Alphonse Mucha once said, “The aim of art is to glorify beauty.”
The artists of Instagram seem to agree, so long as beauty is found in the female, semi-nude body. Whether it’s tame and cute or lewd and erotic, there are plenty of artists in the digital realm who predominantly generate content based on the female form. For many, that is the sole subject of their work, with an occasional sprinkle of still lifes, color studies, and overtly feminine men.
Many artists who do this are female themselves. And just as many are not, a development that creates a conundrum: as a cis white male, am I allowed to do such a thing? What are the limits on representing the female form as an artist?
I looked to history to answer this. In the art world, Romanticism and the Art Nouveau found as many ways as possible to remind us that the female body (unattainably idealized, of-fucking-course) was an extension of beauty if not the essence of beauty itself.
Alphonse Mucha, whose works were so iconic that his style became synonymous with that of Art Nouveau as a whole, had no qualms appropriating the female body. He used them to depict precious gems, celestial objects, and gods and goddesses.
But somehow he did it well. Mucha’s women are all depicted with power and strength, and never lacking in dignity. They were certainly idealized, slightly disproportional forms, but they were not meant to be realistic, nor did they pretend to be. They were icons, representatives of their symbolic form rather than their human one.
Well then. Toulouse Lautrec spent a majority of his life drawing the prostitutes of Paris’s nightlife and, though his compositions were abstract and bizarre, Klimt rarely drew anything that didn’t have a vagina. So out of all the old white dudes who drew women, why think about this one in particular?
Because in the 1930’s his work was deemed “reactionary.” With the rise of fascism gripping Europe, his art seemed to counter the message of the political establishment. When German troops entered Czechoslovakia, he was detained by the Gestapo and died shortly after.
Extreme nationalism. Economic unrest. Religious persecution. Hive mentality. Today, our nation is at a strange crossroads, with many similarities to that dark time in our past. What’s vastly different, however, is the means to share. The internet is infinite and instant, giving power (and to an extent, anonymity) to common people to influence our culture.
Art plays a huge role in this space, and as Mucha said, “The aim of art is to glorify beauty.” Not just to remind us to appreciate it, but also to protect it. Not to circumscribe beauty, but liberate it, regardless of the artist.
We need to realize how to define beauty in our time, and how not to limit that definition. It isn’t just the female form, it’s the female vote. It’s the genderqueer and questioning. It’s the fact that same sex marriage is legal. It’s the fact that we are pretty much all immigrants (and those of us who are natives definitely aren’t white).
Art demands creating space for freedom. It’s okay for a man to render the female body and vice versa, as long as the subject is represented well. I also think it’s okay for white people to draw black people and straight people to draw gay people. This is an important time for artists to not only express themselves, but to give a voice to the people around us—especially those who may not have a voice given their marginality. The job of artists is to open the dialogue between the Other and the status quo; to give space and expression to outsiders. Even if we don’t fully understand them.
Especially if we don’t fully understand them.
However, the issue now is that our contemporary depictions of women are mostly devoid of meaning. Looking back at our Instagram artists makes this particularly clear.
Instagram culture as a whole propagates this. Filters, edits, adjustments, “Aesthetics” (to use the word entirely incorrectly), are applied to people’s online personas. The goal seems to be to show a polished, perfect representation of self, and to remove any indication of stress, hardship, or imperfection.
When art is published on this same platform, under the same influences, Kitsch not only runs rampant – it becomes the status quo. The images I have used here are not picked out of the the respective artist’s body of works to show the worst of the worst. They are simply organized chronologically by posting date.
Some artists are men. Some are women. All are part of the problem.
Like most other people who write about this topic, I won’t propose a solution. There’s not much we can do to stop people from making meaningless art. But now more than ever, the way we represent our beliefs through art matters.