The Ancient Art of Objectification: Misogyny or Goddess Worship?

Trigger Warning

This essay focuses on artistic representation, with an emphasis on prehistoric civilisation. I shall address the issue of sexual objectification in an everyday sense separately in the future. However, I must make it clear that I deplore hookup culture,

I went to a private view at a gallery with my friend and favourite contemporary painter Nicolas Granger-Taylor the other day. I’ve been modelling for Nick for several months, and every time I look at the picture at the end of a session, I’m amazed. He has captured something about me, which photographs don’t show and which even I can’t see when I look in the mirror. I feel like he has painted my soul, in addition to my body.

‘The Camden Town Venus’ by Nicolas Granger Taylor (work in progress)

During a conversation at the gallery that evening, someone asked me: ‘Are you an artist?’ Without a moment of hesitation, I replied, pointing at Nick: ‘I’m modelling for him.’

I could have said yes and gone on to talk about how I used to draw and paint before I started writing fiction, poetry and songs. However, being a model, and dare I say, muse, seems to me like an accomplishment comparable to producing creative work myself.

Contemporary feminists often refer to depictions of the female body as objectification. I believe only someone with no serious knowledge of history before the 1960s, let alone an interest in ancient religions, would make a vague statement like that with the intention of criticising western culture.

If the word objectification means being turned into an object, I don’t mind being objectified. After all, an inanimate object can potentially exist much longer than a human being can. Therefore, objectification is a form of transcendence. A visual depiction of a person elevates them above the human domain, creating an object of worship.

Objectification has served an important purpose in all cultures since the beginning of history. Although the exact significance of prehistoric works of art is not clear, they are likely to have served a spiritual and symbolic function. Strikingly, most of the earliest known sculptures depict female figures and animals. Ultimately, all of these represent the many faces of Nature – one of which is woman.

With their exaggerated proportions, prehistoric Venus figurines represent woman’s special relationship with Nature: they depict women who are either heavily pregnant, of prime childbearing age or mothers of many children. Full breasts and wide hips have always aroused sexual feelings in men, and it is no coincidence that these parts of the female anatomy play an important role in reproduction. Unconsciously, men look for signs of fertility and prefer women who are more likely to get pregnant and give birth to healthy offspring. It is not at all surprising, then, that men of all ages and across all cultures find women in their peak fertile years (late teens to late 20s) the most attractive. Moreover, the beauty universally attributed to the timeless hourglass figure is not a social construct, but yet another indication of a woman’s fertility.  

A Neolithic sculpture depicting the hourglass figure (c. 5500 to 2750 BCE)

The image of the pregnant female also signifies the vast power she possesses in the face of man’s futile efforts to control her. The workings of the female reproductive system had been considered greatly mysterious for many-many millennia, and they’re still not completely understood. Indeed, men have viewed femininity as both magical and terrifying since the beginning of time for good reason.

Woman’s cycle is a reflection of Nature’s cycle. Camille Paglia wrote in her magnum opus ‘Sexual Personae’ (1990):

Woman does not dream of transcendental or historical escape from natural cycle, since she is that cycle. Her sexual maturity means marriage to the moon, waxing and waning in lunar phases. Moon, month, menses: same word, same world. The ancients knew that woman is bound to nature’s calendar, an appointment she cannot refuse. The Greek pattern of free will to hybris to tragedy is a male drama, since woman has never been deluded (until recently) by the mirage of free will. She knows there is no free will, since she is not free. She has no choice but acceptance. Whether she desires motherhood or not, nature yokes her into the brute inflexible rhythm of procreative law. Menstrual cycle is an alarming clock that cannot be stopped until nature wills it.

The prehistoric figurines of naked girls and women are the earliest known examples of man’s attempt to tame the debilitating forces of Nature. All art, after all, is a statement on our relationship with reality, and the process of creating a piece of art is akin to a religious ritual. The attempt to demystify this transcendental process by calling it objectification is way too simplistic and refuses to take the issue seriously. An object depicting a woman is an object created out of adoration, fear and reverence. Nonetheless, the ultimate artistic value of an object is partly determined by what else it captures, apart from the subject’s physical appearance.

As I mentioned above, I feel that Nick has captured much more than what I look like. His paint will still carry the true essence of my feminine beauty and personality a long time after I’m gone. And unlike a photograph, a painting is a direct work of the artist’s own hands, thus preserving something of him, too. Having said that, both a photograph and a painting can be a kind of a self-portrait of the artist, regardless of the subject matter, as long as he gives the viewer an insight into how he sees the world – which, I feel, Nick has also accomplished: he is in the painting as much as I am.

If art is man’s commentary on Nature, then, by striving to make sense of her dark mysteries, he seeks to overcome his fear of her, and, ultimately, control her. However, man’s attempts to control woman and Nature only lead to frustration and desperation. According to Sigmund Freud, this deep-seated frustration is the source of man’s drive to create an identity for himself that separates him from his origins: his mother, who represents all women and Nature. This inherent need to conceptualise explains man’s domination of the arts. We don’t necessarily need to blame the relatively small proportion of outstanding female artists on women’s oppression by the patriarchy. After all, woman has no similar primal need to conceptualise, create and achieve – she can do all of these, if she chooses to, but she doesn’t need to, because she is the face of Mother Nature in her divine complexity and completeness.

Woman’s special relationship with Nature has captivated artists for many millennia.

It is widely accepted by historians that organised religion was preceded by nature worship. Prehistoric people believed in nature spirits, which personified various aspects of the natural world, such as water, fire and wind. A depiction of Mother Nature logically followed. The contemporary artist painting a landscape or a female nude is still grappling with the same archaic instincts and fears that had haunted our distant ancestors. This doesn’t mean that women are not capable of creating valuable works of art – far from it. But a much larger percentage of men are likely to possess the level of focus and obsession necessary to conceptualise at the level of the genius.

Throughout history, when male artists represented the female figure in all its pagan glory, they did so out of a powerful blend of captivation, terror and lust. They deluded themselves into believing that by objectifying her, they somehow got to control her. But her watery, demonic presence has continuously slipped through their fingers. Woman, as Nature’s proxy, is way too powerful to ever be controlled by man. The institutions of the patriarchy are the closest man has ever got to be the ultimate leader. However, no church, castle or phallic skyscraper can withstand the anger of Mother Nature when she unleashes the full extent of her power.

Nature always triumphs in the end. But man’s internal dialogue about his domination of the world helps to temporarily soothe his soul and give him enough hope to carry on. As a result, museums around the world are filled with works of art chronicling man’s anxious flight from Nature.

With a few exceptions, the most famous artists in history have been men. However, many of their most famous works are of women – including the single most widely recognised painting in the world, the Mona Lisa.

When most people hear the name of Leonardo da Vinci, they think of the Mona Lisa. Who’s more famous: the artist or the model? It would be very easy to argue in favour of either. However, I doubt that the average person can name any more of da Vinci’s paintings, let alone any of his inventions.

‘Mona Lisa’ by Leonardo da Vinci (‎c. 1503–1506)

Nevertheless, the Mona Lisa is much more than merely a painting of a model. Walter Pater viewed the famous figure as the personification of the archetypal feminine. He wrote in his ‘Studies in the History of the Renaissance’ (1873):

The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.

Art is the mysterious gateway between Nature and culture, and woman is the mistress of both worlds. There’s no better evidence for this than the prehistoric sculptures depicting the female figure. Those early artists tried desperately to decipher the dark secrets of woman and her most powerful ally, Mother Nature herself. Da Vinci understood this, and so did Pater. And it is time for us in the 21st century to come to terms with this slightly uncomfortable but fascinating truth.

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