bjmuirhead

on writing photography life

Category: Nudes

Electric teasing

Most of last year I was out of sorts, which is to say ill, so I haven’t really done any photography for quite a while. Now that I’m feeling much better, thank you very much, I’ve started looking at some of my old, unused photos.

A lot of them simply are not worth looking at, but I decided to do some editing on this one, even though it falls into the not worth looking at category.

Because: Kim Bobae—beautiful.

Because: she was teasing me at the time, and having a quiet laugh as she watched me back into an electric fence while trying to work out what photograph I wanted to take in that particular spot. Oh, and because: her smile as I get zapped!

And yes, that was pretty much the end of the shoot, which was already several hours long by that time, and during which some of my favourite shots were… shot.

Kim Boabae, nude woman, korean woman

Electric teasing

Oh, and by the way, I used the Google Nik tools to do the manipulation. They certainly do tone mapping on a single image very effectively, as well as a few other things.

Summary: the nude, the body and humanity

The idea that the nude has meaning over and above (or perhaps below and beneath) sex and sexuality has been the focus of my thinking for some years now, and has taken me into areas I would not otherwise have investigated, which is all the better for me.

What has become clear is the the meaning of the naked body in art has not been investigated in depth al all. Yes, art historians and art theorists have written about it, as have psychologists, sociologists, feminists, and it has been the subject of much jurisprudence. In order to establish what meaning the nude may have, however, entails looking at and hopefully understanding what the body is. (Hence my dabblings in neuroscience, conceptual metaphor, theories of grounded cognition, and so forth. All of these areas tell us something about the human body and, therefore, something about the naked body in art. But the information and understanding given comes from very specific points of view which all to often appear to be glosses over the images rather than a way of finding deeper meaning.

It has become clear to me, in other words, that the type of meaning I am looking for is specific to vision, and is explicable in visual terms and that other approaches merely can point toward this. This much, of course, is obvious at many levels, just as it is obvious that we are born and we die.

What has become even more obvious is that we, as a species, push and pull ourselves away from our bodies in a vain attempt to ignore and diminish the single most human part of ourselves. Indeed, it appears that our ability to detach ourselves from our bodies has become a singular focus of Western culture. It is not possible to do so in any coherent sense, but it underlies so much of our intellectual direction (even when we are claiming to do just the opposite). Perhaps this is the foundation of our insistence that they naked body necessarily is always sexual, and that it must, therefore, be hidden from sight for fear that our moral and intellectual life will be destroyed by what has been described as our base (sexual) instincts. While we no longer use terms such as these, this is, none the less, an apt description.

The ability of our intellect to take us far from our own bodies so that we think of them almost as an alien force invading our better, our higher selves, astounds me. Indeed, the ability we have, as humans, to put an idea above what factually faces us is almost beyond comprehension. Each time we do this, we step further away from accepting ourselves as we are, we reach further into a fantasy which is not immediately recognisable as fantasy because it is so deeply a part of how we deal with the world and with each other. (This is so very human and will be the major cause of our destruction as a species—at the very least our contemporary culture cannot survive this ability to believe anything but what we see before us.)

That our bodies are the foundation of all that we are is not deniable. We may deny their ultimate existence from many points of view, but we cannot deny their fundamental importance to life, even if we want to say that they are merely matters of mind because ultimate reality is spiritual/mental.

I remember when I was at the University of Queensland, talking to the philosopher Michael Carey, who spent quite some time trying to imagine what it would be to live without senses which would be, for us, the equivalent of not having a body. An interesting thought experiment, but not one which went anywhere. Neither Michael, nor anyone else as I remember, could imagine what such a life would be. It is easier to imagine ourselves without a mind, as bodies alone.

What I am saying does not and should not be taken as an attack on the intellect and on our achievements in knowledge. It is, however, a rejection of the directions in which much of our intellectual activity has taken us. Think, for another moment, about sex:

People have sex for a variety of reasons. One is to have children, but even more important to most of us is pleasure, fun, to have a deep contact with another person (Lawrence Durrell: We touch another person’s soul when we touch their body), to be ourselves—and many more reasons, I am sure. Everything we know about our human history tells us that humans always have enjoyed sex and pursued sex. Everything we know about human history also tells us that there also have been moral rules about when one could have sex, who we could have sex with and what types of sex we could have without fear of prosecution. We even reached the absurd point that the Roman Catholic Church, when it had the power to do so, made sex illegal except at certain hours on certain days of the week, and that a favourite means of revenge amongst people was to report the neighbour for having sex at the wrong time and on the wrong day. (The church had its own courts, judgement was made and people sentenced with no reference to existing civil law.)

We also know that the vast majority of people ignored those laws, wherever and whenever they existed, in favour of their pleasure, desire, love, and so on. One would think that the powers that be would wake up to themselves, but humanity as a whole has not yet woken to itself. We continue, in all areas of life, to create intellectual fantasy structures which ignore simple realities about our lives, in exactly this way.

On this count alone, that people love sex, that it is basic to our existence, the nude is a valid subject of representation. There seems to me to be nothing wrong with the proposition that anyone is free to make nudes which sexually excite them, and that others are free to seek out and look at nudes which sexually excite them. But it is my position that the majority of nudes serve a deeper and more important meaning than this. Nudes, when looked at, bring our sense of humanity into sharper focus simply because we enter into rapport with them.

Having arrived at this conclusion, I intend to take time to look through all of my research and, probably, rewrite it all into a more interesting form.

In the meantime, I intend to do some writing about specific nudes which fascinate me, which seem to me to say something quite deep about humanity. I will write these under the general rubric “One shot”, and I will try to say what cannot be said (with apologies to the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus), to say what in fact can be known wordlessly. What should, perhaps, be left without words.

The fixed immobility of the nude

 

 

Much of what I have been writing about the nude here has been designed to expose the parameters which apply to the ‘meaning’ of the nude, without referring to or depending on extant aesthetic or cultural theories. One of the difficulties, for me, with the theoretic approaches I have been avoiding is that they all too often rest on assumptions which I do not find acceptable, even though they are difficult to avoid. Hence, a lot of my thinking has revolved around body-mind-knowledge-experience as, so to speak, an inter-penetrating continuum. Given that these all are fundamental to human life, it always has seemed obvious to me that there are important things to say about them which are not, in themselves, cultural or culturally based, but which are pre-cultural in at least a logical sense.

The difficulty with this is that the manner in which we talk about the body necessarily is based in culture. We can, however, point toward the pre-cultural body. (In this respect, one notion I am exploring is that the pre-cultural body is a non-object in François Jullien’s (see 2009) sense, i.e., it always is something on the cusp of objecthood, and perhaps even more so in respect of nudes.)

Pointing toward the non- or pre-cultural body requires that we show just how it is that the body is cross-cultural. It would not make sense, after all, to deny the ‘cultural body’ as the only available body, if we cannot show that all cultures share (and are based on) the ‘same’ body(-mind).

One approach is provided by the work of Paul Ekman, which showed that facial expressions have ‘the same meaning’ across cultures. Simplistically, we understand the (meaning of the) facial expressions of people from other cultures. What this indicates is that there is something common, across cultures, besides the brute fact of the body.

The brute facts of the body are vitally important, however: everything we recognise as thought and emotion depends upon the body. Neither thought or culture could exist without the body, and its sensory-motor apparatus. (This seems to me to be the case irrespective of any possible or proposed disembodied existence, the nature of which eludes us, except by imposing the idea of a disembodied ‘body’ and disembodied ’senses’.)

Discussion of the relationship between the body and the mind has a long history in philosophy, and now in the sciences also, and it certainly is nowhere near resolved. None the less, the position I have been arguing for on this blog is that of an embodied or, at the very least, partially embodied mind.

On the view that I have been exploring, at least some aspects of mind are bodily processes in their entirety, including the acquisition of non-explicit (tacit) knowledge and its utilisation. This much is obvious, I think, at a very basic level. Our sight, e.g., no matter how the physiological process occurs, provides tacit knowledge, only a portion of which can be explicitly described, identified and expressed. Some of this tacit knowledge necessarily remains tacit, and is expressible directly only in some visual form (visual thinking) or, indirectly, through the creation of images in some poetic/literary form. With this in mind it is clear that when we create a nude, we are creating something out of and with our tacit powers; moreover, as a representation of the body-mind (the embodied mind), it is obvious that we are being shown something more than the body alone. The a nude, from any time or place, provides tacit knowledge of the fundamental ‘object’ of all (every) culture, which in turn makes the nude (the naked human body) the most important subject of art.

To turn away from it all

To turn away from it all

This easily stated view has been the main thrust of what I have been writing here. Ultimately, however, when we look at a nude or a naked human body, these theoretic considerations are irrelevant, by and large, for the simple reason that the majority of us look at the nude from the preconceptions of our culture, and fail to attempt to discover the presence/existence of humanity within the nude. But this is, and always has been, the most important, ever-present, aspect of the nude, and always is present behind whatever any particular cultural view we may espouse. This is possible because, in and of itself, the nude is invariable. (Jullien 2007, 3) It always already (sic) is a naked human body, over which different cultures and sub-cultures lay various clothings and meanings.What is naked, clothed, merely revealing, moral or immoral differs in different places and at different times. This much is a cliché in most contemporary Western societies, even if it is not universally accepted in these societies. Moreover, nudity is fundamental to our preconceptions and unconscious assumptions about the nature of humanity, humanness and what it means to be both human and naked. (Barcan 2000, 145) Humans are clothed, irrespective of how any particular culture defines clothing; being naked (without clothes) is a special circumstance. In this sense, therefore, a nude always is a curious object.1 In terms of art and our contemporary response to the nude, this is highlighted, firstly, by the almost permanent association of nudity with sex, (see Barcan 2000, 200) especially in art and, secondly, by an ongoing uneasy feeling that nudes in art may not be separable from exploitation. These are not associated with art theory, but are important background to the situation wherein it seems true to say that ‘the nude has (…) fallen into a strange limbo, not banned outright, but not easily accepted as a legitimate icon for artistic use.’ (Philbrick 1999, 14)

Much of the difficulty with the acceptability of the nude and nudity rests on the interactions of the two main traditions which form the cultural history of Western civilization:

the Greek tradition (based on a metaphysics of nakedness), wherein the naked (male) body signifies ideal humanness, and the Hebraic tradition (based on a metaphysics of clothing), wherein the Godhead is conceived of as metaphorically veiled, and hence nudity figures as a deprivation or loss. Both traditions—the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ meanings of nudity—persist strongly in the contemporary West. (Barcan 2000, 145)

Both nudity and the nude in art sit uneasily in this mix of traditions, especially if we refer to the Christian tradition where the only readily accepted naked body was that of Christ as a child, or crucified on the cross, (though, of course, his genitals have been draped since the Renaissance). (Plate 2006, 84) The supposition behind fully naked figures of Christ was that he was both God incarnate and completely innocent of all evil (like Adam and Eve) and that, consequently, there was no shame in his nakedness. (Plate 2006, 84) The nudity of mere human beings could not be forgiven in this way, and could be tolerated only in paintings of mythological and religious subjects. The nude was, in a sense, hidden behind its justifications.

In contemporary terms, the nude continues to exist. However, as one academic put it to me,2 no one takes the nude seriously any more: it’s a subject of some ill-repute that has been criticised on several fronts—culturally, aesthetically and on feminist grounds—and is no longer a subject of interest. None the less, artists continue to work with the naked body, e.g., Vanessa Beecroft’s performance installations of naked models; and there are many famous exponents of what might be called the ‘traditional’ nude, especially in photography, along with an apparently endless supply of nudes produced by amateurs.

That so many nudes continue to be produced by amateurs and professionals highlights the ‘openness’ of the nude, which can signify ‘heroism, at one end of the scale, degradation at the other, and “ordinary humanity” somewhere in between.’ (Barcan 2000, 146)

But these are cultural meanings, written over the fact of the body itself. But this is inevitable, if only because the nude is artificial. As Jullien (2007, 26) says, ‘the nude is discovered in fixed immobility (the pose),’ and this artificiality has the effect of separating the nude ‘from the body as such and from the life that animates it.’

In terms of photography this seems rather odd, firstly because all photographs of living creatures extract the subject from the world, from whatever it is that animates the subject. More importantly, however, it seems odd because we are accustomed to thinking of a photograph as showing us the what and who of the world. Hence, Barthes’ (2000, 79) statement: ‘Photography’s inimitable feature […] is that someone has seen the referent […] in the flesh and blood, or again in person.’ Moreover, we commonly talk about photographic nudes as though they are people, primarily on the basis, as far as I can tell, that we treat photographs as references to the people, objects, landscapes, that were photographed. As references to whatever actually is photographed, photographs are treated as evidence of something else, rather than as images in their own right, for which the original subject is irrelevant. It seems to me, however, that we cannot always adopt this position in a coherent fashion.

Untitled, 2010

Untitled, 2010

The point of this is that photographs are inherently ambiguous, and the best we can hope for is an oscillation between the photographs as evidence and the photograph as representation/art. This is highlighted clearly when we consider photographs (e.g., portraits, rather than nudes, with all of the associated problems) of unknown people: the separation between the body (in the photograph) and the life which animated that body is obvious. We are willing to claim that there once was such a person, but we do not have a sense of their life (living presence) apart from the photograph itself. What we do have is a representation of that person, out of which we can pull interpretations which may or may not accurately reflect explicitly expressible knowledge of that person. But this much is true also of portraits in other media, such as painting, drawing and sculpture. The primary difference in respect of photography is that we are prepared to say that the representation of the person in the photograph necessarily is a representation of some person who at some time, existed and was photographed. (Digital photography, of course, raises the possibility that this may no longer be the case. What we see in the photographs may be a composite creation of a person who never actually lived.)

That we believe the photograph shows someone who once existed, or who continues to exist, does not hold our interest necessarily, however. Rather, if we continue to study the portrait, it will be because there is something about the eyes/lips/shape of the face, which continues to capture our attention, without our being able to say why this is the case. This can be thought of in terms of Barthes’ (2000) punctum and studium, where the latter is the information we interpret out of the details of the photograph, cultural, technical considerations, etc., and the former is whatever small item appears to be inexpressibly meaningful to us.

The same is true, though perhaps less obvious, in the case of nudes of people whom we do not know, and are never likely to have the opportunity to know. The fixed immobility of the nude or portrait is not only the immobility of the image (representation), but also an immobility of knowledge—because we do not know the person, we cannot read that personal knowledge into the image. All that we can do is read cultural notions into the image, or contemplate the image for enough time that the cultural impositions evaporate from our consciousness, leaving the tacitly pre- or non-cultural.

Unfortunately, in a culture where art’s existence is justified only by theory (a culture in which much art exists only because of its critically theoretical interpretation) this idea of contemplating/looking our way past the theoretical (and for some the erotic/sexual) in order to encounter the representation itself, is automatically and necessarily abandoned without thought.

Text and photographs © BJ Muirhead. All rights reserved

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References

Barcan, R. (2000), ‘Home on the Rage: nudity, celebrity, and ordinariness in the Home Girls/Blokes pages’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 14(2), 145–158.

Barcan, R. (2004), Nudity: A cultural anatomy, Oxford and New York: Berg.

Barthes, R. (2000), Camera Lucida, Vintage Books, London. Trans. Richard Howard.

Jullien, F. (2007), The Impossible Nude—Chinese Art and Western Aesthetics, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. Trans. Maev de la Guardia.

Jullien, F. (2009), The Great Image Has No Form, On the Nonobject through Painting, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. Trans. Jane Marie Todd.

Philbrick, H. (1999), The nude in our time: A brief runimation on the nude in contemporary art, in ‘The Nude In Contemporary Art’, Ridgefield, Connecticut: The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, pp. 9–29. Exhibition Catalogue.

Plate, S. B. (2006), Blasphemy: Art That Offends, Black Dog Publishing, London.


 

1Indeed, it could just as easily be said that being naked is a curious state to be in, and for many people and cultures, it is just that.

2David Akenson, personal communication.

 

 

 

The sexual gaze

Suzanne Valadon is famous among (feminist) art historians for turning the nude in a new direction, for creating nudes ‘outside’ the male sexual gaze. There is no doubt that she did this, but the question of whether or not her work changed anything continues to remain unanswered. Specifically, did Valadon’s work release itself from the ‘male gaze’ and do release others from this gaze?

The answer, clearly, is no, but this is not necessarily because the male gaze is so overpoweringly dominant; in fact it seems to me that arguments to this effect are profoundly misdirected.

This misdirection doesn’t stem from a failure to understand men and the way they (often but not always) look at women; nor from a failure to understand the (patriarchal) structure(s) of Western society. Rather, it comes from a failure to give enough weight to the obvious sexual animality of all humans (and from the demonisation of men); and from a lack of recognition that the sexual gaze is universal—men and women of all ages and proclivities gaze sexually at their preferred sexual ‘targets,’ and this is not going to change, irrespective of anything else.

Valadon’s work, I think, recognises this—people want to look, and people will look; what we give them to look at is what is at issue. In these terms Valadon’s work continued to give us naked women to look at while cutting into a tradition and contributing to a different and developing view of what is possible in female nudes. Hence it makes perfect sense to say of Valadon that

Her nudes often reveal a pronounced slippage from the norms of the genre, exposing less conventional meanings that might even contradict or bring into question the nature of the genre itself.

(Patricia Mathews, Returning the Gaze: Diverse Representations of the Nude in the Art of Suzanne Valadon, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Sep., 1991), pp. 415-430)

Cutting through and changing an aesthetic tradition, however, does not and cannot get rid of the male (sexual) gaze. Even so, Mathews says:

Valadon’s contradictory nudes reveal the power of the male gaze, which women cannot entirely escape, and they expose it as a construct. Her works do not so much overtly challenge the stereotype of the female nude as empty it, and thereby reveal its workings by refusing and denying it. The male viewer is not offered the pure, voyeuristic pleasure present in the uninterrupted narratives of traditional representations of the nude, and the female viewer is not expected to position herself as a narcissistic voyeur of her own condition as a woman[.]

In any realistic sense Mathews’ comments are meaningless unless her premises are accepted, and especially the notion that the male (sexual) gaze is bad in and of itself. Concerning this, Edward Snow (Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems, Representations, No. 25, Winter, 1989, pp. 30-41) says

When feminism characterises ‘the male gaze’ […] certain motifs are almost sure to appear: voyeurism, objectification, fetishism, scopophilia, woman as object of male pleasure and the bearer of male lack, etc. Masculine vision is almost invariably characterised as patriarchal, ideological, and phallocentric. […] ‘Male,’ even in the most sophisticated analyses, remains a fixed and almost entirely negative term.

As I have already said, if one doesn’t accept this type of view of the male gaze, Mathews’ comments are all but meaningless. This does not entail, however, that I deny the existence of such a thing as the male (sexual) gaze. Rather, and more to the point, I deny that there necessarily is something wrong with it.

In the far distant past, as we know, the male (sexual) gaze was directed at men; the ancient Greeks regarded the naked male body as the ideal form of humanity. We also know that, over many centuries, the female nude came to occupy this aesthetic place of pride, and then to dominate.

There are many details, ins and outs, changes of views and twists enough to fill a library. None the less, and despite the ongoing presence of both male and female nudes throughout history, those who care find themselves confronted with a conception of the male (sexual) gaze which attempts to simplify the whole issue of looking into us (female, good, oppressed) and them (male, bad, oppressor) whilst, as I said earlier, ignoring our base animal and sexual nature.

The male (sexual) gaze isn’t merely a traditional aspect of Western art, nor is it merely a part of a patriarchal oppression of women. We may approve or disapprove of any particular instance of the (male) (sexual) gaze, but it seems to me to be exceptionally odd to attempt to deny and reject it altogether.

Perhaps it is a sign of how far we have moved from understanding and accepting ourselves that we can, with great analytic detail, completely misunderstand such a basic aspect of our living humanity.

I am not denying that women have been refused the same rights as men for a very long time, and that this is oppression. I am not denying that some of this oppression has been sexual. Nor am I denying that the female (sexual) gaze was neither admired nor encouraged, that it was, in fact, actively disbelieved, oppressed and suppressed. What I am saying is that the male (sexual) gaze is in no way held back or altered by artists such as Valadon,  nor Artemisia Gentileschi  before her. The simple fact is that no matter how a woman presents herself, no matter how women are represented in art, no matter how equal they are socially and financially, she/they always will be subject to ‘the male gaze’ if the male looking is interested in seeing her that way. Moreover, mutatis mutandis, men always will be subject to the never discussed (except, perhaps, by some lesbian theorists) female (sexual) gaze, if the woman is interested in looking at him in that way.

This simply is who we are as people, as humans. That we may and do change the manner in which we show each other in art, paintings, photographs and so on, will not alter this essentially human aspect of our relations with each other.

And now, a purely gratuitous female nude to gaze at, just because…

??????????

Looking at you

Like most people, I troll through old work looking for photographs I missed.

This is one that I am amazed I missed the first few times I went through the shots from this session. This was part of a session done at Davies Creek Falls in North Queensland years ago, and I like it.

 

looking_at_you_07-13

Of course, I only go through old work when I don’t have a model, so feel free to get in touch if you would be interested in modeling and live somewhere in south-east Queensland, or the Northern Rivers region of NSW.

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