The Female Gaze

Text and Image by Corinna Heumann

The female gaze focuses on the female perspective of the body, role models, sexuality and its socio-political environment. It is a compassionate, gentle and inward looking gaze. In contrast, the male gaze is described as the sexualized view of women, reduced to the external, to the particularly attractive appearance. The artists of the Kollektiv Athamé reflect on new concepts of the female gaze and rethink various ways of defining gender in the 21st century. They focus on the concept of the female gaze established by Joey Soloway, who are reclaiming the body using it with intention to communicate Feeling Seeing.

Female Gaze and Male Gaze

The term male gaze was first coined by Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. The female gaze is not, however, a filter through which one views the often black and white male-defined reality in shades of purple, pink, or in a rainbow colored feminist way. Nor does the art of women necessarily bear a recognizably feminine stamp, as some fellow artists like to claim. The latter consider their male gaze to be self-evidently objective, at times the state of the art par excellence. Consequently, they classify, sexualize, evaluate, and at times devalue. The game of authority and power continues on a different stage, even if female equality in artistic creativity is now undisputed.

Why is a certain feminist exoticism still being connected to the female gaze? Why does the male gaze continue to dominate our cultural sphere, even though the great female protagonists of art history are being thoroughly researched, their art withdrawn from the shadows of neglect, illuminated in museums and given worldwide attention?

Fortunately, at the beginning of the 21st century, it has been crystal-clearly proven that women artists have the same eye and are just as talented as their male contemporaries. They are equally capable of studying and successfully applying all artistic techniques as means of expression.

Female and male experience of the world

However, it is also a fact that personal growth and artistic development of creative contemporaries is not unaffected by gender. Personality, individual emotion and reflection finds its natural artistic expression in works of art. There the fundamental differences in the male and female experience of the world have to be taken into account. Individual perceptions, expectations and hopes in life transfer consciously as well as unconsciously to creative processes. They leave their tangible traces. The visual arts are the instrument of reflection and resonance, the sound box of the multifaceted spirit of the times, rather than banal material for evaluation and classification according to contrived rules.

The gaze 

As for the general definition in the Internet, the gaze is the sum of an individual’s awareness and perception of other individuals, other groups, or oneself. In critical theory, philosophy, sociology and psychoanalysis, it also includes a particular perspective that embodies certain aspects of a relationship between the observer and the observed. 

In art, the relationship between the painter and her-his, usually female, nude model aroused particular curiosity. In the 1980s, the Guerrilla Girls asked the question: Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female. The poster is a classic today.

In art historical analysis, the works of Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi are groundbreaking as for the female horizon of experience and its representation. Compared to her male colleagues, she interpreted biblical female figures with an individual truthful expressiveness in posture and gesture, which made her world famous already in the 16th century. On the contrary, most of the Susannas and Judiths painted by her colleagues appear merely decorative and inanimate. Nevertheless, Artemisia Gentileschi fell into oblivion for centuries. 

We usually associate the relationship of the female gaze in relation to the male gaze and male-dominated social structures. There the woman is defined in dependence of the man. One is not born a woman. One becomes one. One ne naît pas femme. On le devient. – writes Simone de Beauvoir in Paris in 1949. She shakes traditional points of view on The Second Sex to its foundations. In her study, she formulates a progressive liberated female self-image with the right to self-determination. Representing countless women, Joey Soloway recently stated: My script, my camera, my words, my sight. Soloway thus takes Beauvoir’s paradigm shift into the new spaces of the current discussion about non-binary self-determination. Non-binary means non-assignment to the traditional grid of gender concepts, so to speak gender non-conforming.

Gender non-conforming 

Joey Soloway is an award-winning American producer, film director and writer. The Thanksgiving Paris Manifaesto that she wrote with Eileen Myles in 2016 especially  inspires the artists of Kollektiv Athamé. A look at Soloway’s personal and creative development shows how gender and artistic creativity are as mutually dependent as they are essential for free creative thinking. Not only new ways of shaping life, but novel ways of looking at the world open up. Soloway has been calling herself Joey since June 26, 2020, formerly Jill Soloway. In addition, they – non-gender – insist on an emphatic view of the world as opposed to a classificatory one. I really like it when our content seems to contradict itself at first glance. One day we might post something about sexism or the male gaze, then the next day we post something that might be considered too sexy or raunchy, but it’s coming from a female writer or artist, so it’s relevant. We love the conversation and don’t feel so reliant on insisting on a certain point of view. Soloway’s concept of Feeling Seeing thus places empathy above a supposedly objective expression of opinion.

Empathy as a dynamic creative principle – through the eyes into the heart….

An image that penetrates through the eyes into the heart (..) and prepares to flood everything? In his recently published biography, Horst Bredekamp uses a poem by Michelangelo to describe the protean Eros of his great artistic personality in connection with his panempathy as a highly modern concept of image making. Bredekamp takes this aspect as an opportunity to rethink Michelangelo’s work. According to this, Michelangelo’s panempathy is by no means directed only at persons, but also at works of art, nature, animals, and everything beautiful in general. According to Bredekamp, the concept of panempathy combines Pan, the deity of a comprehensively desirable nature, with empathy, which likewise knows no stability or boundaries and accepts no priority value judgments, because it understands a fundamental changeability as a principle. 

Ambiguity and self-awareness

Only ambiguity can creatively overcome the competing duality of the binary interpretation of gender. The changeability of the creative ego is mirrored by the emphatic view of oneself and the world in its creative processing. 

The Heroine‘s Journey

In Soloway‘s writings on the Heroine‘s Journey the dominant theme concernes repairing the divided feminine: the wife and the other woman confronting each other—mom, stripper. That I think women‘s journeys are really about repairing these sort of divided parts of ourselves. And this divide in our culture that I think is responsible for so much that is a problem in our culture.

Creative spaces of boundless emphatic imagination

Only by means of multi-perspective play does art become alive. In their creative processes, the artists of the Kollektiv Athamé reflect Feeling Seeing in context with contemporary social expectations and their transformation. Emphatic perspectives overcome simplistic ways of seeing as well as rigid interpretations of meaning. In this way, experimental views, liberated from gender assignments, multiply in ever new contexts of meaning. Intrepidity and fearlessness of the surprising, the different, or even the opposite worldview are fundamental to overcoming gender and equally fundamental to artistic development. By means of Feeling Seeing, the artists engage, play and transform. The Kollektiv Athamé embarks on a tender and powerful journey into the creative spaces of boundless emphatic imagination. 

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