Life Drawing Session: The Talking Nude Alice Venir
Life Drawing Session: the Talking Nude
Event held at National Dance Center Bucharest (CNDB) on May 9, 2018.
Thanks to: Paul Dunca/Paula Dunker, Farid Fairuz, Maria Mora and Cristian Nanculescu
“EN: Life Drawing Session: the Talking Nude Alice Venir / Venila Rice, anthropologist, feminist killjoy and life drawing enthusiast (both as attendee and model), invites you to a peculiar session mixing theory and practice. Drawing the (female) nude: what dynamics are there at play? What role does the look on the female body play in art and pop culture? What is a female body anyways? Bring your own drawing board and material if you like, or let us provide it to you. No previous experience with drawing is required and any skill level is welcome, but you are expected to participate in the drawing session. Attention! Might contain: nudity, feminist and queer theory, vulnerability. The session will be held in English.
RO: Sesiune de desen cu model: Nudul Vorbeşte Alice Venir / Venila Rice, antropolog, killjoy feminist și entuziastă a desenului cu model, te invită la o sesiune specială care amestecă teoria și practica. Desenarea nudului (feminin): care este dinamică pusă în joc? Ce rol are în artă și în cultura pop aspectul corpului feminin? Ce este de fapt un corp de femeie? Aduceți-vă propria placă de desen și materiale sau permiteți-ne să vi le punem la îndemână. Experiența în desen nu este necesară și orice nivel de iscunsință este binevenit, dar participarea este obligatorie. Atenţie! Poate conține: nuditate, teorie feministă și queer, vulnerabilitate. Sesiunea va avea loc în limba engleză.”
On the 9th of May 2018 I was invited to present a lecture at Descentrat 5. Întâlnirile indisciplinate at the National Dance Center Bucharest (CNDB). It was the 5th of a series of events curated by Paul Dunca/Paula Dunker, Farid Fairuz, Maria Mora and Cristian Nanculescu, which “propose a framework for reflection and action, a series of undisciplined meetings initiated from the premise that offline experiences, physical encounters and direct contact are increasingly necessary so that dialogue does not remain a virtual accident. Each meeting proposes a new format with a different particularity and opens the performative space to all those who are interested and undisciplined”.
My project was a combination of workshop practice and lecture. Posing as a model for a life drawing session, I alternated poses to a lecture addressing the concept of the muse, the nude and the male gaze from a feminist perspective. This zine gathers some of the drawings which the guests at the event donated me, as well as the text I read.
“The history of woman is the history of man, precisely because man has defined the image of woman. Men create and control the social and communicative media like art and science, word and image, dress and architecture, social intercourse and the division of labour. Men have reproduced their image of women within these media. They have shaped women in accordance with the patterns established by these media and women have done likewise. If reality is a social construction and men are its engineers then we are confronted by a masculine reality.” Valie Export, 1972, “Manifesto for the exhibition MAGNA”. From: Art in Theory 1900-2000, Harrison and Wood. Somehow the 70s were starting point for a feminist critique of art, that is no less relevant today, and that pointed out to a problem that is best exemplified by the quite iconic 1989 Guerilla Girls poster depicting a woman posing naked with a guerilla mask and the text: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Metropolitan Museum? Less than 5 percent of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women, but 85 percent of the nudes are female”. And by the way, the book I was reading from contains 16 texts by women art theorists and 355 by men. The issue of female presence and representation is as much relevant today, in almost every field, from cinema to theatre to art or science. But spheres that specifically refer to the visual, like for example portrait art and cinema, have played and unique role is shaping and being shaped by the dominant discourse of what gender actually is, and how the dynamics of heterosexual desire operate. What I want to tackle today is precisely how the female nude, or more largely the concept of the muse as both inspiration and as object of the gaze and look, is impactful in our understanding of gender and sexuality, and how much it can reveal of the power structures behind it. In this sense the pioneering work of art critic John Berger is quite relevant. Here I quote from his 1972 BBC series “Ways of seeing”. “A woman, in the culture of privileged Europeans, is first and foremost a sight to be looked at. What kind of sight, is revealed in the average European oil painting. There were portraits of women and there were portraits of men, but in one category of
painting women were the principal, ever-occurring subject: that category was the nude. In the nudes of European paintings we can discover some of the criteria and conventions by which women were judged. We can see how women were seen. What then is a nude? […] In his book on the nude Kenneth Clark says that being naked is simply being without clothes. The nude, according to him, is a form of art. I would put it differently: to be naked is to be oneself; to be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude. […] The nude implies an awareness of being seen by the spectator. They are not naked as they are, they are naked as you see them.” His work can be seen as a predecessor of the popular feminist theory of the Male Gaze, first elaborated by feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in her 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. She applied psychoanalysis to cinema, and particularly to popular Hollywood movies, in order to argue that the gaze that mainstream cinema proposed was one clearly divided into gender roles, deriving from a voyeuristic pleasure in looking, also called scopophilia, a concept she borrowed from Freud. In her essay she breaks down how the male gaze operates in a triangulation: the gaze of the camera as it records the events, the gaze of the audience as they watch the final product and the gaze of the characters directed at each other within the screen illusion. The premise of her essay is the following: “The magic of the Hollywood style at its best arose from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order. This article will discuss the interweaving of that erotic pleasure in film, its meaning, and in particular the central place of the image of woman. It is said that analysing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article”. She goes on: “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. […] The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation”.
This gaze works against the narrative because the role of the woman in that moment is to be contemplated, rather than to contribute to the storyline in an autonomous way. Indeed in classic Hollywood movies, and here I quote again, "What counts is what the heroine provokes, or rather what she represents. She is the one, or rather the love or fear she inspires in the hero, who makes him act the way he does. In herself the woman has not the slightest importance". Mulvey divides the traditional visual display of the female figure as having mainly two functions: one at a level of the screen story, as an erotic object within the narration, and the other at the level of the auditorium, as an erotic object for the spectator, with, and here I quote again “a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen, so that the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined without breaking narrative verisimilitude”. Moreover, she argues that a precise peculiarity of cinema, rather than potential voyeuristic comparisons such as strip-tease or theatre shows, is that “cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself”, thanks to precise tools of control of both the dimension of time and space such as editing and camerawork. In this sense, she concludes: “cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire” This might seem applicable to an older style of Hollywood production, but it is actually not any better in the contemporary production, even the slightly more independent one. If we switch from the literal to the metaphorical, I find a very curious example of contemporary muse in the cinematic indie movies trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The Manic Pixie Dream girl is a term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2007 to describe female characters in romantic indie movies such as Garden State or Elizabethtown. Just like the eroticized woman of early Hollywood productions, she has no function in herself, but, to quote Rabin: “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”. I would say, it’s the hipster version of the classical muse. A man of sensitivity but somehow a loser to dominant masculinity meets a quirky, child-like (sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically so), sometimes troubled and unpractical, but oh-so-adorable woman, who will eventually redeem him and provide him access to some sort of personal achievement or success, thus vicariously re-establishing his
masculinity. About the Manic Pixie Dream Girl herself, we do not know neither her fate, nor her goals or story. She is, after all, just a muse. If this seems stereotyping, there are many more examples of such sexist dynamics in contemporary cinema. The Smurfette Principle, for example, describes the presence of one woman only in a group of numerous men. It takes its name from the village of the Smurfs, where different characters inhabited: the grumpy one, the savvy one, the foodie… and the woman, Smurfette. One was enough, being a woman is often a character in itself. Alien, Fight Club, the Hobbit, Inception being just some of the most mainstream examples of such trope. The Bechdel test tackles this problem too. It is a test to evaluate women’s presence in movies, which originated in 1985 as an inside joke in a lesbian comic called “Dykes to watch out for”. The test goes as following: 1) the movie has to have at least two women in it, 2) that talk to each other, 3) of something other than a man. And unsurprisingly, it is a very difficult test to pass, with many classic and contemporary productions passing none of the 3 steps. It is by all means not an indication of quality of the production, but an indication of a problem. We are so used of having all sort of stories and experiences filtered and produced in a sort of fake neutrality that leaves out a lot of diversity, and not only in terms of gender, obviously. The consequence is that inevitably, interventions and productions that talk about something other than the masculine neutrality are seen as minority, subgenre, niche, “politically correct” aberrations rather than a mirror of reality, which in itself is indeed diverse. In terms of popular culture, I am thinking of how JK Rowling was advised of signing with initials only because young boys might not want to read a book by a woman, even if its protagonist was a boy himself.
In a sense why I think all this matters is because this is both a symptom and a cause of how the relationship between genders is constructed. Our visual and cultural imaginary is representative and telling of the dynamics that are at work in society. If cultural codes associate femaleness with passivity and to be looked-at-ness and masculinity with active desire and needs, the consequences are tangible. And please understand that even though I kept talking about men and women I do not mean those two categories as essential or even less so as natural or biological, but as constructed social positions and as political. As well, none of this is dooming of inescapable, and hopefully many of us are working daily to undo such dynamics and stereotypes. However, the diagnose of the problem is still at the base of our slow process of social change, so here we go. This political nature of gendered dynamics is well expressed by philosopher Paul Preciado in his essay from this year titled “Letter from a Trans Man to the Old Sexual Regime”, which he wrote as a response to the events following the sexual misconduct scandals in Hollywood and the global discourse it triggered around the #metoo movement. I think his work and the critique of the heterosexual model it provides are very well connected to the canon to which the nude or the muse are part of, a canon that eroticizes a power difference and a passive / active dichotomy: I will read you an extract: “Heterosexuality is not only a political regime […] It also a politics of desire. The specific feature of this system is that it is incarnated as a process of seduction and romantic dependence between “free” sexual agents. […]Heterosexuality is a practice of government which is not imposed by those who govern (men) on the governed (women), but rather an epistemology laying down the respective definitions and positions of men and women by way of an internal regulation. This practice of government does not take the form of a law, but of an unwritten norm, a translation of gestures and codes whose effect is to establish within the practice of sexuality a partition between what can and cannot be done”, and, I would add, to the detriment of everyone, men included. “This form of sexual servitude is based on an aesthetics of seduction, a stylization of desire, and an historically constructed and coded domination which eroticizes the difference of power and perpetuates it. This politics of desire is what keeps the old sex/gender regime alive, despite all the legal process of democratization and empowerment of women. […] The process of denouncing violence and
making it possible, which we are currently experiencing, is part and parcel of a sexual revolution, which is as unstoppable as it is slow and winding. Queer feminism has set epistemological transformation as a condition making social change possible. It called binary epistemology and gender naturalization into question by asserting that there is an irreducible multiplicity of different sexes, genders, and sexualities. But we realize, these days, that the libidinal transformation is as important as the epistemological one: desire must be transformed. We must learn how to desire sexual freedom. What is most urgent is not to defend what we are (men or women) but to reject it, to disidentify ourselves from the political coercion which forces us to desire the norm and reproduce it. Our political praxis is to disobey the norms of gender and sexuality. […] I don’t feel any kind of desire for the erotic and sexual kitsch you’re offering: guys taking advantage of their position of power to get their rocks off and touch backsides. This grotesque aesthetics turns my stomach. An aesthetics which re-naturalizes sexual differences and places men in the position of aggressor and women in that of victim”. Preciado thus points to this power imbalanced gender roles as a political coercion to be worked against. But how does this eroticized relation between genders reproduce itself culturally? Concerning this construction of heterosexuality and the gendered division of desires, which is built performatively and in repetition, I would like to address the work of Sara Ahmed’s in her 2004 book “The Cultural Politics of Emotion”. She wants to offer a critique of the heterosexual economy of love, one provided for example in Freudian theories. Freud theorized two kinds of love: the analytic, or object love, and narcissistic love. In the analytic one, the object of love is external, while in the narcissistic one, the self is the object of love. Freud said that children function according to narcissistic love, but later, as they grow to be men, they shift the object of love to external. Women, on the contrary, according to Freud, remain narcissistic. Thus, Ahmed writes: “The economy for this differentiation is heterosexual: the sexual relation becomes a love relation in which the woman becomes the object of her love and the man's love. I will not engage here with the question of whether this model describes or prescribes a heterosexist economy […]”.
Indeed, by stating that she does not want to enter the debate on whether this model is descriptive or prescriptive, she hints at the fact that these gendered role divisions are not a natural given, nor a fact or rule, but might act as a quite stereotyping model or a paradigm through which we make sense of love, a sort of Western self-fulfilling prophecy. I think you see how this connects to both Berger and Mulvey’s text I previously read, and how the gendered divisions between active and passive are here concerning not only the gaze but more generally a politic of desire. Whereas Preciado was defining this politics of desire as an epistemology, Ahmed compares the normalization of so called “compulsory heterosexuality” to repetitive strain injuries, shifting the focus from the macro dynamics to the micro-dimension of conversations, gestures and repetitions. I quote, and it’s the last long one, that hopefully will take us back to the matter of the body, but from a different angle: “I want to argue that norms surface as the surfaces of bodies; norms are a matter of impressions, of how bodies are 'impressed upon' by the world, as a world made up of others. Such impressions are effects of labour; how bodies work and are worked upon shapes the surfaces of bodies. Regulative norms function in a way as 'repetitive strain injuries' (RSIs). Through repeating some gestures and not others, or through being orientated in some directions and not others, bodies become contorted; they get twisted into shapes that enable some action only insofar as they restrict capacity for other kinds of action. Compulsory heterosexuality shapes bodies by the assumption that a body 'must' orient itself towards some objects and not others […]. In shaping one's approach to others, compulsory heterosexuality also shapes one's own body, as a congealed history of past approaches. Sexual orientation involves bodies that leak into worlds. To practise heterosexuality by following its scripts in one's choice of some love objects — and refusal of others - is also to become invested in the reproduction of heterosexuality. Of course, one does not 'do' heterosexuality simply through who one does and does not have sex with. Heterosexuality as a script for an ideal life makes much stronger claims. It is assumed that all arrangements will follow from the arrangement of the couple: man/woman. It is no accident that compulsory heterosexuality works powerfully in the most casual modes of
conversation. One asks: 'Do you have a boyfriend?' (to a girl), or one asks: 'Do you have a girlfriend?' (to a boy).[…] No matter how 'out' you may be, how comfortably queer you may feel, those moments of interpellation get repeated over time, and can be experienced as a bodily injury; moments which position queer subjects as failed in their failure to live up to the 'hey you too' of heterosexual self narration. […] Heteronormativity functions as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape. (like a chair that acquires its shape by the repetition of some bodies inhabiting it: we can almost see the shape of bodies as 'impressions' on the surface). […] Queer subjects, when faced by the 'comforts' of heterosexuality may feel uncomfortable (the body does not 'sink into' a space that has already taken its shape). Discomfort is a feeling of disorientation: one's body feels out of place, awkward, unsetded. I know that feeling too well, the sense of out-of-place-ness and estrangement involves an acute awareness of the surface of one's body, which appears as surface, when one cannot inhabit the social skin, which is shaped by some bodies, and not others”. So, heteronormativity, by repetition of itself, shapes bodies and desires. I wanted to address this, too. I thought about addressing how my own body has been shaped and oriented by these politics of look, labour and affect. I stand here, as a white body, and able body, a young body, a body that never fails to be read as female, despite various attempts to undiscipline myself from these divisions, which have always been policed, sometimes expectedly and sometimes unexpectedly so. I thought about trying to reflect on the vulnerability of the body, but I soon realized that I would have ended up being apologetic. Apologetic of the imperfection of my own body, something that as someone socialized as a woman has always been a compulsory requirement. You are confronted with an unsustainable standard of beauty to be judged accordingly, and you must always and at all costs being apologetic about your failures, because the failure is yours, of meeting such standards. Were you not to be apologetic, you might be accused of the worst crime: vanity, and your failures will be thrown back at you. Apology as a self-defense, one might say. In the words, again, of John Berger: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.”
On the 9th of May 2018 I was invited to present a lecture at Descentrat 5. Întâlnirile indisciplinate at the National Dance Center Bucharest...