Acceptable or not? Textbook cover

Added Introduction The STEM fields have a well-know gender and race problem. It’s received a lot of attention in academic circles, and there’s been a fair amount of discussion about it on this blog. If you are not aware of this background, then you may not understand this post. I should have made this clear in the original post. As it is, I’m starting to delete comments who think I’m making wierd connections between sex and a cover showing unclothed women on a science textbook.

The picture is indeed from Matisse’s La Danse. Not quite his quality of colors though.
Is it erotic art? Should STEM textbooks have these sorts of covers? Please use the comments if you have more to say.


Added: There are a number of groups who are not well-represented in STEM disciplines. There are also cultural cliches for members of the groups. Sometimes these cliches are captured in quite serious, stunning art. Diego Rivera, for example, has wonderful portrayals of Hispanic gatherings. One way to view the question I’ve tried to raise here is this: Is it a good idea to put such cliches on the covers of textbooks in the fields where the people’s presence is marginal?

23 thoughts on “Acceptable or not? Textbook cover

  1. 1) All the poll responses endorse that ‘eroticism’ is a bad-making feature, which is hardly obvious.

    2) Erotic and non-erotic are obviously on a sliding scale, and eroticism is to some degree very common. To be sure there’s some eroticism in the work, just as in Schiele and Manet’s ‘Olympia’ and Titian’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ and ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘David’ and love songs and a sensual low major third on a cello and so on. Obviously you know this – what I’m confused about, though, is that I don’t understand what your purpose in misrepresenting this is.

  2. Paul and JCM, I discoverd your very interesting comments as I was about to close down for the night. They inspired my addition to the post. Many thanks. I’ll try to say more tomorrow.

  3. I don’t understand the survey options. You may think those look like “women” dancing – maybe even Matisse thought so. Yet in its genius this painting presciently captures the overpowering climax of luminosity in a neural feedback circuit. Could consciousness itself result from the delicate dance of such a circuit? Those clasped hands! The nodes of Ranvier. The stretching legs: dendrites with toe-receptors. The armpit: an axon hillock. What you crudely identify as a breast is nothing less than a perfect cell nucleus! You may suppose that you see faces and hair; these are the golgi apparatus. What cover art could better capture the nuances of cellular neurophysiology? I can’t explain why it appears on the cover Searle’s book; perhaps that was a joke played on him by some eliminative materialist editor.

  4. Some other examples of nude cover art that might be helpful in precisifying intuitions: Eric Olson’s ‘What Are We?’ ( ) and ‘The Human Animal: Personal Identity without Psychology’ ( )

    I think it’s also interesting that Matisse painted a second version of this ( ) in which the dancers are not of any obvious race and some seem possibly male-bodied.

  5. Just FYI, it seems that the polling software used here re-loads every time you come to the page, so that people could vote multiple times if they wished. At least, it does so on my browser. (I’m using firefox.) That might mean that the results are skewed by individuals voting multiple times, though of course I can’t say.

  6. I also am not even seeing what could be the issue with an erotic cover––unless the eroticism is pornographic or objectifying. But then that would be the issue, not the eroticism as such. Is this image objectifying? I would say no, unless one thinks any image of the naked female body is objectifying. Is this what you think? I’m asking in good faith …

    You could also take issue, I suppose, with the tenuous connection between the subject matter of the book and the cover image. But that’s par for the course with academic books, I think, and an entirely separate issue, and then in this case the image would be no less appropriate than any image of a human figure.

  7. Am I the only one who is baffled by the addendum claiming some sort of cultural or racial othering? It is a dance. Are only certain cultures or certain races permitted to dance naked? I was unaware. There seems to be a lot of projection going on here. First eroticism, now racism…

  8. I am concerned that some commentors here are unaware of the problems white women and people of color can have with STEM departments, classes, conferences and so on. A report from today’ CHE describes one such situation.

    Female faculty members at the University of California at Los Angeles medical school’s research center on Alzheimer’s disease worked in “a climate of conflict, tension, hostility, and mistrust” and faced “unprofessional, demeaning” treatment, reports the Los Angeles Times, citing a letter that describes the results of an external investigation.

    In the letter the vice dean of the faculty said an investigation showed the women were right and that their many previous reports to various administrators were ignored.
    One problem frequently experienced by women is sexual harassment; see here the blog What is it like to be a woman in philosophy, linked to in our blog role.

    In this context is it a wise idea to put pictures of naked women on a textbook cover? Women’s breasts in this context will be too often a matter for jokes or a matter likely to provokes sexualized reactions or both. That is, they are too likely to provoke reactions rightly counted as creating a hostile climate for women.

    You are invited to think about the issue, but you are mistaken if you think the source of the othering or of the sexualization is me. I am not projecting a problem onto STEM fields. The problem is there, though the vast resources the National Science Foundation has put toward solving the problem means that things may be getting better.

    The problem is a very important one in the domain of social justice. It is also important to those concerned with the US economy and those of other countries. It is very costly to fail to draw fully on the resources in one’s population for STEM research when that is a major economic engine.

  9. There’s something I’m a little puzzled by: I’m curious about what the following sentence is doing in the addendum. “Diego Rivera, for example, has wonderful portrayals of Hispanic gatherings.” Consider Velázquez, who also did wonderful and even more famous paintings of Hispanic gatherings — featuring many cultural cliches, of course. Could we substitute “Velázquez” for “Diego Rivera” in his sentence while preserving its point? (If not, why not?) I suspect that having an answer to this question would help me better understand the sentence and with it the entire addendum.

  10. Amateur art historian: certain groups of people can have a very hard time in STEM fields. A very general form of the question I’m trying tO raise is about putting on a STEM Textbook covers images that might trigger some of the rejection/hostility that those groups experience.

    Velázques painted a lot of pictures of 17th members of a royal court. No problem there.

  11. anne,

    I understand what you’re saying. It’s not a cover that I would put on a textbook if I were trying to attract women to study science. Still, while the cover does not seem one that will attract more women students, I’m not sure that it will increase rejection or hostility towards them in those fields.

  12. Anne–I’m really confused by this post/discussion, so maybe I’ve got something wrong, but Velázquez is certainly an extremely, extremely problematic figure, who produced a number of paintings that should be very disturbing to anyone who knows even a little bit about the history of the Iberian peninsula. Just consider the following quote from his wikipedia entry: “In 1627, Philip set a competition for the best painters of Spain with the subject to be the expulsion of the Moors. Velázquez won. His picture was destroyed in a fire at the palace in 1734. Recorded descriptions of it say that it depicted Philip III pointing with his baton to a crowd of men and women being led away by soldiers, while the female personification of Spain sits in calm repose. Velázquez was appointed gentleman usher as reward.”

    I guess I don’t get what is wrong with the Matisse image, I need more hand-holding to see exactly what is going on/need the objection laid out in more detail. But I certainly do think that it’s pretty hard to object to the Matisse image without objecting to quite a large range of candidate book covers. Anyone familiar with the horrors of Spanish (and pre-Spanish) history has, if anything, something more to worry about in the Velázquez case than the Matisse case!

  13. (I think many people would object to putting non-critical paintings of white confederates congregating, or Nazi propaganda, on the cover of textbooks. Indeed, I think there is an objection to be made there. Velázquez is propaganda of a similar sort.)

  14. SW: in my experience it does. Among other things, when students get into groups, the guys may well try to explain to women why they can’t do science. One really doesn’t want visual fuel for that fire. And there is some discussion, research about bias and prevalent images.

  15. Anon grad student: my comment ‘no problem there’ wasq made in relation to the sentence preceeding it as exempting V’s images as not about people currently discriminated against.

  16. What kind of cover would you suggest for a science text that will attract women and also diminish hostility and rejection towards them?

  17. Right–I was trying to suggest that there IS a problem with being a propagandist for the Spanish court/royal family! (I personally think the Matisse painting is totally unobjectionable. I’d be more worried if one of Velázquez’s paintings ended up on the cover of a textbook, unless it was put there critically and the book involved a critical discussion of it.)

  18. Anne,

    I thought about portraying women scientists, but then again, that seemed overly obvious for students of university age, more suitable for high school students. Then again, I might be wrong. Generally, in my experience, when older people deliberately try to present role models for the young (as in the idealized woman scientist on the cover), they fail and end up turning off the young. That does not mean that older people cannot serve as role models for the young, only that they don’t do well as deliberate role models.

    I’d go for an abstract design with colors that are more or less fashionable (I have no idea what colors are fashionable this year), with nothing that could be associated with gender stereotypes.

  19. Anon grad student, I’m in general agreement with what you’re saying, but let me just clarify that the only reason I brought up Velázquez was because he was a famous — maybe the most famous — painter of Hispanic gatherings, and the postscript added to this blog post seemed to suggest that paintings depicting Hispanic gatherings might be somehow problematic on account of their depicting Hispanic gatherings. There are certainly other reasons one might find Velázquez problematic!

  20. SW: It makes me sad to say that the images prevalent in a context can affect even famale profs. I think I remember a post by one of us on this subject. I’ll see if I can find it.

    SW, I think you have a finely tuned sense of the effects of injustices, but smetimes the smaller details can elude those outside it.

  21. It seems that comments are moving on to other topics. I’m going to close the discussion, since otherwise I’m going to be deleting commens.

Comments are closed.