkeley, reading Kenneth Clark.  In The Nude, on page 8, he says “…no nude, however abstract, should fail  to arouse in the  spectator some vestige of erotic feeling… .”  If it doesn’t, then it’s bad art and false morality.  And that’s because of the fundamental desire we have to grasp and be conjoined with another body.

These were the days of the free speech movement and really feminist consciousness was pretty exiguous.  I remember reflecting, however, on my growing sense that academic culture had an intended audience  that probably didn’t include women.   Or that I would have to be  ‘unnatural’ in some way to flourish in it.  (That was an adolescent conception of natural, I should say.)

What is going on today and are there ways in which gender identity influences ones reaction to art?  Thanks to a comment elsewhere on this blog, from a reader who might not want to be cited, the following picture might provide an interesting spread of reactions. 

It’s not clear exactly how one should ask about gender identity, but I hope the following are ok and will include everyone who visits the blog:  (1) gender identify as male; (2) gender identify as female; (3) other gender identity.  So now the picture and then the poll which asks for your gender identity and your “erotic or not” reaction.  Do be assured that we have no way of identifying who provides a particular reactions.



About the pole:  please try to distinguish between something like the sensual and the erotic; if you think the distinction is bogus, of course, then ignore it.   But perhaps one can feel some desire to stroke a cat on its back with little feet stretching toward one  or to hug a vulnerable and  messy child  without feeling it as erotic.  Comments on why you gave the answer you did could be very illuminating.

11 thoughts on “Gender identity and reactions to art

  1. So we don’t influence one another, I though I’d hide the results for about 36 hours. Objections to that decision will be taken seriously!

    People who are infrequent visitors might want to know that this post has some link to one a couple of posts down that is concerned with Vermeer at the Met.

  2. I chose “female + erotic” BUT it’s important to recognise that this is because I fancy Scarlett Johansson (despite being generally hetero). I can’t even look at that picture anymore without seeing her face – when I was scrolling down and noticed the tip of the turban, I was actually *suprised* not to see her face underneath.

    Might we repeat the experiment with a picture that doesn’t have this type of connotation to a living sex symbol? I think my reaction might not be unique (though I can’t say how common it would prove, naturally) among men *or* women, and that might skew the results somewhat.

  3. TheLady, good suggestion! Thanks!

    lga, you are right, and your comment makes me worried about what I could have been thinking! Having considered castigating myself for an objectionable assumption, I did come to think it was in fact the product of a different and really silly mistake, Niot fun in public.

  4. I would also say that, along with sexual orientation, that race and class are very important and have a major impact on how images are read as art.

    Gail Bedermen’s Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880 – 1917 has an interesting take on how the concepts of “natural” (i.e. the erotic passion of the primitive rapist barely retained by civil behavior and thus released into the wild or academic prowess – of course, as a description of manliness) got intertwined into the modern concept of civilization.

    Two chapters of interest to this conversation are on how Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Ida B. Wells incorporated the contemporary civilization concepts into their activism and feminism. They, of course, made their arguments against the “natural”ness of what was quickly becoming a manliness norm.

    Last night, I read a very interesting quote:

    “I can’t deny that there was pleasure in the text, but the text itself was always easily as important. Audiences today, however, are so inured to the blandification of extreme sexual imagery that it no longer has that same kind of subversive impact. It’s just meat now.” 28 – 29, Bruce LaBruce in working sex: sex workers write about a changing industry. (2007)

    I think the original MET example by JJ highlights this phenomena articulated by LaBruce. What concerns me is that by getting caught up in the “blandification” actually stops us from having some very important, very much needed, conversations within feminism about the construction of the sexualized Other within feminism, its impact, and the hierarchy by which we, feminists, rank what is legitimate to “gender.”

    I know it’s not popular, but I see that collapsing of “sensual” into “erotic” and “erotic” into “patriarchy” as another form of bondage within the feminist argument itself. The sexual revolution was a very productive dismantling of the effectiveness of feminism as activism – although it was a gold rush of rhetoric and boom for feminist publishing. It was also most certainly a very good dividing of the feminist camps. bell hooks latest book (or the one before that) on love has an interesting critic of this.

    And I think this is the core of why (or at least it is the debate that was raging in the point of history when…) feminism is now (or became) mostly a rhetorical debate versus an active movement on the streets. As the only feminists that i know today that are still pounding the streets on a daily beat are those in the sex workers movement who have a global operation that provide services directly to the women they serve. And their sisters, the anti-trafficking feminists…

  5. In addition to TheLady’s concern, I also wonder if, working in the opposite direction, the “girl” in the title of the painting might not encourage disavowal of the erotic (if not also disapproval of not disavowing it)… Setting aside the question of how much, or whether, the best appreciation of the painting should be mediated by its creator’s title,”Young Woman…” would more accurately (and decorously) correspond to my impression.

  6. There are some wonderful suggestions here, but I’m wondering what sort of instrument could accommodate then, and how we’d do it and analyze it. The factors mentioned are certainly relevant, but complicated to add and analyze.

    I’m now thinking that there really isn’t any hope of doing a very good survey here. Among other things, people participating are just those who want to, which is probaby a skewed response group from the start. In addition, if we added just sexual orientation (hereo, gay/lesbian and bi) to gender orientation, then we’d have 18 lines, which would make it tedious to plow through and possibly create more errors.

    That leads me to wonder what’s the point of putting up a poll like this on this topic, and maybe it is to discuss at least just these sorts of issues. And perhaps to think of other things to do.

    One final remark; I really can’t retrieve why I started with gender orientation, but one factor in the picture for me is the intense vulnerability of the young girl/woman, which might be stronger to the extent that one identified with her gender. This sense of vulnerability may have been heightened by reading that Vermeer’s wife had15 children and was pregnant most of her marriage. It would be interesting (at least to me) to know if women were more prone to pick that up and whether that cancels other reactions.

  7. KM, thanks for the really interesting observations. The idea that feminism is mostly about rhetoric, not activism, is something we should certainly discuss.

    I am disturbed that we don’t seem to be able to think of much to do about women in philosophy. Having allowed myself to get warned off taking action recently, I’m been trying to figure some of this out.

  8. jj, I appreciate the complexities of trying to create a poll using this particular interface that would somehow let you control for variables in your analyses. I hadn’t even realized until I read your comment #7 that you were interested in learning if women would identify with her vulnerability. I think that framing the question in terms of finding the painting erotic or not had automatically put me into the position of one looking at her, such that I didn’t even try out the position of one being her.

    If you were redoing the poll, it might work as a two-step survey: (1) When you look at this painting, does your perspective go more automatically towards identifying with being the girl or with being someone seeing her?
    (2) If the latter, which of these listed responses best represents your automatic reaction of how you would want to interact with her, could you do so?

  9. A very interesting proposition. As an art historian in a former life, I’ve heard comments like Mr Clark’s many times before. Also as a reformed art historian, I would hasten the reader to pause before allowing one to provide you with anything like a philosophical insight.

    I very much doubt I’m the first one who has noted a difference between a *sensual* response and an *erotic* one. For instance, stroking my cat’s fur is very sensual; it does not mean, however, that I want to fuck it. Likewise with art, Mr Clark.

    Apologies for the language.

  10. And then there’s the ambiguity of the nebulous word “erotic”, which I take in a very expansive, Freudian way to encompass a wide breadth of relations with persons and things, from Platonic dialogs to aesthetic contemplation, in which sexual stimulus is recruited for “aim-inhibited” higher purposes (including the purpose of attending to, if not also celebrating, that very relationship itself between the sexual and its sublimations).

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