Modified from Cultural Woman Value (2016 MFA Thesis)
“The body has been made so problematic for women that it has often seemed easier to shrug it off and travel as a disembodied spirit.”—Adrienne Rich
In The Beauty Myth, author Naomi Wolf researches how the advertising industry turned women’s worth into the quest for the “perfect” face and body. When that quest becomes so obsessive and prevalent, the woman begins to no longer see herself as a person. Whereas historical cultural woman value once experienced a shift from home to culture, contemporary cultural woman value shifts from culture to object. The shift from culture to object fuels my work. Objectifying objects creates the space for the objectification of women to be critiqued.
“Women have no means of coming to an understanding of what their experience is, or even that it is different from male experience. The tool for representing, for objectifying one’s experience in order to deal with it, culture, is so saturated with male bias that women almost never have a chance to see themselves culturally through their own eyes.” ~Feminist Author Shulamith Firestone
Art critic Lucy Lippard poses the question, “If we have no experience that is not formed by the patriarchy, from what base can we even imagine our own transformation?”
Feminist author Joanna Frueh addresses the theory of object and objectification:
“The word object applied to a woman is considered negative. She is solely a sex object, a thing perceived without empathy or compassion. However, an object, defined as something that is or is capable of being seen, touched, or otherwise sensed, exists; thus, respecting objecthood can be an assertion of existence.”
By this reasoning, the object is valued more than the woman. When a woman is objectified, her value decreases; when an object is objectified, the object’s value increases. Through intensified media in contemporary culture, objectification is at an all time high, thereby widening the gap between audience and artist intention of body-focused efforts. Using the female body as subject matter re-sexualizes the already sexualized female body.
Associations with the human body are weighty even outside of the sexual interpretation. American artist Claes Oldenburg ran into body-focused pitfalls. He began his career as a figure painter, exclusively concerned with the recognizable human form, but in 1959 he abandoned the use of the figure in favor of the object. Oldenburg believed that the figure lacked the capacity to be extensively connotative. Artist intentions risk derailment because of strong psychological associations tied to the human figure. Sharing Oldenburg’s view, I abandoned my interest in fashion in favor of the object. Due to the imposed limitations of the human body, I choose to implicate the body (and humanity) rather than directly represent the human body.
The body problem haunted me in my earlier fashion work. My intention behind Flannel Object (2015) had roots in comfort and simplicity. I collected a variety of second-hand flannel shirts, choosing men’s used flannel because the high quality cotton in these shirts yielded a softer feel over extended wear and washing. Men’s shirts are bigger too, which translates to more fabric to spare. I carefully removed the collars and ripped apart the seams. I cut off the sleeves, reattached them at new seams, and then reattached the collar in a new position. Pleased with the result, I found them to be stylish, simple, and comfortable. They also, however, sexualized the body. The shirts attach in the back at the collar and at the waist, leaving most of the back bare. As much as I love it, I am too self-conscious to wear it in public. My life experience as a woman has taught me that too much skin sexualizes my body, and sexualizing my body invites objectification and possible harm. Sexuality reduces a woman from human being to object.
Intrigued with the structure of the bustier, I pushed forward and continued to design for the body with Caution (2015). This time, I anticipated the sexual read since a bustier leaves much of the skin uncovered, and is most associated with showcasing cleavage. Redirecting my intent toward the anticipated sexual read, I incorporated unconventional materials—powder blue vinyl panels with plastic caution tape piping. Plastic attributes within textiles place emphasis on appearance and spectacle—a lack of authenticity. Plastic is showy both in materiality and in cultural association. Although I felt that Caution was more successful than Flannel Tops, I suspected that sexual objectification would still prevail over my intended narrative of inverted objectification.
Opting for a fashion hiatus in favor of sculpture, I found artistic freedom with textile-based object sculpture. By avoiding direct implication of the body, and literally using objects as my subject matter, I was able to invert body objectification. Body objectification manifests in Safety (2015). Constructed from yellow broadcloth, plastic buckles, and 18-gauge wire, these little belt-like creatures seemingly came to life. The anthropomorphic association was unexpected, yet fully embraced. With both Caution and Safety, I explore the notion of safe spaces, both emotionally and physically. The conventional safety colors of black and yellow have become a trademark design aesthetic.
Contemporary artist Joana Vasconcelos explores the notion of cultural woman value with the incorporation of popular objects. Concerned with the collective status of women, they both intentionally sabotage cultural artifacts in large-scale installations. Motivated by the idealistic, social construct of the 1950s’ housewife and homemaker, Vasconcelos constructed colossal high heels out of hundreds of silver pots and lids. Pictured below, Marilyn (2009) comments on nonsensical fashion dictates, the confinement of domesticity, and the sexual objectification of women. Serving as a pedestal for the female body, high heeled shoes accentuate the damaging female stereotypes of bombshell and dimwit. By incorporating domestic pots into the subject matter of high heeled shoes, Marilyn critiques female stereotypes much like my fashion objects and oversized cooking utensils. Alongside the art devices of subversion and scale, these works use ornamentation to challenge ornamentation.