Last Saturday, I attended the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition opening at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. The collection includes several pieces by O’Keeffe herself with the work of many other artists drawing upon similar themes of femininity, flowers and the American landscape. Together, the artists situate contemporary art into an important conversation about representation and feminism today.
O’Keeffe’s flowers are famously credited for being sexually suggestive, though the exhibit notes that O’Keeffe actually rejected this interpretation multiple times throughout her life. This misinterpretation of a female artist’s work as being erotic reminded me of the countless times throughout history that women’s artistic voices have been twisted to fit the confines and expectations of an art world created for men, by men.
Take the objectification of the female body, for example. The image of a naked woman has almost become synonymous with our conception of art because of how frequently it is used as subject material (think “The Birth of Venus,” or of the infamous womanizer, Picasso and his muses). A common argument I’ve heard for this is that a woman’s body is simply “more beautiful,” though this feels a bit pejorative, and is simply untrue from my perspective as a straight woman!
I found one piece in the exhibit, “Below the calm sky an orchestra of trees and flowers” by Wardell Milan (2015), which features abstract female bodies in a field of flowers, to be especially irritating in its description: “Stark naked and unabashedly confronting the viewer, these women embrace their sexuality as a point of empowerment.” Why was it necessary for the women in this piece to shed their clothes? Why could they not have been staring down the viewer with their clothes on, as strong women do everyday? Why is a male artist deciding that a woman’s most powerful tool is her sexuality, the very thing wielded against her everyday? This piece seemed completely contradictory to O’Keeffe’s rejection of objectifying women and left me feeling exasperated. How has the art world remained so stagnant on the exploitation of women’s bodies in the century that has passed since O’Keeffe’s flowers were mistaken for vaginas?!
O’Keeffe’s work is beautiful and inspiring, and so on that basis, I encourage you to go see the exhibition before it closes on Jan. 20, 2019. Hopefully this exhibit will inspire women to make art that accurately depicts their own strength, push men to reflect on the way they represent female subjects in the art they create and challenge the public to question the way women have been reduced to female bodies in art.