The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Letter to the Editor: In defense of art and the female body

Dear world:

In the past few weeks, you may have noticed the large figure drawing that dominated the visual landscape in the space next to the College’s dining hall. The three of us who executed this project (Rosie O’Brien ’16, Hannah Kelley ’16, and Becky Garner ‘15), which we titled “A Part From Us,” decided that in the aftermath of the exhibit, it would be appropriate to open a discussion on the themes and realities of the show.

The main point of our project was to highlight the way that female imagery in mass media negatively affects the actual woman’s self-image. We took a survey of random female students by asking them what part of their body they found most attractive and illustrated their responses by shading each part of the model accordingly. Our model was a nude centerfold from a 1991 issue of “Penthouse Letters” magazine because we wanted to take a highly sexualized, objectified image and re-appropriate it to achieve a higher purpose.

Our intent was to display an image that would ultimately empower the women we interviewed. But by enlarging and publicizing this image, did we in fact contribute to the perpetuation of this disgusting standardization of women in mainstream media?

First of all, we want to reassure you that we had no idea what reactions we would receive from this show. As you can imagine, plastering a tremendously huge nude in the Smith Gallery was likely to get an array of responses. Though we did not know what the end result would be, the three of us entered into this project attempting to bring forward several questions for the benefit of the greater community. As one of Grinnell’s art professors, Andrew Kaufman, mentioned to us: who are artists if not people who push the boundaries?

According to Carol Becker at Columbia University, the social responsibility of artists unavoidably involves “the obligation to ask themselves how their work fits into the broader social framework of which they are a part.” We acknowledge that our work comes with the responsibility to defend how it fits into the broader social framework here at Grinnell.

To address the concerns of those who felt that they had no choice in viewing our semi-pornographic exhibit, we would like to discuss the role of artists as people who use our work to comment on the (negative) realities of our society.

Distorted images of women appear everywhere. These images—in textbooks, websites, pornography and especially advertising—overpower any of our own unique attributes. Personal preferences, past experiences, triggers; all are disregarded by mass media when we surf the Internet or even drive down the highway. The film and music industries have created particularly merciless standards for women.

We knew that this image would be controversial, but we found it particularly interesting that the two most negative reactions we got both came from women, neither of whom were students. None of us heard a single negative reaction from any man. Many female students, friends and strangers alike, told us how interesting or beautiful or empowering our exhibit was to them.

Our image was viewed without consent, just as images in advertising are viewed without the consent of those who happen to glance at them. Does it matter, then, if a six-year-old views our drawing by accident, when six-year-olds are surrounded by altered images of women elsewhere? How much influence does a single nude figure truly have on the development of a young mind? What makes nude figures taboo in the first place and why do they make people uncomfortable? If we hide this image, are we somehow shaming female sexuality? We wonder what it would have said about our work as female critics of society had we covered it up, or made it optional to view.

Finally, to address administrative concerns: Even if we had not intended this image to be unavoidable, there was little we could have done to shield it from the public in an aesthetically pleasing way, because we are students with little time and no money to spare. Was it actually unfortunate for the image of the College that our show was scheduled over the course of both Family Weekend and Trustee week?

As artists responsible for the effect our work has on our community, we certainly could apologize to the College for making such a bold statement in such a public space, as well as apologize to the individuals who were personally offended by its sheer visibility. We could also say that we believe it is far more necessary to extend the scope of normality than it is to please every member of every audience.

After all, what dictates our values as Grinnellians if not the need to push boundaries?


—Rosie O’Brien ’16, Hannah Kelley ’16 and Becky Garner ’15

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