29 January 2019
The audience witnesses a nude performance by the feminist artist, Carolee Schneemann, and a question arises: is her naked body an embodiment of subjectivity or objectivity? Primarily, the notion of the Self and the Other, as theorized by Simone de Beauvoir, suggests that otherness is determined by what the Self is not. In other words, the Other is determined through objective alienation. A major division between the Self and Other is the removal of similarities and familiarity. The Self tends to refuse understanding the Other and is unwilling to bridge the localities. Thus, there is the establishment of opposing perspectives. Through this concept, we can define feminist objectivity, which “is about limited location and situated knowledge, not about transcendence and splitting of subject and object” (Haraway 678). Notably, throughout the discourse of this essay, I will consider the historical ideologies of the female nude, specifically in academia, the relevancy of the male gaze, the correlation of subjectivity and objectivity in performance art, and how renditions of the performance, Interior Scroll (1975), further challenging the notion of objectivity. For Schneemann, and other feminist artists including Anne Juren, the female nude becomes a tool which highlights the universal embodiment of the Self and Other.
Historically speaking, the female nude was modelled by men; Michelangelo’s painting, The Fall of Man, reveals a very muscular bodied, angular faced Eve. Since art was used primarily as a means of education and religious message, there was no place for a woman to be in the art world. Eventually, the female nude begins to reveal voluptuous curves and soft features, but the modelling role is the only position women had in artistic academia. According to Nochlin, there have been no women artists because women are “incapable of greatness” (147). The artistic process requires reason, and thus, only men are deemed capable of producing note-worthy masterpieces. Typically, the ‘masterpieces’ depict the female nude. Ironically, the subject that had no place in Art academia had a place as an object to be observed. The portrayal of the female nude is crafted under the male gaze for the male viewer. Her identity is recognized by her apprehended sexual availability in order to provide pleasure to the male spectator. When alone, the naked female is her-Self, but when posed as a reference for the male artist, she transforms into an objectifiable nude.
Flashforward to the 1970s; feminist artists begin to expose that there has always been women artists, but they have been written out of history or they practiced under their husband’s or father’s name. Simultaneously through efforts of recovering the names of women artists who did make exceptional contributions to the art scene, the feminist artists of the 1970s look to carve out space for present and future women artists to manifest their own identity in the art world. Considering that art is a reflection of society, the efforts also provide social empowerment. Nonetheless, women artists turn to a more active technical approach to artmaking. Performance art and film allow women to reconstruct their identity as the Creator and creation. They manifest body as performativity and bring a new experience to the feminine essence. Their physicalities are manipulated as a tool to depict a Self free from influences of the male gaze. Aforementioned, the female nude was crafted by male artists for a male audience. Thus, the female nude existed as a tool for male pleasure, but feminist artists challenged the male script by performing jouissance (the process of documenting the feminine experience). The Art history canon (the authoritative art club consisting of white, cisgendered dead, genius men) ensures that “the body especially the female body, has been systematically regulated and disciplined by strict codes” (Wark 43). In order to challenge the looming force of the Art history cannon and their use of the male gaze, women artists need to use their perspective to narrate their experience.
As exemplified in Schneemann’s performance, Interior Scroll, “the female subject is not simply a ‘picture’ in Schneemann’s scenario, but a deeply constituted (and never fully coherent) subjectivity in the phenomenological sense, dynamically articulated in relation to others (including me,here and now in my chair), in a continually negotiated exchange of desire and identification” (Jones 12-13). During the performance, Schneemann stands naked in a gallery. There is paint brushed across her body, sparingly. She pulls a scroll out of her vagina and reads:
I met a happy man, / a structuralist filmmaker . .. he said we are fond of you / you are charming / but don’t ask us / to look at your films /… we cannot look at / the personal clutter / the persistence of feelings / the hand-touch sensibility. (Jones 12)
The text reveals an encounter between a man and a woman wherein the male gaze is prominent. Afterwards, the text from the scroll, along with a photograph capturing Schneemann reaching for the scroll and another one with the scroll almost wholly emerged is printed as a poster. As an extension of her performance, Schneemann releases various bodily fluids including urine. The stains of the fluids are noted on the poster, and the final product is then displayed a gallery setting. Undeniably, “the deliberate grotesqueness of her display defiantly asserted the corporeal reality of her body as a challenge to the objectifying gaze of the ‘happy man’” wherein her nude physique was used to appease sexual desire (Wark 45). Arguably, the abject nature of her performance can be considered (slightly) repulsive. She transforms the inferral of her nudity from an objective perspective to a subjective one. Although her naked body is the same matter that would embody an objective nude, the process of self direction redirects location away from the male gaze and offers a new source of situated knowledge. The audience reads her body as more than simple pleasure.
Similarly, Anne Juren utilizes Schneemann’s performance to further challenge the reconstruction of the female nude through magic. Juren performs a rendition of Schneemann’s performance, yet, rather than an interior scroll, Juren reaches into her vagina to pull out a line of fabric. In addition, Juren does not include an audio component. She stays silent throughout the duration of her performance. Considering that the performance is not original, it becomes subject to comparison. Spectators consider the differences between Schneemann’s and Juren’s performances. Schneemann’s performance is raw, fresh, provides insight to a new perspective separate from the male gaze. Schneemann comments on the male gaze. Yet, Juren highlights that magic, although humourous, also becomes a tool for entertainment. The audience is encouraged to consider:
Hasn’t the female body always been a magic show of sorts, celebrated for its surfaces and reviled for what lies beneath? Isn’t it a truism that dominant cultures demand illusionist tricks of women’s bodies—maintaining youthful beauty at all costs—and seemingly effortless performances of women’s labor? If so, what better form than the overt deceptions of magic to gesture to such histories of thought? (Felton-Dansky 257)
Through representation and magic, the female nude can be manipulated to entice the male viewer. Similar to Schneemann, Juren embodies the role of the magician and the magic trick in order to reconstruct the location of situated knowledge through jouissance.
In conclusion, the objectified female nude is fabricated by ‘limited location’ and ‘situated knowledge’. When constructed by the male artist, the female nude is an object to be desired. The identity of the model is stripped away, and her bodily form becomes a means of sensuality. Women artists use their naked body as a means to redirect the focus from the male gaze. The female nude stays the same in physicalities, but her essence is reconstructed. As opposed to the male gaze, the creative process acquired through jouissance invites women to embody simultaneously the Identifier and Identity, the Creator and creation, the artist and the artwork. Through performance, specifically, Schneemann and Juren expose their nudity but separate their form from male desire. Their bodies are a tool which depicts performativity and reinforces identity. The presentation of the Self through the nude unites the women’s physical aspects with her autonomy. The message of their performances are actively apprehended and “the moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision” (Haraway 678). The historical ideologies of the male gaze established in academia through the Art history canon is challenged. Schneemann presents how the correlation of of subjectivity and objectivity is unified in performance, and Juren further challenges the notion of objectivity through the entertaining magic in a rendition performance piece of Schneemann’s Interior Scroll.
Felton-Dansky, Miriam. “Anonymous Is A Woman: The New Politics Of Identification In Magical And Untitled Feminist Show”. Theatre Journal, vol 67, no. 2, 2015, pp. 253-271. Johns Hopkins University Press, doi:10.1353/tj.2015.0066.
Haraway, Donna. “The Persistence Of Vision”. The Visual Culture Reader, Nicholas Mirzoeff, Routledge, New York, 2002, Accessed 27 Jan 2019.
Jones, Amelia. “”Presence” In Absentia: Experiencing Performance As Documentation”. Art Journal, vol 56, no. 4, 1997, p. 11. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/777715.
Nochlin, Linda. Women, Art, And Power And Other Essays. 1971. Pg.. 145-176.
Schneemann, Carolee. Interior Scroll. 1975, performance. (image courtesy of Dr. Andrea Terry.“Wk 3 – 1970s Feminism”, VISU 3870 Crit Studies Feminist Art Hist, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay. Lecture Presentation.)
Terry, Andrea.“Wk 3 – 1970s Feminism”, VISU 3870 Crit Studies Feminist Art Hist, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay. Lecture Presentation.
Wark, Jayne. Radical Gestures. Mcgill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. Pg. 45-48.
- Blahuta, Jason. “Philosophy & Science Fiction.” Lakehead University, Thunder Bay. Lecture.
- Lorber, Judith. Gender Inequality Fifth Ed., “Lesbian Feminism”, Oxford University Press: New York, 2012. Print. Pg. 151-164.
- Niittynen, Miranda. “Guerrillas & Craftivists: Femini.” Lakehead University, Thunder Bay. Lecture.