I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts which, though different in scope and concept, work off the ideas presented in the previous post(s). By doing so, I hope to emulate my thought process – to manifest the series of connections that are created in my brain while thinking about a certain topic. Specifically, this series of posts will discuss different facets of the concepts of agency and the power of the gaze.
I have already discussed the concept of agency, the ability to act/do, in previous posts. The gaze, however, is something that I have only mentioned briefly in my discussion of the spectacle. “The gaze” is an important concept in the art historical discipline. While teaching the introductory surveys, I would often ask the students where the figures (if there were figures in the painting) were looking. Though it may seem like a rather superficial, perhaps meaningless, question, the gaze of the figures is important in both formal and conceptual analysis. If the figures are looking directly at the viewer, they may be inviting of challenging the viewer’s gaze. If the figure(s) are not looking at the viewer(s), the viewer(s) can be spectators, voyeurs, or active participant(s) in the scene.
The gaze is inherently powerful. The act of looking is, in some ways, a privilege, and it can be a display of dominance or an attempt at intimidation. Though not particularly relevant to contemporary American society, there have been, and still are, places and time periods where only certain people could look at certain people/things. The privilege of looking was dependent on race, class, and/or gender. Generally, “the gaze” refers to the male gaze, particularly the heterosexual, privileged, white male’s gaze. This dates back to ancient art. Think ancient Greece – Aphrodite of Cnidos, in particular. Though the Roman copy is not as beautiful, the nude statue of the “goddess of love” (dubbing her a goddess made her nudity more acceptable), was adored by many men. There are ancient accounts that some men got so excited that they “left a stain on her.” As she coyly tries to cover her genitals in the Venus Pudica pose, she is actually drawing attention to her nudity and vulnerability. The fact that she does not look at the viewer head on puts the viewer in a position of acting as a voyeur, which adds an element of excitement and scandal to the viewing experience.
There were dozens, hundreds of male nude statues. The nude male body, however, was not an object of desire. Male nudity, instead, was a symbol of both athleticism and herocism. Even statues of nude men were created for the gaze of other men. To the heterosexual man they were a symbol of what the man should hope to be. To the homosexual male they were the same symbol, and, perhaps secondarily, objects of desire. The statues had commanding gazes which met the viewer’s eyes. They were confident, self aware, and proud. They were not created as objects for women to lust after, but as reminders of the Greek emphasis on and appreciation for athleticism, youth, and beauty.
The male gaze has always been the most powerful gaze, and it still remains the most powerful gaze… which will be the concepts expanded upon in the next blog post.