Painting the Difference: Sex and Spectator in Modern Art

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British art historian Charles Harrison presumes the existence of a patriarchal world with power in the hands of men who dominate the representation of women and femininity. He applauds the ground-breaking work of feminist theorists who have questioned this imbalance of power since the 1970s. He stops short, however, of accepting their claims that all women have been represented by male artists as images of “utter passivity” (p. 4), routinely reduced by the male gaze to the status of exploited sexual objects, or that women’s subjectivity is eroded by the visual treatment they receive at the hands of male artists such as Manet and Picasso. He wants to show that what is depicted in the picture plane by the (typically male) artist and enjoyed by the (typically male) spectator is more nuanced than just a simple privileged understanding between two men. He adds a third (and possibly fourth or more) party to the mix when he significantly redefines and expands our concept of the gaze: “A gaze may also be conceived of as a function of a painting’s represented content” (p. 9). In other words, a gaze may be “addressed outward by a represented figure,” and regardless of who and where, “the assumption conveyed by the term [‘gaze’] is that some differential and usually asymmetrical relation will be at stake in any exchange between one who directs the gaze and another at whom it is directed. In fact, it is just this difference—in age, in sex, in class, in interest, in power —that the operation of the gaze tends to mark” (p. 9). Referring to a woman depicted within the picture plane, he asks us to consider, “What does it feel like to look like this?” (p. 21) in order to entertain our many emotional responses and interpretations. When he adds, “What does it feel like to whom?” the sexual difference of the spectator also clearly comes into play.
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Archival date: 2017-07-29
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