The Body Observed: Exploring the female body as an object and subject through 1970s art and theory to now. Are our methods of producing art and technological advances changing how we are observed today?
In exploration of the female body often being depicted as an object, I address how the changes in art mediums from the 1970s to current contemporary society have altered observation of the body. Discussing 1970s feminist art and Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze in comparison to the work of contemporary digital performance artists, such as Amalia Ulman, I explore how Ulman’s use of medium complies with the male gaze in a contemporary context knowingly, yet provides her work with feminist agency. In our digital age, with the ever-growing use of online communication and sharing platforms, how are these modern mediums impacting the observation and subjectification of the female body?
Discussing the observer and the spectacle, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” explores the connection between pleasure and the act of looking. Specifically, Mulvey discusses the pleasures within cinema and how they are representative of repressive patriarchal society. Mulvey argues, “[woman] stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” Depicted as a silent image, women are objectified within our culture, and therefore observed as a mere spectacle built for pleasure. This is exploited within art and cinema through deliberate angles, poses, shots, and movements that are centralised around the female body. In film, a slow-moving and deliberate shot, focussing on the curves of a woman’s body, is purposefully included, sexualising the figure within the narrative. Historically, Western Art heavily depicted the nude female figure, therefore, popularizing the male gaze. As audiences perpetuate the male gaze, Mulvey argues that women can then only watch from this secondary gaze. As a result, women begin objectifying other women, and often themselves. In support of this, John Berger, in Ways Of Seeing states, “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” Berger and Mulvey suggest that under the phallocentric order of society, this perspective explored within media and culture has impressionably impacted how women are seen, both publically and privately.
In reference to the feminist art movement in the 1970s, the work of Linder Sterling challenged the objectifying ideals that surrounded women. Sterling’s collage work featured the utilisation of pornographic imagery, and its reconstruction by combining it with commercialised images of homeware interior. In her series, ‘Pretty Girls’, images of the female body were compiled with cutouts from homeware catalogues. This embraced the domestic environment, in order to problematize it. Using pre-existing visual imagery in this manner, allowed the work to confront gender constraints, and disturb stereotypes of that time. Quoting The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA): “[Sterling] employs objects generally associated with domesticity to highlight and challenge notions of power, femininity, and consumer culture. Bodies and faces are reconfigured and mechanized with ironic flair in order to dismantle the utopian, technology-driven visions of modernity.” Opposing consumer culture, Sterling’s work commented on the capitalism of the female body within pornographic media industries. The juxtapositions of the work’s photographic content create graphic compositions that play into the act of subversion.
In addition, Martha Rosler created work of a similar context. In the series of photomontage work, ‘Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain’, made between 1965 and 1972, Rosler merged magazine images of female torsos with kitchen appliances. Connecting female objectification with mass consumption, Rosler’s series critiqued misogynist views and highlighted issues of hierarchy. As a medium, whilst Sterling and Rosler often work with secondary sources, their parallel to the subject provides their work with relative feminist agency that has the power to transform patriarchal gender norms and observations.
Similarly, the 1968 performative film piece by VALIE EXPORT, named ‘TAP and TOUCH Cinema’, also challenged the mass consumerism of the female as a silent image. With a case over her bare chest, EXPORT invited members of the public to part the curtains with their bare hands and feel inside, touching her breasts. Revolting against technological advances and male protagonist frameworks of the media, EXPORT provoked her audience to interact with a real woman, as opposed to an image on a screen. She exploited the notion of expanded cinema, in which she knowingly objectified her own body as a live context for watching. On an intimate basis within close proximity, ‘TAP and TOUCH Cinema’ urged participants to confront the establishment of a relationship with a real-life body, as opposed to cinematic voyeurism. Mulvey’s theory can be shown in relation to this, as EXPORT highlighted a reciprocated engagement of interaction, which is not available within cinematic film. Therefore, she challenged the notion of chauvinistic visual mastery and the observer, in order to reverse the power roles surrounding the male gaze. This piece exploited the objectified female body, in order to confront it.
In contemporary society, perceptions of the observed female are being explored in new technologically advanced mediums. The online performance piece, ‘Excellences & Perfections’ by Amalia Ulman explored the construction of the stereotypical woman whilst playing with the conventions of the social networking platform, Instagram. The 2014 net-art performance embraced the technique of algorithmic curation. With false narratives, Ulman created an online persona of superficiality. This work reviewed how social media allows distortion of identity and authenticity, but in particular, what this means for women. Building herself as a brand online, Ulman knowingly played into Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze for her successions. Objectifying herself and her body in the images, she ironically explored concepts regarding how women and their level of success are judged merely by their appearance.
Arguably, the ever-growing use of social communication and sharing platforms heightens the concept of the observer and the observed. Linking to Laura Mulvey’s theory surrounding narrative cinema, the pleasure of viewing a sexualised image of the female is also applicable to specific content on social networking websites. With the freedom of sharing and dispersing information online, women often objectify their own bodies in order to seek self-acceptance, and confirmation that they conform to societal expectations of the female. As Berger noted, women have been taught to survey themselves as a sight from an early age. Therefore, within the digital age, the Internet has now become a tool to aid observation of themselves and others.
Originally, the Internet began as a military experiment. It became introduced into mainstream society in the early 1980s and it has since percolated into our everyday lives. To the extent, that it is now a necessity for the functioning of our modern-day culture. Ten years previously, the 1970s welcomed the invention of ‘Playboy’ magazine, and an increasing interest in the pornography industry. As they promoted the sexualised image of the female, there was an uproar in the objectification of women. This prompted a change in subjectivity. Theorist, Michel Foucault, explored the governmental depiction of the female as a bio-political figure raised for reproduction. However, as pornography was popularised and the invention of the contraceptive pill arose: reproduction became separate to sexuality, and intercourse became regarded more for pleasure purposes. Described by Paul B. Preciado as “currently the great mainspring of our cybereconomy”, pornography production online has become a prominent and ever-enlarging factor of sex industry success. The Internet’s pornographic content, has capitalised the female body; objectified the female to an exaggerated degree; and normalised that image. Accessible at any moment, these websites hold major dominance within the online community. The popularity of this industry has undoubtedly changed how the female is viewed. With the invention of social media as a communication and sharing tool, users are able to effectively disperse information to mass audiences. Social networking websites have become another platform for the capitalisation of the objectified female.
Amalia Ulman played into this notion, with her work enabling statements to be made regarding the construction of a false persona online to conform with the expectation of women in patriarchal society. She took on various expected roles as her character shifted from innocent to daring throughout the digital performance. Ulman’s ability to simulate these superficial characteristics so successfully provokes critical questions regarding authenticity within social media, and our involvement with this as observers. As users assimilate to what Baudrillard called the “silent masses”, this raises the question: do these social websites, such as Instagram, act as utensils for tactical presentations of oneself? Outlined as a tool for users to be authentic by Instagram’s CEO, Kevin Systrom: the level of truly authentic content on this channel is arguable. As written in the essay “Perpetual Provisional Selves: A Conversation About Authenticity and Social Media”, Rob Horning and Amalia Ulman, claim: “consumer culture relies on the ideological fiction that self-expression brings personal fulfillment and self actualization, so that the injunction to reveal oneself is not a burden, but bliss.” This suggests that the act of revealing oneself as a branded commodity through Internet posts provides users with an experience of subjectivity that encourages the objectification of them. Horning and Ulman write: “we become an audience for ourselves, when we can credibly consume our own selves as a product, as a spectacle, while being free of the self-consciousness, the paralyzing reflexivity, that usually attends it”. With posts consolidating user’s awareness of their own body and identity, this suggests that the measurable attention that users receive from online audiences provides a sense of validation. Authenticity online is often earned validation in conjunction with the audience’s perception of risk. For example, when a post appears as high risk, audiences will automatically assume it is truthful. Furthermore, this explains the degree of Ulman’s success and her profile’s believability. As part of her spoof Instagram profile, Ulman posted an image of her bandaged breasts with a caption that highlighted breast augmentation surgery. With this false narrative featured as a risqué image, her shocked audience considered it trustworthy. This suggests that, revealing oneself online, provides partial control to how one is observed yet without validation from observers, authenticity may be questionable.
Another contemporary artist using net-art as a medium, is Alexandra Marzella. As an online feminist performance artist engaging with Instagram, Marzella’s work confronts the narcissistic nature of our generation and our desire to be validated through observation, attention, and online interaction. Through unapologetic nude self-portraits, her confessional work online addresses the over-sexualisation of female bodies and aims to reverse mainstream narratives of objectification. Marzella expresses her desire to move away from hypersexualised imagery because of the implications regarding male attention and the male gaze. Her intentions behind her nude portraits are to attack objectification and violence against women by purposefully not sexualising herself. Under the username handle @artwerk6666, Marzella has had at least 16 accounts deleted by Instagram for violating their guidelines. However, through this deletion, it could be argued that Instagram challenge her feminist values through the prevention of her explicit expression of feminist values. This suggests that there are limitations within using social media as an artform because evidently, rules originating from patriarchal society are still controlling our culture today.
In conclusion, technological advances have enhanced the act of observing within our culture, and enforced male-dominated hegemonic ideologies as females strive for validation. In contemporary society, the objectification by women of themselves and of other women has thrived. A closer bond has been founded between the observer and the spectacle in today’s image-obsessed culture. Comparatively, 1970s artworks such as ‘TAP and TOUCH Cinema’ by VALIE EXPORT appeared to address the male gaze being highly dominated by purely male observers. Whilst photographic and performative content connects the discussed 1970s artworks with net-art artists using social media, the introduction of the Internet that surfaced during this time frame has brought added complication with it. Using the example of Amalia Ulman, it seems that social media requires females to knowingly conform to patriarchal guidelines, even perhaps without authenticity, in order for them to become noticeable in such a widely used platform. Without online attention, no audience can be built for these works. This argues the restrictions of the net-art medium, in regards to feminist freedom: Alexandra Marzella’s deletion of accounts by Instagram supports this. Laura Mulvey’s theory resonates within current image-obsessed society as many objectify themselves as a tool for self-acceptance and brand success within this digital age. Exploring the female body as an object and subject, it is clear that the introduction of the Internet has encouraged observation and enhanced the scope of observers through its ability to interact with a mass audience.
 Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Art In Theory 1900-2000 (Blackwell Publishing, 2003) p.982
 Berger, John. Ways Of Seeing (Penguin, 1972) p.47
 Sterling, Linder. ‘Pretty Girls’, 1977
 Rosler, Martha. ‘Body Beautiful, Or Beauty Knows No Pain’, 1965-72
 EXPORT, VALIE.’TAP and TOUCH Cinema’, 1968
 Museum of Modern Art. “VALIE EXPORT TAP and TOUCH Cinema 1968” URL: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/109931?locale=en (Last accessed 5 April 2017)
 Ulman, Amalia. ‘Excellences & Perfections’, 2014
 Berger. Ways Of Seeing, p.46
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 Preciado, Paul B. Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era (The Feminist Press, 2013) p.37
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EXPORT, VALIE.’TAP and TOUCH Cinema’, 1968
EXPORT, VALIE. Image URL: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/109931?locale=en
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Marzella, Alexandra. “Alexandra Marzella’s Unapologetic Nude Self-Portraits | Like Art” Video URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vCXYHkQsPs
Marzella, Alexandra. Image URL: https://www.instagram.com/p/BSjrhcEgHAv/?taken-by=artwerk6666
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