Wednesday, August 5, 2020


I'm about a third of the way through reading Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel. I find the parts about Elaine de Kooning's (1918-1989) irreverence for convention exhilarating. In particular, I like learning about how Elaine sought to turn upside down, the power structure related to sex in art: "Men always painted the opposite sex," she said, "and I wanted to paint men as sex objects." 

The author points out, however, that Elaine's paintings of men were hardly depictions of sex objects. When I survey her body of work and view her male subjects, I agree. They aren't necessarily depicted as sex objects.

But the point I think Elaine was getting at is that she didn't want to paint subjects traditionally associated with what women painters painted. Like flowers, faces of pretty/proper white women, and other don't-rock-the-boat, keep-politics-out-of-it, subjects. 

Prior to Laura Mulvey's coining the phrase "The Male Gaze" in her 1975 essay within the genre of film, the concept of power's embeddedness within the act of gazing was discussed by Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), who posited that when a human gazes at another human, the dynamic automatically creates a hierarchy of power because THE GAZER (aka power) creates the frame and the filter upon the one who is being gazed at, with THE GAZED-AT becoming the power's object to objectify.

But what if the GAZED-AT enjoys being gazed at? Isn't that the million dollar question today, where a strand of digital feminism manufactures a disdain for the gaze while we clamor for apps and filters that can attract the gaze?

Perhaps Elaine wanted to be in the driver's seat and exert power to freely paint what she wanted. But I think she wanted to not only freely paint, but to also freely live:
"... people unacquainted with Elaine didn't know what to make of her eagerness and accessibility, her open sexual charm. Once, during a dinner party Elaine attended, the hostess on leaving the room invited the women to join her so the men could stay behind at the table and talk. Elaine remained seated, engaged in conversation with the man next to her. The hostess came up behind her and said, 'Come join us, Elaine.'
     'Oh I'm perfectly happy here,' she replied.
     'You must come,' said the woman, shaking Elaine's chair. 'You can't stay, it just isn't done.'
     'Well, it is done,' Elaine said. 'I'm doing it.'"
Digital feminism has a way of policing women in real life. It makes the "sisterhood" uncomfortable when a woman says no to a roomful of kitschy art and caddy conversation and instead practices open sexual charm in a roomful of male and female energy, not just to attract the gaze but to gaze. 

To grab power. 
To paint with power.

(NOTE: The term "digital feminism" is a term I use to describe a particular modern strand of feminism I observe within this digital age. I do not know if anyone else uses it.)

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