John Berger’s and Laura Mulvey’s theories of the male gaze thus aimed to denaturalize and dismantle the structures positioning the male subject at the apex of the cone of vision, so often (they argued) empowered in relation to the naked bodies of women so common in European painting traditions since the Renaissance. Mulvey famously deployed Freud’s theory of fetishism in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” to argue that the male gaze, as instrumentalized in Hollywood cinema, functions to produce that which we fear as other. The filmic image plays on the originary loss–the fear of castration–suffered by the viewer, promising to redeem or palliate this loss through fetishizing the female body as object.11
Following on Mulvey’s observations, it is clear that the body is the key factor in Western imaging and visual theory. Michel Feher’s Foucauldian formulation about the meaning of the body in contemporary life situates it precisely as the pivot through which any politics must be articulated in contemporary culture:
The body is at once the… actualizer of power relations–and that which resists power…. [I]t resists power not in the name of transhistorical needs but because of the new desires and constraints that each new regime develops. The situation therefore is one of permanent battle, with the body as the shifting field where mechanisms of power constantly meet new techniques of resistance and escape. So the body is not a site of resistance to a power which exists outside it; within the body there is a constant tension between mechanisms of power and techniques of resistance.12
For feminists, the body, which was the vehicle through which women could be objectified but also through which women could access their own social and political agency, became the battleground in two ways: the struggle for rights in relation to broader cultural norms, and in articulating debates about power and strategies within feminism itself. From the early 1960s onwards women artists such as Carolee Schneemann and Yoko Ono explored the interrelation between the female body presented as object and that body enactedas a subject with agency. It is important to emphasize that the body itself, whether enacted live or represented photographically, cinematically, or videographically, was the crucial pivot for this kind of feminist work.
The attempt to reverse or at least mitigate the negative effects of the oppression of women in general, but also in the art world and in canonical histories of art, with their legions of objectifying images of women, was made more explicit by about 1970 in the work of artists such as Judy Chicago and Adrian Piper. In works such as Peeling Back (from the “Rejection Quintet,” 1974) Chicago addresses in a literal sense the way in which patriarchy constructs the female body as a void. Focusing on the cunt, she returns its “presence,” its significance as a sign linked to material flesh. Piper, in contrast, in the early 1970s Catalysis series, keeps the body clothed, refusing to unveil herself before the public gaze she solicits, adopting repulsive clothing and smells as a way of pointing to and exacerbating her othering by her culture. Performing herself as overtly other, and excessively so, she takes on agency–the agency to repel.
As early as the mid 1970s, however, the body began to go underground or to be rejected as a visible pivot around which feminist practice could or should be articulated. Particularly in London and New York, feminist artists and art historians such as Lisa Tickner, Griselda Pollock, Sandy Flitterman, Judith Barry, and Mary Kelly articulated a theory of feminist visual practice that repudiated the representation or staging of the female body under the grounds that such strategies of making the body visible inevitably reproduced the structures of fetishism. As Kelly put it, when artists such as Judy Chicago attempt to valorize the woman’s body, “[u]sually the artist uses herself as signifier, as object, and of course necessarily [therefore] as fetish.”13 Griselda Pollock and Kelly in particular articulated a theory of feminist practice that called for the avoidance of representing or performing the female body, thus repudiating fetishism through the adoption of strategies of shocking or distancing the viewer drawn from the theories of Bertholt Brecht. This idea, which became dominant not only in feminist but in postmodernist practices in the 1980s in the Euro-American art worlds, was activated in the work of highly visible artists such as Barbara Kruger and Cindy Sherman.
- Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” originally published in Screen 16, n. 3 (Autumn 1975); reprinted in Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 44-53.↵
- Michel Feher, “Of Bodies and Technologies,” in Discussions in Contemporary Culture, n. 1, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Dia/ Bay Press, 1987), p. 161.↵
- “Mary Kelly Interviewed by Terence Maloon” (1978), reprinted in Visibly Female: Feminism and Art Today, ed. Hilary Robinson (New York: Universe, 1988), p. 78.↵