Recently in Kerala, a woman artist drew a composite image of a trident whose middle blade turning into an erected phallus to which the image of a small girl was portrayed as if she was tied to it by ropes. The artist was protesting the cruel Asifa episode that has shaken up the conscience of people in India and elsewhere. The incident had created a lot of socio-political hue and cry, and even the prime minister had to finally say that the perpetrators of rape would not go unpunished. However, this visual protest by a woman artist invited a lot of flak for her not because she had painted a trident but had turned it into an erected penis. The protest was misplaced and the attack by the right wing activists on the artist was largely condemned by the intelligentsia. I say the protest was misplaced mainly because the protesters were claiming that the artist had abused a Hindu symbol; a trident that connotes the Shiva cult. Ironically the trident, the weapon of Lord Shiva in the Hindu mythology no longer belongs to him. It has come to represent the general arrogance of the hooligans who crowd the streets and falsely claim to be the protectors of Hinduism. In short, the symbol of trident has degenerated into a bigot’s weapon that could even rip out a foetus from a pregnant womb during the sporadic riots. Interestingly, the protesters have also forgotten that Shiva is always represented as an erected phallus firmly placed inside a symbolic vulva. It had taken many centuries to derive such a sophisticated symbolism with all its apparent erotic connotations erased and unity of prakruti and purusha (female and male principles) suggested with all its ramifications of divinity.
|Penis Nailed to a Board, works by Sarah Lucas|
This backdrop of trident and linga (phallus) should have made the right wing hooligans just avoid an artist’s lone visual protest in this line but they just couldn’t digest the overt phallic symbolism and the violence involved in that hybrid image. Personally speaking, I was not impressed by the image either. Not because I am a right wing fundamentalist but because the kind of uncouthness of the image. A violence had already been inflicted on that hapless child and the image created by the artist, I thought was an added abuse on the memory of that child. While the unsophisticated image created revulsion in me I was equally revolted by the arrogance of the right wing fundamentalists who had gone on a rampage at the artist’s house and ‘gang raped’ her virtually in the social media. This artist was an unknown figure in the art scene till she was attacked for the image she created. Obviously, she was picking up a turbulent political situation to reap some kind of publicity by making such an overt visual protest. She had not expected such ruthless response from the right wing fundamentalists but definitely she had expected support from the intelligentsia that has been protecting such political and cultural victims from the hands of the fundamentalists and making them overnight stars in the socio-cultural firmament. This is a dangerous thing; while protecting the victims of right wing culture is the moral responsibility of the intelligentsia, such acts also create bad examples of culture and would degenerate the cultural understanding of the general public. The publicity that a victim gains around the ‘incident and image’ would set an example of ‘art and culture’ because of which the carefully cultivated cultural and artistic movements in the society would suffer terribly and the disinterestedness of the general society in the case of art and culture would be intensified by such bad examples.
|The Bed, Work by Tracy Emin|
|Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-1995, drawings by Tracey Emin|
However, many people think that it is not an occasion to debate the aesthetical merits of the work of art that has created such hue and cry in the society. Therefore, here in this essay my attempt is to look at the historical reasons why the male right wing fundamentalists get agitated when a woman paints a nude or to be more precise, paints a phallic symbol. Right wing fundamentalism always works on the plank of majority. When a set of people have a brutal majority based on religious or political affiliation, there are chances of right wing fundamentalism growing to magnificent levels. In India, MF Husain was attacked initially and was later chased out of the country not because he was painting the Hindu Goddesses nude or in a ‘bad light’ though it was the apparent reason everyone was citing and everyone else was convinced about, but it was because he was a Muslim artist painting a Hindu Goddess. Had he been a Hindu artist portraying a Hindu Goddess in voluptuous forms none would have created any problem for that artist. It was Raja Ravi Varma who gave ‘human identity’ to Hindu gods and goddesses. In fact he was using the then famous singers and dancers to model for his ‘divine’ pictures. But as India’s cultural scene was not in any manner centralized (not even decentralized and scattered) none noticed how our gods and goddesses took human form. But if we see it historically, Ravi Varma was doing something similar to what the Impressionists were doing in Paris in the late 19thcentury. When Manet’s ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ was exhibited the Parisian polite society they were scandalized because to a sensibility that had been accustomed to seeing the unknown models getting depersonalized completely as they turn into divine and mythical figures, the presence of a the local sex workers and women who led ‘loose and anarchic’ life in the paintings was too much an obscenity to tolerate. This happened only because the Parisian art scene was more centralized and the mediatic interventions were strong enough to form the public opinion.
|Luncheon on the Grass by Edouard Manet|
Ravi Varma did not suffer on two counts; one, he was a Hindu painter making gods and goddesses modeled after singers and dancers of the time, two, he was pushing his works not really to the public but to the royal and feudal patrons who enjoyed such voluptuousness in their paintings, and had not given too much of importance to religiosity (as in the case of the Baroda Gaekwads) in the cultural life of a painting or that of a painter. Secondly, the public that was the end user of Ravi Varma’s works in the form of oleographs was not really aware of the nuances of making a work of art. They were gullible and credulous enough to receive those pictures as the pictures of gods and goddesses came to them through various presses in India (mainly the Ravi Varma Press) and palpably sourced from the local bazaars, temples and fair grounds. Religious authenticity had already been imparted to these souvenir pictures and the general mythico-cultural climes in which those pictures were consumed/worshipped were conducive enough to maintain the status quo of the gods and goddesses irrespective of the invisible painter and his models. In Husain’s case this was not the case; much before the controversy erupted, Husain was already a legendary figure who commanded great respect from the Indian public in general. This barefooted savant was a prolific genius and the only cause of worry was the growing intolerance against his works by a section of the society (that was/is formed by the Hindu bigots) only because he was a Muslim. Their contention was simple; would he paint ‘his’ gods and goddesses in such a way? They wanted Husain to paint the Islamic gods and goddesses in nude. They did not heed to the fact that Semitic religions were monotheistic and worshipped a single godhead and in the case of Islam they insisted that the ‘Maker should not be made’. That means the god should not be painted in a human form. The Islamic fundamentalists also contributed to this stricture by making it mandate that no Islamic artist should paint human forms; this says why Islamic art has more calligraphy than images. They bigots also forgot the fact that Husain’s cultural make was Indian and he couldn’t have kept himself away from the religio-mythical and cultural discourse of India. Had he done so he would have been dubbed as a sectarian artist, which Husain never was.
If Husain’s visual experiments were attacked not for their artistic merit but for his religious affiliation, a woman artist’s work of art is attacked only because she is a woman; it is not important whether she has painted a self nude or a goddess in nude form, a male nude or a painting with some religious connotation or not. Her gender is just enough to implicate her with socio-cultural crime. Here in Kerala what happened was all about it. Had it been a man painter (read a Hindu painter) reacted visually using the same imagery, he wouldn’t have been attacked so severely the way she was abused publicly both in virtual and real spaces. Whenever a woman paints her own nudes or the nudes of anybody else, it becomes an issue in the society. While a male painter has all the freedom to paint a female nude with or without the permission of the model to exhibit it in public, a woman taking the same agency and right over her own body or the body of a fellow being is seen as a crime in our society. That is the biggest hypocrisy that we have ever seen not only in India but also even in the most advanced countries. But because of several social agitations and feminist interventions the West has somehow overcome the inhibitions regarding the female nudity created by the female artists themselves. But we are the victims of such false morality that stems out of the patriarchal grip over our consciousness and living patterns.
A woman painting a female nude or a male body organ is always seen as a transgression mainly because in any patriarchal society, a woman’s body is seen as the private possession of a male or a few males in her family. When a woman takes courage to come out in the society and makes a cultural or social gesture, the male members of the society also claim some sort of an ownership on her body and soul superseding the rights of the male members in her family. A female artist/writer/actor or anybody who does anything that involves the public becomes a public property and it becomes automatically sanctioned that the male members of the public could judge her act without even trying once to hear her out or understanding her position on her act. The complete subjection of woman’s life to male values has created such a pathetic scenario and that is the only reason why the right wing fundamentalists go all the way to oppress and terrorise a woman artist who has painted a male organ that too attached to a potent Hindu symbol! The male fear here is very evident and palpable. A woman painting her own nude or the male phallus is seen as an encroachment into the male values and if she is allowed to do so the right over the male body is symbolically handed over to the female which is dangerous to the perpetuation of the patriarchal values in a society. Due to this patriarchal thinking a woman attacked when she takes her own agency in painting her own nude or makes a counter claim on the male body.
I say making of a male nude by a female is a counter claiming from her side is mainly because of the dominant art historical narrative has always been the other way round where the male artists claim the female body as if they own the female bodies. Citing the number of female nude bodies in the western museums, the feminist artists in the West have made attempts to thwart that equation by reclaiming the right over their own bodies from the hands of the male artists who have made their bodies just an erotic object subjected to the dominant (white) male gaze. One of the major projects of feminism has always been the reclamation of the female bodies from the male gaze and male hands. That’s the reason why the feminist artists paint their own nudes rather than letting the male artists paint the female bodies. Today, after a half a century into active feminist experiments and experiences a female nude by male cannot be seen as an innocent artistic act; it has got ideological connotations which a male artist has to justify to the satisfaction of the feminists in the world. In the meanwhile feminist artists reclaim their body by painting them, sculpting them, performing them, vandalizing them, loving them, caring them, documenting them and putting them into various situations of easiness and difficulty. They test their bodies with various external agencies and prove their capacities to withstand all kinds of theoretical and practical pressures. Feminist artists have developed a counter gaze to look at the world; a sort of look back in anger and in curiosity too. This reclamation is one of the biggest achievements of feminist art in the world.
Even if we see the art done by the female artists in general and the feminist artists in particular, we can see it with a fair amount of curiosity that, even for snubbing the centuries old male gaze, feminist artists hardly counter paint the male bodies or male organs. Politically speaking, in any context of political subjection and violence, the retaliation comes through the implementation of the same pain and objectification to the previously oppressive bodies and ideologies. But the feminist artists all over the world know the trap involved in such retaliation. Even if they paint the male nude body or male organ for the sake of creating a counter gaze, they know for sure that they would be eventually playing into the rules set by the patriarchal games. Male body being seen as the authoritative body due to its musculature and social aggression, perpetuation of its image through painterly or any other artistic mode would be indirectly perpetuation the patriarchal aggressive values come as a package with that body image. So the feminist artists desist from making the male nudes or male organs. Why celebrate a weapon of subjection at all, is the question that the feminist artist all over the world ask. At the same time, each time, given a chance or by finding a chance, the feminist artists reclaim their body not only by painting the nudity of it but also by highlighting its ability to be a counter narrative to the male aggressive body, by highlighting not only its voluptuousness, beauty and eroticism but also its blemishes and shortcomings. There are artists who portray differently shaped vaginas (Judy Chicago), read poetry out of vagina (Carolee Schzeeman), put body into torture (Marina Abromovic), idealise and iconise (Cindy Sherman) and there artists who document pregnancy and child birth (Mary Kelly) and paint with menstrual blood.
Even if women artists do not want to portray the male nude body (many female artists even if they are not so ideologically oriented about feminism and the body discourse, say that they do not want to paint a male body because there is nothing interesting in it. But ask a male artist about the female body, he would idealize it as the embodiment of beauty and perfection, which in fact has been even an art historical norm so far when art history comes to the hands of the male historians) there are exceptions in the art scene who have deliberately challenged even the feminist stereotype by painting the male body as well as the male organ with absolute irreverence and not any inclination to idealize it. Their ability to lampoon the male body makes them potent feminist artists even if they stand far away from the canonical feminist framework that sees male body as a tool of aggression therefore a taboo. These artists however overstep this idea of deliberate avoidance of the male body for aesthetical purpose and bring the male body as a central point of discourse. Here they do not create a counter gaze but a counter narrative where the aggressive male bodies could be seen in their most pathetic forms. Leonor Fini is a surrealist female painter who had painted male nudes, especially male organs and seen them as erotic images. Eunice Golden and Sylvia Sleigh are the other women artists who have painted male nudes and organs. Phoebe Mills is a Manchester based artist who has painted and sculpted male organs in a satirical fashion, making them almost child-like and cartoonish so that they look absolutely helpless and harmless and even comical (for more read Priscillia Frank’s The All too Short History of Women artists painting Naked Men).
1990s saw three women artists belonging to the Young British Art Movement (YBA) aggressively articulating male bodies and organs in their works with total irreverence and no sense of shame or guilt. Tracey Emin is one of the artists who is still going strong with her international exhibitions of paintings and drawings, who made the male art world sit up and think about the potential of feminist art that could ‘name’ the men who had subjected the artist with or without her permission. She made a tent and stitched the names of the men who had slept with her from 1963 (her year of birth) to 1995. Also she created a ‘bed’ which showed all symptoms of a frantic love making with used contraceptives thrown around. It was in a way a reversal of the Picasso syndrome in the art world. Artists like Picasso used to revel on the models who had become their love interest, concubines and muses. In history, despite having their own artistic abilities these women is marked as the muses and keeps of certain artists. From the impressionist period we get the names of Mary Kasset and Berth Morrisott. Here Tracey Emin reverses this Picasso syndrome and names the people she has slept with, which absolutely shatter the male authority over a female’s body, which they think, could be enjoyed in seclusion and secrecy, while enjoying the power over the female body in public. Sarah Lucas is another artist from the same movement, who made fun of the male organs by making them look like awkward objects in her works. Female artists could challenge male authority by making the male nudes and male organs but most of them prefer not to do so for the fear perpetuation of the same ideology. But when women do it, there will be hue and cry because the males in the world feel that they are losing authority over their own bodies. What would have been the women thinking about their loss of authority over their bodies over all these centuries? This is the time to think about that and subject the male bodies for introspection, retrospection and invasion if need be by the female artists as well as feminist artists.