Wendy Earle

Dr Wendy Earle is a writer and convenor of the Academy of Ideas Art & Society Forum.


A year since the #MeToo campaign took off with the exposé of Harvey Weinstein’s sexually predatory behaviour, we can no longer take for granted freedom of expression in the arts. Compounding the impact of the campaigns against cultural appropriation, #MeToo has intensified nervousness within the arts about inadvertently transgressing newly drawn boundaries of acceptability. As a result, exhibition curators often seem more concerned about diversity and gender demands than aesthetic and art historical considerations.

Reflecting the new pressures, the forthcoming Royal Academy show on the Renaissance Nude will feature an equal number of male and female nudes, despite the historic predominance of the female nude in visual art. It is possible that the curators will find a sufficient number of Renaissance male nudes to equal the females, but the proposition reflects a problematic trend. #MeToo has created a tipping point where feminist political and moralistic priorities may trump artistic ones. At that point, the arts cease to be a sphere of freedom.

The nude in art is the ultimate expression of artistic freedom – not least because in no other public sphere is one free to represent and contemplate the unclothed body. As a form, it has been central to the development of painting and sculpture since Classical times, inspiring some of the greatest works. Kenneth Clark (in his seminal work The Nude, 1975) makes an important distinction between nude and naked. To be ‘naked’ implies the embarrassment and discomfort of being deprived of one’s clothes, the huddled and defenceless body (as in a bad dream). Nude, on the other hand, projects the balanced, prosperous and confident body, in full daylight, shaped by the artist into a vision of beauty.

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Painters and sculptors since classical times have sought to portray the human body in an idealised form, to encapsulate and universalise its beauty, grace and sensuousness, so it expresses something of the human soul.  As Clark wrote, “Modern art shows… that the nude does not simply represent the body but relates it, by analogy, to all structures that have become part of our imaginative experience.” In other words, our human condition is expressed through the nude in art.

In the female nude specifically, artists have explored the tension between the graceful and celestial, and the earthbound, fertile and natural, which perhaps underpins its power to shock and disturb. An important aspect of the historic interest in the female form, this tension has been discomfortingly exploited by artists like Egon Schiele in his raw depiction of genitals or starkly angular bodies, and in Lucian Freud’s grotesquely obese nudes.

And this is far from the preserve of male artists – feminist artists have also played with this tension. Vanessa Beecroft, for example, sets out to embarrass viewers with her controversial performance art. In VB55 (2005), 100 naked women, clad only in transparent tights, stood in a gallery as visitors looked on. Presenting the viewer with live models, not their representation, questions Clark’s distinction between the nude and the naked.

It is this power to shock and disturb has long made nudes a focus of censoriousness. Fig leaves and diaphanous cloths are historical nods to religious and moral sensibilities. But feminist art critics have shifted the moral and political ground in art appreciation over the past 50 years by contrasting the predominance of the female nude in galleries with the predominance of male artists.

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Synthesised in the concept of ‘the male gaze’, feminist critics put male/female power relations at the centre of how we should view art. This focuses attention on the pleasure men may get in viewing the female body and the objectification of women that this implies. The nude, then, is seen as reinforcing the idea of female passivity and male power. An obituary in 2017 about John Berger who brought the concept of ‘the male gaze’ to public attention in 1972 claims: “The female nude in Western painting… was there to feed an appetite of male sexual desire… She existed to be looked at, posed in such a way that her body was displayed to the eye of the viewer”.

This staggering over-simplification of a supreme artform (and of Berger’s argument) is an increasingly influential trope within the art world. The New York based feminist artists’ collective, Guerrilla Girls, has promoted this view for many years in their widely publicised poster campaign. This campaign provides justification, following the #MeToo tipping point, for young art activists to demand restrictions on male artists’ depiction of the female body.

When two young art history graduates petitioned the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for the removal of (or at least a trigger warning on) a painting by modernist artist Balthus (Thérèse dreaming) all they could see was a male artist’s depiction of a teenage girl showing her underwear. Balthus’ beautiful, ambiguous and disturbing painting of his neighbour’s daughter was degraded by salacious assumptions about the nature of his interest in her.

When a young artist protested in front of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon hanging in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, she bizarrely claimed that Picasso was “dismembering [women’s] bodies to rearrange them as more visually appealing”.  Her comment reveals a shocking level of ignorance, for an artist, about Picasso’s ground-breaking work and its challenge to how we look at art.

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Galleries have mostly resisted such outlandish demands, but they are taking the issues raised very seriously. The Balthus painting is currently in an exhibition in Fondation Bayeler, Switzerland, where they are planning a series of discussions around it. Hopefully such discussions will problematise the ‘male gaze’ concept in its application to the nude.

Blaming the predominance of female nudes in art on male power structures reduces the history of art to a simplistic battle of the sexes which women consistently lose. This sheds no light on the development of the art form and its importance to our civilisation – nor on why women are equally drawn to gaze on the female nude in art. Such Philistinism implies that the nude is only of interest to voyeuristic ‘peeping Toms’ – or worse, that it exposes the voyeurist in all of us. In fact, the sexual appeal of the nude is a small to non-existent factor in our enjoyment of it as a form.

The international public outcry at the beginning of this year against Manchester Art Gallery, when it removed the popular work, ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ by Victorian Romantic artist JW Waterhouse, shows the limitations of the ‘male gaze’ analysis. Men and women alike were appalled by what they saw as an act of censorship. The painting had been taken down after a discussion within the museum about its expression of outdated male Victorian views on women.

Waterhouse’s painting is popular for a reason. Apart from the skill of its execution, its composition and use of colour, it reflects a myth in which beautiful water nymphs bewitch the young man, Hylas, and draw him to his death. It is full of ambiguities, with scope for numerous different interpretations. Reducing it to an expression of outdated Victorian attitudes denies its ongoing appeal to a wide audience more than 100 years since its creation.

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The application of the ‘male gaze’ concept moralises art appreciation, and hence curatorship. Curators are forced to adopt a moral stand towards artworks – whether it measures up to a feminist ideological test of worthiness – which affects their artistic judgement.

Artistic freedom involves complex, ambiguous, ambivalent, contradictory expressions of the messiness of the human condition, often by people whose lives do not conform to accepted moral standards. If #MeToo considerations gain an upper hand in the arts, a sphere of freedom where we can face up to and try to understand this messiness is closed down.

Were #MeToo nerves, for example, behind the recent cancellation by the Royal Academy of a series of talks, ‘The art of desire: visual pleasure across the centuries’ accompanying the current Egon Schiele exhibition?

Artistic freedom was certainly infringed at the beginning of this year when the National Gallery of Art in Washington shamefully, and all too quickly, cancelled two exhibitions by important contemporary artists Chuck Close and Thomas Roma, on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations against them. (Even if the allegations were proven, there is an important distinction lost in the #MeToo maelstrom between the artist and the art work.) Where censors used to come from the moral and religious Right, from outside the arts, there is a deeply problematic trend now within the arts and the so-called Left to constrain free expression.

This kind of cowardice in the face of moral pressure is to the detriment of artists and art lovers alike. Curators seek to influence our tastes and interests and can open up exciting and eye-opening conversations. But they overstep the mark when they try to police the boundaries of morally acceptable art. While we are unlikely to hear about decisions taken this year, at early stages of programme planning, not to exhibit certain artists because of #MeToo considerations, we can be sure that when curators take on the task of moral guardians informed by narrow feminist sensibilities, they do the arts immeasurable disservice.