Distort the Distorted Goddess Image
I'll start by saying that this blog post is scratching at the surface of something that I'm trying to build up some legitimacy in so that I can speak to it as thoroughly as possible without it meandering too far. It touches on goddess paintings, beauty standards, paintings, photography, our understanding of photography, dehumanization of women through image making and media literacy. This post definitely has a To Be Continued... quality to it. Know that I have more to say on the topic of inflated and unrealistic expectations.
You know that project in which an artist "skinnied" great nudes from art history to apply today's beauty standards to the old masters? Here it is at the Guardian.
Art's great nudes have gone skinny
Italian artist Anna Utopia Giordano has taken some great (and, to be honest, not so great) paintings of nudes from the past and reimagined [sic] what they would look like if their bodies conformed to what the 21st-century thinks of as an ideal of beauty. The results are revealing – and quite shocking in what they say about our modern attitudes to women's bodies
Here is another article from the Guardian, more an opinion blog, an opinion I tend to agree with.
And while digging around looking to uncover the artists' intentions I found this at the artist Anna Utopia Giordano's website, a press release states:
Apart from highlighting once again the amazing possibilities of digital technologies applied to art, this job from Anna Giordano is indeed a good cue to reconsider both the subjectivity of cultural standards (in facts, ours are so different from the past ones) and the inclination of modern society and advertising companies to edit most images of feminine body in order to reach a fake perfection, corresponding to an unreachable reality.That's a fairly neutral statement. It took some digging around in the artists website to see that this body of work, nearly her entire body of work is a social critique of how we have distorted the image of girls and women. I support that. But I don't think the general public sees it that way.
I keep seeing people post this to Facebook regarding it as a cool project, neat, clever etc. I don't think the comments are coming from a place of having read the statement or having really considered the work. The comments I see tend to lean towards support of the "correction." And that my friends is what bothers me. How people are responding to this project is chapping my alabaster hide. But I'm conflicted. Is the artists critiquing the renaissance idea of perfect or the modern idea of perfect.
First, Botticelli's Birth of Venus is an amalgamation of women, a franken-woman (with freakishly long toes), the arms of one lady, the legs of another, the torso of another, feet and hands all assembled to construct the an image of a female goddess mathematically "perfect," more perfect than a human female figure because, she's a goddess after all. She's never intended to be viewed as an actual woman - in fact none of these nudes are of women they're all of goddesses.
Wikipedia has this to offer us in regards to this particular painting of this particular goddess.
For Plato – and so for the members of the Florentine Platonic Academy – Venus had two aspects: she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love or she was a heavenly goddess who inspired intellectual love in them. Plato further argued that contemplation of physical beauty allowed the mind to better understand spiritual beauty. So, looking at Venus, the most beautiful of goddesses, might at first raise a physical response in viewers which then lifted their minds towards the Creator...If a goddess is already perfect, then how dare we re-imagine them in modern terms. We can't even reasonably imagine ourselves as such figures, for we are mere mortals!
Second, and I think the important part; the modern idea of perfect. If the intent is re-imagining the figures of goddesses then perhaps Anna Utopia Giordano is totally on track. The figures aren't intended to be human but that of the divine, an actual female form is not even up for consideration here.
Modernity has photographers working as painters, recreating humans as inhuman - however we're conflicted with our social understanding that photographs represent the "real." Twenty first century beauty standards might be restated as beauty ideals instead. Also social ideals that women want to be perceived as goddesses, as divine figures. This is our mistake.
We can't stand on our feminist soap boxes and demand that we be treated as equals out of one side of our mouths and demand to be treated as inhuman religious figures out of the other.
We are, as I stated, mere mortals. The modern beauty ideals are painted onto human models as a way to elevate them from the real to the hyperreal or unreal, dehumanizing, and I don't think anybody behind the healing brush would argue that they're not doing this. In the beauty and fashion industry it is their business objective to hold some women up as goddesses, they succeed by painting pictures from a human model - the same as any painter would. That standard we hope, is attached only to the beauty industries, but it isn't. There is a greater and greater expectation that it is a photographers duty and or responsibility to alter images to elevate a mortal to divine status. To create an image of someone as perfect. Representing humans as hyperreal in photographs twists our collective social understanding that photos are somehow a document of the real, in truth the actions of this type of image making is dehumanizing. To be dehumanized is to be "...living in a state of suspension between life and death..." (Judith Butler, Precarious Life, 2004). By dehumanizing women, we are practicing a kind of magical death that strips women of her place on earth. Can we not see how unfair that is?
I know that some of my own portrait sitters have asked to be glamorized, and I won't do it. I'm a photographer not a painter, the camera does fib a little but I don't. People have come back to me and boldly declare that the photos I've produced of them "don't look like me." Well, sorry to break it to you, but yes, that is what you look like. My photo studio is a Self-Portrait Studio, it's set up to reverse the gaze, to give power to the sitter rather than the photographer or viewer, it's designed in such a way that the sitter is making the most honest and direct picture of themselves possible. Photos serve to prove we existed as actual three dimensional characters in the world as we know it.
This is where media literacy comes in. I think the media literacy message could stand some tuning. Presently the message is - those media images are all fake, these people don't exist in reality. I believe the message could be improved to say:
"These images are constructed like paintings, we cannot hold ourselves to these images for they are manufactured in this way...."
We need to stop portraying all photography as the most honest image making technology available - it is and it isn't - we need to further illuminate the post production side of editorial photography, represent the many hours of work involved in making the photo-painting. By doing so we promote an understanding that editorial images are like paintings and cannot be based on reality anymore than a painting can be considered an accurate depiction of a person or event, while educating people on the differences within documentary photography -- and further educate people image literacy of framing, objectifying and context.
If editorial fashion photography has shaped the goddess image, and women want to be goddess, and men want women to be goddess then we have some unreasonable standards being created. At what point do (heteronomative) women want to be seen as women? Many women do want to be seen as women, pure women and yet we struggle with the social expectations and the base expectations of human interaction as well as modernity - women as human. This is the bigger issue isn't it? Women as human. For most of human existence woman has been everything but a person. Maiden/Mother/Cougar/Crone, Goddess/Devil/Witch, is the lot we get while males get Boy/Guy/Man.
I'd say that many supposedly modern guys would like to claim themselves to be feminist allies, but really, I don't think they actually are. As long as a females first descriptive attribute is cute/pretty/fuckable before smart/witty/awesome then those guys are still failing. This message filters to the lady-folk and is internalized as self-talk, smart/witty/awesome women begin personal evaluation by questioning if they are indeed cute/pretty/fuckable. We judge ourselves through the reactions of our desired mates. Our desired mates are looking for the inhuman goddess who will sacrifice her divinity to be a mortal for him and him alone.
The re-messaging of media literacy must also be targeted to boys/guys/men as well as the maiden/mother/cougar/crones to alter the expectations of males to alter the self expectations of females so that we may break the current trends of trying to fashion oneself as a divine goddess.