THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS

Gender Identity and the Male Gaze

 

“The Gaze” is a well-known term in art. We who enjoy a work of art fixate intently on both the object as well as upon a work’s subject. Historically, it was the female and the feminine who were objects of this artistic gaze. The ubiquity of the nude, the most common female figure, is illustrative of this gaze.

Woman, the artist’s most common muse, is also a component of the male gaze—Gala as Salvador Dali’s muse, for example. In the 20th century, women artists increasingly demanded to be seen as having that identity and not simply as muses. In making space for women in a once male-dominated world and remedying the traditional  state of affairs, a woman artist’s gender identity came to be recognized, accepted, and expressed in their body of work. In this way, artistic space was enlarged for others beside the cis male*.

Gender politics, like all identity politics, aims at rectifying and reforming a system that has excluded a certain class of person. But in this attempt at inclusion, it fixates on the identity of the excluded at the expense of seeing the identity as an expression of a well-rounded personhood.

In the case of visual art, the art of women becomes about the female identity. This raises the question of a parity of expectation between the male- identified and the female-identified. Masculine identity has been the vantage point from which we gaze upon a work of art and conceive of a body of work. If the dominant identity isn’t questioned, the male gaze prevails.

The remedy of focusing on letting other identities have access may not mean that the arts have escaped the question of the male gaze. As a result of women needing to be seen as artists, an unspoken expectation is that femininity or being female is the subject of their body of work. Yet, no one expects a cis male artist to be talking about masculinity unless he explicitly says so. No one asks of the cis male artist to explain the relationship between his art and his gender.

We may ask it of the transgender male artist, but we would want to see an expression of being transgender, not masculinity. In needing to be seen, the art can be reduced to gender expression of those who aren’t male. I’m not questioning the expression of the artist: cis male, cis female, transgender. Rather, I’m after how we are continuing to conceive this issue in terms of the male gaze where the cis male remains the vantage point from which cis female or transgender male or female is received or understood.

What I continue to see and experience is that cis masculinity is assumed and does not need overt expression. Nor is it questioned in evaluation of an artistic body of work, if perceived to be cis male. The male artist can be seen as just an artist, his work need not be about his gender identity. The cis male artist is free to perform his art without an examination of his masculinity. Whereas the female or transgender artist will at some point feel the pressure to give an account of their gender identity in relation to their body of work. It remains worthy to qualify the artist as female or transgender, while it remains unremarkable for an artist’s body of work if the artist is male.

The male gaze in art while often heterosexual isn’t necessarily about the male sexual gaze upon the women. Rather it is a gaze that assumes a vantage point that isn’t represented, but from which things are seen. This creates an ambiguity for the gay artist who shares the masculine vantage point but would not share a heterosexual orientation of other male artists. Thus, we do find that, though in relation to his gender, the homosexual artist shares the male gaze. In terms of gender identity, he shares the same assumed and unquestioned vantage point as the cis heterosexual male. But in terms of his sexuality, he may find himself needing to identify his work in some way with his sexual identity. The ambiguity is that the shared masculine vantage point of the cis male heterosexual artist doesn’t include the homosexual as such. Thus, in order to be seen in his full identity, the gay artist finds that his art needs to be about his sexual identity. Like the female artist, to be seen by the male gaze his body of work must be about his sexuality.

There is both good and bad in what I’m questioning. In part, the situation I describe above is a political good: a means to correct the lack of access and of recognition of the female identified (and others) excluded in the past, when the art world, like most institutions, was a “man’s world.” However, without the corrective of identity, we still find ourselves under the male gaze. While the art world is filled with other identities, we don’t see masculinity, rather masculinity remains the vantage point from which the art of the female is observed.

 

Frida Kahlo, The Two Fridas, 1939, Museo de Arte Moderno, Mexico City, Mexico

 

This all suggests that the remedy has not changed the vantage point from which art and artist are viewed. Only the cis male artist need not have his work be about his gender identity (the exception that proves the rule is a gay man who wishes to be seen in a way that acknowledges his orientation). These other identities are included but there is pressure for the remedy to take effect—for the female artists to explicitly and firmly express their gender identity in their art. Even as other identities are included in the art world other gazes are not. The artistic gaze remains the male gaze.

If we began to see art from multiple vantage points, what would it look like when the male gaze wasn’t the vantage point of our seeing? What if we could begin to speak not only of the “male gaze” but the “female gaze”? We would perhaps begin by asking what a male artist’s work may or may not say about his masculinity—that is, to begin to see men as well as women, and not assume the male when seeing the feminine.

Seeing with another gaze would also mean that critics would have to question their own aesthetic values and measurements for critique. Why doesn’t the critic ask the question of the role of masculine gender identity in the work of the cis male identified artists, as the critic asks it of the female artists? For the female critic it may mean being willing to ask what she sees, rather than what “he” expects “her” to see. It may mean also accepting that the female identified, cis or transgender, needn’t be saying anything about their gender or gender experience in their art, just as we expect and accept that most of the time a cis male artist isn’t constantly referring to their experience as men.

If we can escape the male gaze, we would recognize the complex relationship between an artist’s identity and their work of art. If we find our way to these other “gazes,” we would see the artist’s identity as inclusive but not fixated upon gender identity. An artist’s individual or whole body of work may speak of their gender identity but also whether male-identified or female- identified, their body of work may not speak exclusively of their gender identity and experience.

 

Rev. Larry E. Kamphausen, OJCR is an icon painter, theologian, writer, ordained minister, and goth. Larry also writes for the dark alternative Kilter Magazine.  He has shown his work at the now defunct Gallery B1E and the Rogers Park Art Gallery.

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*  Cis gender is a gender identity that is consistent with biological sex, or the gender assigned at birth. As such cis refers to gender identity and not sexual orientation. A gay man who identifies as male is cis gender. This essay is focused upon gender identity, though sexual orientation and gender identity certainly have moments of overlap in regard to the male gaze in art.

Peter Paul Rubens, The union of earth and water.