Why Is Female Sexuality In Art Still Shocking?

By Giselle Defares

A 3D printed vagina selfie. It’s not something I would think of. But hey, there is such a thing as artistic freedom. Earlier this year, the Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi, who goes by her pseudonym Rokudenashiko, caused a stir with her 3D printed art. The reason: she emailed a 3D printed copy of her vagina to the 30 lucky people who had answered her artistic crowd-funding request—in order to create a kayak in the shape of her vagina. It created an online media frenzy—albeit different than the American student who was stuck in a vagina sculpture in Germany—but it caused moral commotion in Japan. The Japanese authorities filed a legal case against Igarashi based on Japanese obscenity laws. The dichotomy between female sexuality and art still causes resistance in society. Is the vagina selfie nothing more than suggestive art?

How should we see Igarashi’s selfie? In one way, you can see it as a cross between eroticism and sex in the visual arts. Hmm, maybe I’m used to the sexual intrusiveness of our contemporary media—and who isn’t?—but I only snickered at the boldness of Igarashi’s selfie. After all, it’s her artistic vision. On the other hand, Igarashi’s art can be seen as a statement against p*rnographic and sexual imagery—via magazines, manga comics and even Ukiyo-e erotica—that is omnipresent in Japanese society.

The moral politics surrounding the naked female body, as we know it, came with the rise of mass culture that has become part of our society . In our contemporary culture the increasing influence of visual technologies—film, photography—transformed the culture production. Due to the relative speed of these changes the understanding of the new visual language often is lagging behind to the exponential application. The component in the visual arts during the last centuries has mainly been a contrived form of nudity. The idealization of the female body developed in the Classical Antiquity. There was a high aesthetic appreciation for the feminine form which provided little to no fuss. This imagination of the female body was far removed from reality and thus became accepted. Women were portrayed as nymphs or mythological figures. These women were not tangible in the real world.

In the 19th century there came a different approach to female nudity. Artists rejected the classical tradition in which women mainly were displayed as mythological figures. By the end of Post-Impressionism, artists were looking for a new and modern naked form. They wanted to unite that modern vision with the timeless and monumental qualities of classical art. Édouard Manet and his Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia caused much criticism. There was no idealization in his art, women were no longer depicted as personifications of virtue, they were real. In the 20th century male artists used their art for their personal sexual desires – acknowledging sexual orientation and the refusal to see sexuality only as a means for reproduction- see Warhol and even Jeff Koons. This trend is largely influenced by Freudianism.

Sigmund Freud introduced the well-known, controversial theory of castration anxiety: because small children first spot the difference between boys and girls, whether you have a penis or not, boys think that there is something taken away from girls. Therefore, they remain worried that this will happen to them, too. In dreams, popular myths, stories, and on the silver screen this fear translated to the symbolic loss of a phallic symbol, such as a sword, a wand, a motorcycle, or a car. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker must learn to use his light saber before he can call himself a true Jedi. In Top Gun Tom Cruise should be the best to control his jet in order to ensure the happy ending. Even in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry must prove his worth, time and time again, with both his wand and his broom tucked between his legs. The symbols for the male sex in these stories are always objects with positive forces by which the heroes can distinguish themselves.

The symbols for the female sex are considerably less beautiful. All too often the vagina is portrayed on the silver screen, as a dangerous, monstrous hole to be avoided at all costs. Many examples can be seen in films with a quasi-mythological character. The heroes herein, at any given time, come face to face with a monstrous creature that is the embodiment of the vagina dentata: the symbolic representation of a vagina with teeth, making the Freudian castration anxiety tangible within the story. See, the slimy open jaws of the monstrous “crack” in Pirates of the Caribbean, where Jack Sparrow disappears. The eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, which looks suspiciously like a flaming vagina. An abundance of monstrous vaginas can be found in the original Star Wars trilogy, in which the films’ heroes face danger and discomfort in damp tunnels and caves invariably, and where the desert monster Sarlacc is perhaps the most famous example of a vagina dentata.

The vagina dentata is one of the central themes in the book The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History of Emma Rees. Rees has captured the paradoxical imagination of the vagina. She argues that vaginas seem to be everywhere around us, both literally and symbolically, but vaginas simultaneously impose silence. They are taboo. Rees notes how psychoanalysis of the vagina dentata translates to unconscious, personal fear or fantasy. However, anthropologists see it as a motif in folktales. Rees’ analysis that this is a deliberate and publicly shared fantasy. The vagina is made into a frightening, dangerous thing in order to curb male domination of women. Rees uses Jaws and Alien as an example: “Jaws signals the ocean as bloody womb/tomb; [..] teeth pull victims to a twentieth-century version of the fleshy female uterine Hell [..].”

Igarashi wanted to spark a conversation on the female genitalia, since the vagina stays hidden in Japanese society. During her press conference Igarashi said: “It might be obscene if I were depicting actual sexual intercourse or sexual activity, but I’m just projecting a part of my body as it is, and I don’t consider that obscene.” Similar to the silver screen you’ll see the vagina reflected in art. In the 1970s, some – western- female artists criticized female oppression, gender constructs and power structures via their art. Art Historian Lisa Tickner calls it ‘vagina iconology’. Tickner sees the use of the female genitals in art as a political protest against the norm rather than an erotic gesture. Igarishi is not alone. The work of Miriam Schapiro, Judy Chicago and Hannah Wilke all caused controversy. They displayed the female form as a power symbol and the icon of the vagina would be the symbol to overshadow the phallus. Schapiro and Chicago were especially inspired by the work of Georgia O’Keeffe; in order to create their womb-centered art – such as the installation art work The Dinner Party (1974-1979) of Chicago. The installation – Chicago depicted 39 mythical and historical women at an triangular table- received mixed reviews but it still became a permanent exhibition in the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Wilke saw the vagina as a symbol of strength. She chewed gum into small vagina sculptures that she stuck to her half-naked body and created a photo collage titled S.O.S Starification object series (1974-1979). Wilke boldly stated: “ Who has the guts to deal with c*nts?”. It’s a strange thing that there was a different reaction with L’Origine du Monde (1866) by Gustave Courbet, now in Musee D’Orsay in Paris. This painting, where a vagina is depicted, has been a favorite of audiences all over the world. It’s raw, modern, so, uh, in your face. You’ll look straight into female genitals. A portrait of a vagina. So close that it is detached. A work of great symbolic value with an equally metaphorical title: “The Origin of The World”(!).

Igarashi’s selfie and the critique it ignited online gives you food for thought on woman’s rights and artistic expression. Would there be a similar outrage were it a copy of a penis? Who knows. The Japanese obscenity laws are vague. Igarashi is now up for a legal battle which revolves around the question if the depiction of a vagina can be seen as obscene.

This is one of the more interesting selfies you’ll ever come across.

About Giselle

Giselle Giselle Defares enjoys googling random things like it’s academic research but her grandma Hilda had a premonition of a great future. So, there’s that.

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