On Female Desire and the Problematic Nude

By Theresa Anderson, in response to Tilt West’s Roundtable, The Problematic Nude

Tilt West discussion of The Problematic Nude with Laura Shill. Photo credit: Sarah Wambold

Masturbation Painting, Fuck Grid, Cunt Painting

When I was asked to write a companion piece to Tilt West’s roundtable discussion on The Problematic Nude,[1] prompted by artist Laura Shill [2], these titles and the associated works by Betty Tompkins [3] first came to mind.

Masturbation Painting #2, by Betty Tompkins — Courtesy Betty Tompkins and P.P.O.W Gallery

Tompkins started making these photorealist paintings and drawings between 1969–1974 and came under immediate fire from many feminists for making such frank work about pleasure.

Cunt Painting #12 by Betty Tompkins — Courtesy Betty Tompkins and P.P.O.W. Gallery

On first view, Masturbation Painting #2, Cunt Painting #12, Fuck Grid #34 are close-ups of a woman touching herself, a woman’s cunt, and heterosexual penetration — images similar to what is typically seen in porn magazines and videos.

Fuck Grid #34, by Betty Tompkins — Courtesy Betty Tompkins and P.P.O.W Gallery

But, here, under Tompkins rendering, they are hushed, soft, and calm. Using heightened cropping, the artist slightly abstracts her subjects; the woman’s labia is organically florid or softened to peach-like skin. The effect is different from a photo in a men’s magazine. The images center a woman’s pleasure.

At the beginning of the roundtable, Laura Shill posed questions about the role of the nude, describing “female bodies as political battlegrounds where fights over agency, autonomy, and access are waged both publicly and privately.” More specifically, Shill alluded to the “disproportionate…. (privilege given to)…. images of nude women made by men.” Shill invited us to consider focusing our attention on women as subjects and authors, yet the conversation soon returned to the male gaze and centered on the problems that arise therein.

I’ve been struggling to write this article. I’d prefer to talk about female desire, which has only recently been acknowledged. Gasp! Women experience, need, and desire sexual pleasure. Not just whores — ALL (or most) WOMEN. Sexuality is complex and doesn’t fit into a neat either/or.

There are so many things I have to say — both from experience and years of research. Having personally dealt with sexual objectification, political and economic inequality, and domestic and sexual/violence, I am convinced that the traditional female nude — a cis white male visualization of female sexuality — plays a huge part in cementing inequality. There is a daily onslaught of media portraying women as flat objects with very little to no agency, or as fragile beings who are incapable of making their own informed decisions.

That being said, there is nothing inherently wrong with a man’s desire to look at a woman; rather, the problem arises in how this look is played out to reinforce the objectification and subjugation of others. These images are fabricated to serve a specific need. There is no denying that many of us use images to enhance pleasure. I enjoy porn, looking at both women and men. The female nude is not the problem; the problem lies in the dynamic portrayed in the images — between power and powerlessness — and the privileging of one gaze and one type of pleasure over another.

Even though I understand that this is an important component to the conversation, I don’t want to talk about the male gaze anymore. I’m tired of this old binary, this conversation that centers the cis white male experience and excludes LGBTQIA+ narratives and “othered” stories. If you’re involved in making (or buying) images that portray women as flat sexual objects, or simplified one-note narratives like the dangerous vamp, dumb blonde, exotic dancer, childlike waif, girl next door, harpy wife, mammy, sexless mother, or sexy secretary, don’t be mad or petulant when I don’t give a shit about your work. I would never argue for censorship. But there’s nothing new in it. Boring.

Simplified one-note narratives are not fully lies; I think of them as lies of omission.

The problem of the female nude rests in the lies it tells: of denying female desire and complexity. Women are reduced — in stature, earning power, relationships — by this falsity.

Here we are. Each of us is culpable and responsible for talking about and formulating strategies both as creatives and consumers that challenge inequality. We can band together with allies, work to gain understanding about intersectional feminism, and break structures that hold us down from earning an equitable living — or be subjected to violence in our lives.

Laura Shill”s quote by Hélène Cixous [4]from, The Laugh of the Medusa, seems a fitting end note:

The future must no longer be determined by the past. I do not deny that the effects of the past are still with us. But I refuse to strengthen them by repeating them, to confer upon them an irremovability the equivalent of destiny, to confuse the biological and the cultural. Anticipation is imperative.

Theresa Anderson (b. 1967, St. Paul, MN) lives and works in Denver, CO. Developing interdisciplinary work through performance art, sculpture, drawing and painting, she explores concepts dealing with conflict, and/ or, oppositional categories, and recitations on agency and inadequacy. She is alum of artist residencies at Redline Denver, PlatteForum, and Vermont Studio Center where she received fellowship funding for her sculpture. Anderson has received multiple commissions and stipends through organizations such as the Biennial of the Americas, Black Cube Nomadic Museum with the curator Cortney Lane Stell, as well as the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and the presentation of a master artist demonstration on drawing at the Denver Art Museum. Recent solo and notable exhibitions include everything squiggles at 808 Projects, curated by Mardee Goff, every length of a drawing at Yeah Maybe, Minneapolis curated by Nicole Soukup, Performativity at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, curated by Michol Hebron, Thief Among Thieves at Museum of Contemporary Art, curated by Adam Lerner and Nora Abrams and some kind of cuddle at Gray Contemporary, Houston, where she is represented.

Tilt West is a nonprofit org based in Denver. Our mission is to promote critical discourse focused on arts and culture for our region and beyond.