Remember this? The art exhibition involving naked women who are literally being objectified? We went to look at this last night - we being Happy, me, and Canadian Sharon (who we should just get to calling Sharon because she's the only Sharon but somehow I think she'll be Canadian Sharon forever). It was upstairs in a little art gallery that I never knew was there, and the ladies were interespersed with more traditional art - on one side, altered/filtered photographs of various norm-bending people, and on the other, the same photographs interpreted in bright oil colours. I really liked the paintings. I'm not keen on photographs and at risk of sounding like a wanker, I reckon it's because with a painting you have the expectation of a certain level of unreality that you can then lay your own imaginings over. With a photo, there's none of your own in there, you are purely an observer, and I'd rather have more interaction with my art. Or something.
Anyway, to the naked ladies! It's what you all came for after all....
I was expecting to know one or two of them, because this is Wellington. Sure enough, straight in the door we were greeted with "Heya!" and hugs from a woman we knew, clad in only a balaclava. Around the room were five other women - a lamp, a dressmaker's dummy being painted into a corset, a woman in repose on a table with food, a canvas, and a photographer. I'm not sure if this last person was part of the exhibition or not, but she was naked too. There were other spaces - a vocal cord, where someone would stand and make noises with their body, and a flowerpot, where you could water the occupant.
It all sounds a bit silly, doesn't it? But these were real people. I'm hoping Happy will write a bit of something here about how he felt, because he's a bloke and that makes it different. But for me, I wasn't uncomfortable at all. Well, that's not entirely true. The nudity didn't bother me at all. Bodies, meh - brought up as a nudist, over here.
But the expectation that I would objectify these people made me very uncomfortable. I couldn't do it. Sexualisation didn't enter it at all, and I do wonder if this is because I don't fancy women. I appreciate a nice aesthetic, but naked women to me signifies more a kind of locker room solidarity than sexualisation. At the same time, I really struggled to see them as anything other than people. I wrote on the canvas, up her thigh and curving across her stomach and breast:
"I STRUGGLE TO OBJECTIFY SOMEONE THAT I AM INTERACTING WITH."
I watered the 'flower' in the flowerpot, and watched as the water ran down her body in a very beautiful way, and my mind was filled with how nice that must feel because it was so hot in the room. I took bite of the apple on the food table, and she asked me how it was, then she took a bite as well. I hugged the balaclava-ninja. These are not objectifying actions, they're interactions, and on reflection I think there are two things behind this:
1. It reminded me of a burner situation - bright colours, surreal art, nudity, the company. And in that situation I go into interactive mode.
2. I was feeling an urge to interact with the people almost as a rebellious reaction against the expectation that I would objectify them. My mind was screaming "I WILL NOT!" Or maybe "I can not." These are people and even if they are voluntarily placing themselves in a position where I am being invited to treat them as objects, I can't see them that way. I can use the level of objectification they have allowed, but I can't do it in a dehumanising way - even to someone dressed as a lampshade.
If they had been separate from us, it may have been different. If they had not met our gaze or replied to our interactions, it may have been different. If they had been men who I have sexual desire for it may have been different. I wouldn't mind trying all these things. But for me personally, there was no sexualisation and the control of objectification was pretty much entirely based on what the objectified person allowed.
So how does this fit into views of feminism/class structure or whatever? Well, I'm gonna leave the intellectuality to other people and intstead talk about the way that in my younger life, I too was in a position where I was seeking flexible cash work. I also sold my body as an object, only for me, it was a machine for sorting wool. It was by pure blind luck that my parents were poor hippies with bucolic fantasies and that we lived in a rental house in the boonies for $20 a week and rousieing was the casual work that was going for women in that situation. And yeah, some of the time I spent being a wool-sorting machine was spent wishing that the people I worked for saw me as a person, or cared about what I thought other than "Yes that's hard yellow, chuck it out." I lacked the vulnerability of nudity, instead replaced by the vulnerability of performance. I think there's a difference there, between 'doing a task' and 'being naked' in terms of the way we all view the objectification of work. After all, anyone who's working class is essentially selling themselves in chunks for money. Yes, even now, my body belongs to someone else for 8 hours a day.
I've also done life drawing classes, on the drawing end. And again, I struggled to see the model as not-a-person. I wonder how much that has to do with my own experience of depersonalisation, and understanding from experience that all the other cogs around me are people too.
I have questions about the societal structures that lead to the various levels of objectification that women choose to subject themselves to for money. How much is choice, how much is circumstance? And I'm interested in the question of how this is different for women than for men. After all, the shearers in the shearing gang were also selling their bodies, but they got more respect for it, the cockies were more likely to engage them in conversation about things other than shearing. Why? How is it different for a male life model from a female one? And what are the circumstances and choices that lead to that for men?
So yeah, worth going to I reckon. But I'd like to see it with men as well, because I suspect that'd make a big difference to me. I'm just not sure how.
Meanwhile, after I got home we watched the next two of the Century of the Self series, in which he explores first the development of consumer culture and the effect of Freudian theory on that, and then the counterculture of the 1960s and the way in which the resulting cult of individuality was exploited to sell more stuff through tapping in to people's desire to express themselves through stuff.
While this isn't a new idea and I don't think that what is being presented is the entirety of what influenced societal development, it does ring a few bells in terms of Foucault's concept of governmentality. As Happy said the other day, Curtis is good at retrospective explanation, and that's pretty much what's happening here I think - this documentary is taking this somewhat esoteric and abstract idea of Foucault's and explaining one of the 'hows' of it. Which, IMO, is kind of cool. I know there's a lot more to it than that, but it's filling in a blank.
Which is where we come to the utility of fourth-wave feminism. Fourth wave feminism, wut? Yeah, I know. Some folks say it doesn't even exist. It seems to be concerned with questions of agency from what I understand, and every time I think about it I get my head messed up because it's almost impossible to say with any certainty how much agency someone has in any decision they make. And it's certainly not up to me to make judgements about another person based on my view of what level of agency they have, right? So we end up sitting on our thumbs and letting everyone decide how much agency they have individually because to do otherwise would be trompling all over their agency and thus we end up doing nothing but have endless, head-explodey discussions about agency and are too polite to actually do anything in case we disempower someone unintentionally. And meanwhile humans are still being trafficked, you know?
I think fourth-wave feminism has the same sort of utility as Foucault, or Curtis's documentaries - to create a starting place for analysis of the factors influencing agency. But I guess at some point someone has to create a framework to decide where the line of agency actually is, and who gets to decide that when we're all 'free agents'? Should I be allowed to sell my kidneys? Who are you, or the government, to tell me I can't? What about my sexuality? My heart? My life - can I sell myself into indentured servitude till I die? Under what circumstances would that be ok? How do we tell if I'm choosing this freely or not? How is it different from the 1/3 of my life I'm currently selling?
That's a lot of stuff to come out of looking at naked ladies dressed as lampshades, eh? So I think that's a win for Virginia.