Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Gaze

Doing research for this blog, I discovered to my surprise that there was another meaning to the phrase "new Art History" then the meaning I meant to imply by my blog title.  According to A Short Guide to Writing about Art, by Sylvan Barnet:

"The study of the social and political history of art, especially of matters of class, gender and ethnicity, in a context of Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytic theory, and most especially when conducted in a somewhat confrontational manner, is sometimes called the New Art History to distinguish it from the earlier art history that was concerned chiefly with such matters a biography, connoisseurship, history of style, and iconography." 

In other words, questions such as "What does this painting tell me about the relationship between men and women in the culture in which it was produced?" or "Why do all famous artists seem to be white males?" are the questions that interested those studying the New Art History.  

Despite my surprise, I was actually quite happy to discover this meaning to New Art History.  My interests in Art History are broad, but topping the list is definitely the interest in questioning and critiquing artworks for values they represents, consciously or unconsciously, which may not all be so positive and universally appealing.   

So let me introduce you to an concept of great importance to the New Art History school of thought, the concept of The Gaze.  (For an introductory article on The Gaze in psychoanalytic theory, click here)

Jean-Léon Gérôme, La Grande Piscine de Brousse, 1885

This painting shows an imaginary scene inside a woman's bath house set in the city of Bursa (today, in Turkey), during the Roman/Byzantine era.  Although the details of anatomy and architecture are impeccable, we cannot forget that the painting is a fiction, not a reality; the artist Gérôme was a 19th century Frenchman, who had never been to Turkey.  

How do we talk about the gaze in this painting?  There are a number of gazes going on in this scene, from one woman to another, but the gaze that dominates is the one that is not pictured: the gaze of the painter/viewer aimed at the unsuspecting women, going about their baths.  I think it's fair to say that by viewing this painting, we at least play at being voyeurs (people who gain pleasure from viewing and inspecting others sexually), even if we sympathize with these women, or are aware of and try to avoid seeing them as sexual objects.  We, the viewers, are actively looking, and the women in the painting can do nothing but be passively looked at.  We can imagine that this voyeurism would have had an even more poisonous role in the painting's original context: in a 1885 salon in Paris, looked at by admiring viewers who had even less consciousness than we have of the demeaned position these women are placed in, in relationship to the viewer.  

Some art historians have gone so far as to argue thus:  The women in this painting do not realize our presence, so we have total power over them.  Looking at this painting is not innocent, it is an act of violent objectification.  

Now, this is a strong and rather unpleasant thesis. (Remember, those New Art History folks like being confrontational).  So I'm curious: do you buy it?  If you do buy it, could art historians use the concept of the gaze to analyze the relationship of the viewer to any painting, and how is this concept complicated if the person in the painting is looking back at the viewer?  Does it make a difference if the viewer is male or female?  If the painter is male or female?


  1. I find this painting beautiful and exotic -probably from the mood set by the light, color and architecture- but I don't see this painting as sexy. To me, it is as (un)sexy as a naturist/nudist group out bathing. It is just women going about their business at a bath or spa. So for me, it is not objectifying or voyeuristic.
    I do agree though, that once it became OK (in the late Renaissance?) for European painters to paint and sculpt nude adults, the mostly male painters did go beyond crazy over the nude female. How many zillions of paintings are titled 'Woman at the Bath' compared to 'Man at the Bath'? It is like the floodgates came crashing down and the obsession to create, view, own and control, (an image of) a woman with her clothes off was the privilege of the Man, and women had no voice in the matter. Yes they became objects. Possibly objects of devotion but more likely of sexual fantasies.

    1. Well said. I think you're point here is well articulated that the painting itself is not objectifying, necessarily, it is in the relationship between the painting and the viewer (and also perhaps the relationship of the painting to the artist, but this if often more difficult to measure) that needs to be analyzed, to see if it is objectifying.

      That's not the thesis held by all art historians, but I think it's a good one.

    2. Chiquitita: I love this painting