Thursday, September 12, 2019
On Renoir But Mostly On “The Male Gaze” As A Form Of Power
…Of course, those familiar with John Berger’s seminal 1972 text Ways of Seeingwill know that the male gaze is not simply a way that men wield power over women, but that women use the gaze themselves as a way to gain power over men. If you haven’t read the book, a visit to any bar on a Saturday night will tell you much the same thing. What Schjeldahl has failed to appreciate is that the male gaze is not exclusively about power, but about the fantasy of having such power. The male gaze is the yearning of men to see the world as they wish to see it…
What’s all this about the “male gaze”? I’ve visited plenty of bars on Saturday nights, Friday nights, on most nights of the week really. I’ve looked at women a lot. On occasion they’ve looked back at me. I try not to gaze at them; that’s not polite and it’s kind of crude. But I’m sure my looks such as they are come within the definition of the male gaze. It’s the women I find attractive at who I look at. Do I in my looking want to wield power over them? I think not. I’m doing what comes naturally: I’m checking out what looks good to me. And women in bars do the same thing. (By the way, this mutual looking goes on everywhere, all the time. I only mention bars because Simon invites me to go there.)
Sure, by definition this looking has a big sexual aspect. But that’s how it goes in the world. We move toward what attracts us. That’s the meaning of attraction. And if the attraction leads to other things, then there’s no limit on the varieties or depths of that, from a one nighter to an asexual friendship to a relationship to even a partner for life, with infinite gradations among all of them. This is the world going round.
So where’s wielding of power inherent in the looking? For some jerks that may be what it’s about but wielding power doesn’t inhere in the looking. The sexual part of the looking, the sexual attraction to physicality, to bodies, is one of the great and near-to-indispensable pleasures of life. But where in this necessarily is the assertion of, the longing for, power?
What I know about visual art wouldn’t fill a thimble but if Renoir “painted with his prick,” used his art “to express his love of women’s bodies,” then more power to him. Women’s bodies in their way are as worthy a subject for painting as any other. We ought reject prescription in art. Who gifted wouldn’t want their art to express, represent, recreate, reflect and illuminate what they love?
Who cares what some priggish ponce, here, Peter Schjeldahl—who dat?—caught up in our moment’s suppressive, feminist Puritanism, moralizes against?
And while I appreciate what animates Simon’s fulsome defence of Renoir, does it really need all this attenuated and abstracted theorizing about the male gaze and the wielding of power?
I think not: feet firmly on the ground, earthy common sense will do the job quite nicely, I argue.