The Passive Female

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  1. #1
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    The Passive Female

    Okay, I want to ask why in art, so many females are portrayed as passive. It sort of really irks the hell out of me and I'm noticing it a heck of a lot more recently. It's not just contemporary stuff, but goes back. Why? Take Vemeer, most of his females are actually doing something - beautiful. Bouguereau is a mixed bag in that department. Yet when a man appears, it doesn't happen as much - go google Bouguereau female and then Bouguereau male. Note the difference. It happens all over the place and there's no excuse for it other than voyeurism.

    Can't speak for other women, but I'm definitely not passive. And I can still be a sex object doing something. Vemeer rocks.

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    Forget paintings I hate them in real life. Always helpless and demure just pisses me off. Sigourney in Aliens or Linda Hamilton in T2 are a hundred times better. Bouguereau has and always will be vapid females painted well, Godward is just as bad just not painted that well.

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    I'd love to see a visual representation of the changing status of women over time as represented in paintings. Someone cleverer than me would have to figure out how to do it though.

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    Unfortunately you can't change a thousand years of cultural history in a heartbeat.

    In the western society, now almost more than ever, being psysically attractive is the trait that is most valued for women. If a woman has a whole lot of other nice traits that might be good, but it is not worth as much unless she is also attractive. It is of course also considered to be a good thing if a man is attractive, but only as a secondary trait. Ergo women are assosiated with beauty and men with something else.

    This has led to odd attitudes that you run in to constantly when people talk about art"The female body is art" "I like to draw women, because they are more beatuful than men" "The female body is more estetic than the male body because of the female curves" blah blah

    As a result all a female person has to do in a picture to fill her role is to sit there and be beautiful. But a man is never portrayed just to be beautiful without people making comment about homoeroticism.

    One thing with modern art that bothers me more than women being passive and sexy is that no matter what a women does in a painting or a movie the number one priority is always to look sexy.

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    i think it goes back a lot further than that. some animals pair-bond for life, and in this case, the males and femals are usually roughly the same size. other species mate through some kind of tournament, ie the males (usually) vie for dominence and breeding rights.
    humans tend to not really know which we are; some women like big powerful hairy testosteroney men to fight over them to reveal their ideal suitor., some like guys who are physically quite similar to them.. (i dont just mean little dumpy women with little dumpy men, i mean tall in-charge Ripley finds a natural affinity with tall in charge Hicks). the tension between life-time pair bonding and fucking everything that moves is where all that romance heartbreak shit in every song ever comes from. and all that stuff about chicks liking bad boys but marrying wimps and softies. a wimp is less likely to kill you or your offspring and a softy will probably make a good mother-surrogate when youre not around.
    really, we're usually serial monoagmists. one at a time, in succession, with a period of powerful physical attraction thats about long enough to get a kid made and started on its way. and on and on. my point is, the passive female is some probably artefact of the arms race in our history, just as secondary sexual characteristics and pretty much all our behaviours are. and its bounced back at us from the cracked mirror we've made called Culture. and art.i highly doubt it was just invented some day by some guy for the first time in some recent century, i bet youll find similar behavour playing some bonding role in our close primate cousins.

    one aspect is, a lot of male sex stuff is about showing dominance, look how strong I am!!!. from that tournament style procreative behaviour.. so it fits females in such a regime may have become sexually attuned to the inverse; look how weak i am, arnt we perfect for eachother?
    and sure enough, a common female sexual fantasy is being dominated. key in lock...
    only these days we use toilet-paper handcuffs or whatever instead of main force. because we're cultured, and can comprehend symbols and metaphor. the symbolism is the same tho. why do male peacocks have their magnificent feathers? because female peacocks find them beautiful. and they dont care about their men being expert fliers. female bowerbirds inspect the males attempts to create pleasing arrangments of stones and feathers in their bowers. a friendly affectionate strong guy with money and a good job will make a good father for my baby. if intelligent life had evolved from sex-swapping fish with 3 genders, theyd be humming and hawwing about their crazy disfunctional spawnlifes.
    id bet money its some mundane mechanistic bullshit like that and weve romanticised the fuck out of it because thats what we do. we're very clever animals but still absolutely, animals.
    i mean, thats why we love good art right? it seems to speak directly to something deep inside of us. literally, it does. thats why true fine art, things like like action movies and games are awesome, espcially for guys, you get all the cool excitment and action of the hunt and battle without the soul-wrecking horror and remorse! same for all art genres. Go art!
    some of my guesses anyway

    Last edited by Velocity Kendall; December 13th, 2013 at 12:47 AM.
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    Solution is simple. Paint more active women.

    Who wants to start?



    Jordan Beeston
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    Quote Originally Posted by Beeston View Post
    Solution is simple. Paint more active women.

    Who wants to start?
    I'll get onto it in the holidays.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Black Spot View Post
    I'll get onto it in the holidays.

    you should deffo paint awhat you want, but the average, mainstream blockbuster stuff will aim by design to cover the most bases in terms of sales, broad appeal is where the money is, so no it wont move on, not for thousands and thousands of years, and not in any globally coherent way.

    anyway active women are highly visible and fashionable, like in Salt, Hunger Game, Haywire, Kill Bill, Tombraider, Battlestar Galactica, Jessica Ennis, The Last of Us, Game of Thrones, Wonderwoman is hip right now, everyone loves Ripley....

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    Yeah. I think that when we stereotype things we tend to take small biological differences and exaggerate them. Men are seen as actors, while women are seen as passive victims. Or if you look at comic book covers, women are seen as bendy and flexible, while the men are rigid and strong.

    Stereotypes are of course usually boring and limiting. But like Kendall says, I doubt you can ever become free of them entirely. But I also think there's something to be said about the complementary nature of all those traits as well.

    Conversely, I also think there's quite a history of "warrior women" if you go back and look. Even if it's not as common, I think there's allways been this fascination with the woman who takes on a typically male role. There's the Amazones of ancient greece, Valkyries and Shield Maidens of the Norse and so forth. And more grounded in reality there's Boudica and queen Zenobia. Maybe someone would point out that they're mostly meant as cautionary tales for what not to do. And to that I say, maybe. But I doubt that's what people find so fascinating about them. Today, more than ever, we tend to think of those as the ideal kinds of women.

    As a result all a female person has to do in a picture to fill her role is to sit there and be beautiful. But a man is never portrayed just to be beautiful without people making comment about homoeroticism.
    I don't know if I quite agree. I think men are portrayed in visually objectifying ways as well. I think the problem is that people simply have a different reaction to that kind of image. I don't think it's necessarily our culture per se that creates this problem. It's mostly that women and men are drawn to images of beautiful women in a way that they aren't to men. Women might look at such an image and think "this is how I need to look", while men see them and think "this is the kind of woman I should have". Even if studies show that men actually prefer a more healthy looking person, given the choice. If I would blame any external factor for this, it would be free market capitalism. Because it's all profit driven marketing which has no interest in anybodies personal well being, as long as they can sell their product. And I would argue the whole "super slim is the best!" culture is caused as a counter culture to obesity, which almost all of society unanimously seem to agree is something negative. Marketing might be the carrier and promoter of this culture, rather than the cause of it. After all, in cultures where overweight isn't easily attainable, the opposite ideals tend to arise.

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    Tribes that live today (and used to live) have a wide variety of power structures between men and women and an even wider variety of interpretations about what 'gender' actually is and how many genders you have. It has nothing to do with our evolution (monkeys fucked like this so we do this and this...) and everything to do with our social-political structures who 'till this day push our fine young men and women into gender-roles they don't fit in. That is because a lot of people spend a lot of time being afraid of tits, vagina's and penises instead of investing there time in creating a more egalitarian world.

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    Tribes that live today (and used to live) have a wide variety of power structures between men and women and an even wider variety of interpretations about what 'gender' actually is and how many genders you have. It has nothing to do with our evolution (monkeys fucked like this so we do this and this...) and everything to do with our social-political structures who 'till this day push our fine young men and women into gender-roles they don't fit in.
    Nah. There are certain constants that are found within pretty much all cultures. And when something seems to be the norm, even though there are a few exceptions here and there, there's a pretty strong case to make for something biological going on. Otherwise you're also faced with the problem of explaining how these differences came about in the first place.

    I also don't see how this is incompatible with making the world more egalitarian. I think the real question should be, "how do we live as equals despite being different?" rather than, "how do we prove that we're not different so we can be equal?" One of those assumes that a certain hypothetical condition has to be met for equality to take place, the other doesn't.

    And people are individuals. Just because the genders have general tendencies one way or another, doesn't mean we're all like that, or should be stuck within that framework.

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    Yes Tobba, but for me it isn't about "why do these differences arise?" but more; "Inequality between genders exists. What do we do about it?". It is self-evident that a larger socio-political structure enforces this inequality (not knowingly of course, I am not talking about a secret agenda or anything like that :p ). Of course there is something biological going on but who we become is largely due to how we are nurtured. I'm certain that years of being raised and educated has beaten the crap out of any unwanted monkey behavior I could have. I have been raised to have certain values and perceive the world in a certain way much like a slave has been educated into being a slave and a woman or a man is being educated into being a woman or a man.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Black Spot View Post
    Okay, I want to ask why in art, so many females are portrayed as passive. It sort of really irks the hell out of me and I'm noticing it a heck of a lot more recently. It's not just contemporary stuff, but goes back. Why?
    Well, since VK and everyone else pretty much covered the full spectrum of human existence, I'll just try my best with whats left, lol.

    Females have been protrayed in passive roles in art because thats the role they were expected to play in life. The role of demure but sexually attractive silent commodity for the purpose of childbearing and furtherance of whichever family line they were married into.

    Shrug. No big secret, just how things were in the past.

    Whether females are still being oppressed like that in popular culture now, depends entirely on how females perceive themselves, and how they portray themselves in life. We're no longer the underdog of society - you can thank the suffragettes and feminists for that. So if you don't want popular culture to be filled with passive females, don't behave like one. And by that, I mean everything involved in making yourself attractive to the opposite sex because society bred it into you to believe your purpose in life is to find a suitable husband/provider and have children. And that kind of conditioning gets really sneaky and subtle. I hear females complaining about being objectified but they still wear make up, skirts, high heels etc. It's a silly dichotomy, and thats just scratching the surface.

    What is it they say? You have to be the change you want to see in the world.

    So if women don't like how they're being portrayed now, change it. Behave in ways that dispute the "passive female" myth. Create better female characters - I know I don't look up to many females in books/movies. Thought Ripley was okay but personally, I preferred Vaszquez. She was fucking badass! Someone I believed could kick arse. Evelyn Salt? Not so much. Skinny malink with no muscles. I believed Jessica Biel as Whistler jnr in Blade Trinity and Total Recall, more so than Kate Beckinsale who cant run, sorry boys. And if I ever get good enough to paint figures, those will be the influences behind any female action characters I create. And yes, I find those kind of females as sexy as I find male characters like Hicks, Riddick, The Man With no Name etc.

    So yeah, instead of complaining about how we're still being oppressed, just live our way into a different cultural future. Because society doesn't make us, we make it.

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    One thing I think that people are leaving out - the expectation of passivity is an upper class one. Poor women work, rich women loll. So, for a man, being able to support a woman who doesn't have to work the fields, spin, weave, cook, etc. is a sign of his own success. A painting of a passive woman, in that way, is similar to the paintings of expensive knickknacks that you see in Renaissance art. It's not merely about social expectations of women, it's about social expectations of men- a successful man can support an indolent woman, and so a painting of an indolent woman is representative of success.

    An aside: I read a book by a European who lived in Rwanda in the early twentieth century (long before the massacres). The two major ethnic groups, the Hutu and Tutsi, were both male-dominated, and the Tutsi were at that time socially dominant as well. So, there was a clear hierarchy: Tutsi men>Tutsi women>Hutu men>Hutu women>Twa (pygmy minority) men and women. The stereotyping ran that those further up the hierarchy were smarter and more refined (as you would expect), but also weaker and more delicate (contrary to European stereotypes). Hutu women were thought to be the strongest and best laborers of all, while Tutsi men were clever but effete.

    Another aside: the Amazons in Greek myth are generally shown as representing the antithesis of civilization- Amazonomachies (battles of Greeks against Amazons) are a traditional theme that seem to represent the victory of order over chaos. Putting the women in charge ran counter to everything the deeply patriarchal Greeks of the Classical period believed in. However, it seems to me that the stories didn't start out that way...the fascination nearly all the Greek heroes have with the Amazons (and homegrown female heroes, especially Atalanta), seems to predate a later veneer of misogyny.

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    Quote Originally Posted by D.Labruyere View Post
    It has nothing to do with our evolution (monkeys fucked like this so we do this and this...) and everything to do with our social-political structures
    The latter is the product of the former and in any case it seems extremely narrow minded to say that in the nature vs nurture debate nature can be disregarded completely.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Beeston View Post
    Solution is simple. Paint more active women.

    Who wants to start?
    I think that I do.
    Drawing female characters that I could look up to was one of the reason that really got me interested in drawing in the first place.

    Now my main objective is simply to draw both men and women as varied and nuanced as possible.
    I'm sick and tired of stereotypes.

    Quote Originally Posted by tobbA View Post
    I don't know if I quite agree. I think men are portrayed in visually objectifying ways as well.
    I did not say that they were not. I'm saying that if a man is portrayed as a women usually are, being beautiful and passive instead of being attractive and active most people will consider it to be an effeminate and probably homoerotic picture.

    My main point is I guess, that a woman is seen as less of a woman if she is ugly, but a man is never seen as less of a man for being ugly.

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    Sure I get the why in the past, but I don't understand why it is still perpetuated in contemporary times. Time and time again I see exquisitely painted nude females lolling around on carefully rumpled sheets doing sod all, not even thinking. Got to the point where I don't bother commenting or liking. Doing a nude in bed reading a book would be a step up.

    And I find beauty in all sorts of shapes and size of both men and women. Time to educate the masses more and expand their conceptions about what is beautiful, but I digress. When I see aforementioned nudes, I sort of think the artist has never escaped from life drawing and is forever thinking like a student without growing up and expanding their experiences of life.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Benedikt View Post
    The latter is the product of the former and in any case it seems extremely narrow minded to say that in the nature vs nurture debate nature can be disregarded completely.
    I'm not saying that the nature vs nurture debate has a definite answer. I just think it is more beneficial to look at it as if it were a cultural phenomena, instead of anything else, because that means we can change it. And I think it really is cultural, and we really can change it. Just look at the success of the feminist movements in the past few decades. Inequality is a trait that can and has been taught for a very long time and attacks our autonomy.

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    Quote Originally Posted by D.Labruyere View Post
    I'm not saying that the nature vs nurture debate has a definite answer. I just think it is more beneficial to look at it as if it were a cultural phenomena, instead of anything else, because that means we can change it. And I think it really is cultural, and we really can change it. Just look at the success of the feminist movements in the past few decades. Inequality is a trait that can and has been taught for a very long time and attacks our autonomy.
    Well, the problem with operating on the assumption that everything is a cultural phenomenon and can therefore be changed is that some factors might just not be cultural and ergo cannot be changed. So any energy wasted on those factors should rather be used to change factors that can really be changed. Do you know what I mean? Just making everything black and white isn't the best solution, you should always carefully weigh both sides of the nature vs nurture equation.

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    Being physically more-or-less smaller has nothing to do with being "passive". Women in primitive societies have always been expected to do massive amounts of the actual physical work, they didn't just loll around popping out babies. There's a lot of active things to do besides fighting, you know. So saying women evolved to be "passive" is bollocks. Hell, in a number of nomadic societies, guess who usually gets the job of setting up the tents/yurts/tipis/etc. - yep, women. And in European and euro-American societies, even basic housekeeping used to be a laborious job of hauling, pounding, lifting, digging, scrubbing, wrangling various animals, and general physical drudgery. And in some traditions in some parts of Africa, men didn't do any work at all, because women were expected to do all of it. Heck, most women couldn't even afford to be passive until modern technology made a lot of the old daily tasks obsolete.

    Nope, the whole passive women in European art is the product of A) art being primarily a commodity for rich people, therefore showing rich people being rich and leisurely, and B) art being made by guys for guys who mostly want to look at women lying around waiting and willing, if you know what I mean.

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    I don't think it's a matter of doing all the work vs. not doing all the work. It's about men being seen the "agentic" sex and women being the communal sex. As far as work load goes, I think that both men and women in most societies pull as much weight as anyone else. Except, as you say, not having to do any work at one point was a sign of prosperity and social standing. And when work gets really physical and laborious, and a culture can afford it, it rather puts men in that position than women. For example, when people started complaining about how dangerous and inhumane coal mine work was, the solution by society at the time was to only allow men to do it.

    It's not really about workload though. It's about different ways of socializing. In the typical womens sphere, being nurturing and empathic is an advantage, because it involves people who have an emotional as well as physical investment in each other. In the typical mens sphere however, which is more related to bigger social structures where people are less involved in each others well being, being an assertive "go-getter" is a much more advantageous trait. And if women are treated as the opposite of men, then this is going to translate into women as passive and men as agentic.

    Of course, the sexual aspect plays in as well. But you might just as well turn that around and say women mostly want to lie around waiting for a man to come and take her.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Black Spot View Post
    Sure I get the why in the past, but I don't understand why it is still perpetuated in contemporary times. Time and time again I see exquisitely painted nude females lolling around on carefully rumpled sheets doing sod all, not even thinking. Got to the point where I don't bother commenting or liking. Doing a nude in bed reading a book would be a step up.

    And I find beauty in all sorts of shapes and size of both men and women. Time to educate the masses more and expand their conceptions about what is beautiful, but I digress. When I see aforementioned nudes, I sort of think the artist has never escaped from life drawing and is forever thinking like a student without growing up and expanding their experiences of life.
    I'm all for portraying a more active role, and the stuff in the thread so far is great (where's that thanks button???). On this particular point though, I really don't think the continued presence of this kind of painting- nude female lolling around on sheets- is about showing a woman being passive, nor just continuing life drawing. Sometimes you just want to paint the female form and focus on the poetry of it. Think of Zhaoming Wu- almost his entire body of work is made up of 'white woman with long hair and white drapery.' But good lord, look at the variety he gets out of it. The subject in his case is a starting point, the paintings are about mood and color and markmaking and edges, largely abstract. "The figure as landscape" I've heard him say. The 'narrative' in these paintings is not about what the person is doing or thinking. And I see lots of this kind of work done with the male figure as well.

    Which is to say, the subject isn't the subject. I see plenty of painters just doing a continuation of their art school figure studies for sure- a lot of the classical realist movement bores me for the same reason. But I don't think we can paint the entire genre with that brush.

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    If you read old National Geographic articles you'll find lots of information (and photos) of women working their asses off. Even into the twentieth century in the Balkans and Near East, it was fairly common for women to pull plows in families too poor to keep an ox or horse. Seeing a little old lady bent double under a load of firewood, much larger than she, is heartbreaking, but in some times and places was a very common sight.

    Anyhow, a lot of the stuff "everyone knows" about gender roles and division of labor in prehistoric society, and uses to support arguments about current or historical gender roles, is totally unsupported speculation. What evidence is there of the way Cro-Magnons or Clovis people or whoever chose to structure their society? All we have of them is some stone tools and graffiti. Not a lot to go on. Present day "primitive" societies are not nearly as consistent as they are sometimes portrayed, and in any case cannot be taken as accurate facsimiles of the way any ancient group of people lived. After all, just as much time lies between our ancient ancestors and the uncontacted peoples of North Sentinel Island, the deepest Amazon, or the Papuan highlands as between those ancestors and we internet-using types.

    Which is all pretty tangential.

    Lounging ladies are softcore porn, hallowed by years of acceptance in the fine art world. Artistic inertia and the never-flagging popularity of porn take care of the rest.

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    If you look at a figure painting by Zhaoming Wu, Henry Yan or Huihan Liu and the first sensation you get is one of voyeurism or looking at porn, that says way more about you than the work.

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    So, I did a quick Google search of Zhaoming Wu. Porn all the way. Beautiful, subtle porn, but still porn. Lots of images of women lolling in their sunlit boudoirs, stretching languidly and idly fondling themselves or else looking wistfully out the window, or clutching their knees in forlorn lonesomeness. That, my friend, is porn.

    And- back to BlackSpot's initial observation- no such images of men; in fact, men are only represented as simple portraits. Maybe that's not the artist's entire repertoire, but it's telling.

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    I refer to my previous statement. Your not being able to separate nudity from pornography (which is sensation without content) is your problem. That you can't see the content doesn't mean it isn't there.

    Which is another way of saying: It's a tremendous lack of sensitivity on your part that you can look at a Zhaoming Wu painting and lump it in with Brazzers.

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    On the contrary, you unnecessarily delimit pornography. Nudity is not pornography and pornography is not nudity, but those images are designed primarily to titillate - admittedly in a more subtle, "elevated" way than, say, an average Hustler shoot. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, or that the artist is unworthy, or anything like that.

    Indeed, it has been one of the major themes of art from its beginnings. Certainly the great artists of classical times or the Renaissance, and their patrons, were fully aware of the unabashed, and direct (by which I mean, it is intended to arouse, not just to comment on arousal) erotic content of their art. I can't remember which ancient author it was now, but one of them wrote how a sculptor gave his female nudes androgynous buttocks in order to appeal to viewers of different predilections.

    The attempt to defend the erotic in art as being something other than what it so clearly is, is a Victorian legacy. Eighteenth century artists, in response to rising prudery, could get way with transferring their erotic pictures to exotic (usually Middle Eastern) settings and calling it reporting rather than porn. Nineteenth century artists had to go farther, and claim that their erotic pictures were some sort of Platonic celebration of form. Maybe some of them even believed it. But that was just an excuse to continue painting young women lolling about on silk sheets for the delectation of male patrons.

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    I'm aware of the legacy of art that's meant to do nothing but titillate, especially in the 19th century. That's not the same thing going on here, and that's what I mean about being able to see the difference. The subject matter is the same, but the picture evokes a completely different reaction. No one looks at one of Wu's pieces for erotic titillation. In my case, it's farthest from my mind. If you were holding up one of, say, Godward's paintings as your example, I'd see more of your point. But you're painting an entire form of art with that same brush, saying that some people created these pictures to titillate, therefore the idea that any nudes that are created as an artistic celebration of form is just an excuse. You've bought so wholly into this cynical, art critic view that you can't see past it. And I find that profoundly irritating, because you come in with this "enlightened" view, declaring that any talk of the art of it is bunk and that all people really wanted was to paint boobies.

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