Siri Hustvedt on the gendered gaze in art

Siri Hustvedt's collection of essays on art, sex and the mind is now out in paperback, so we catch up with the highly respected writer to engage with the key themes of A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women

Article by Katie Goh | 05 Oct 2017
  • Siri Hustvedt discusses the gendered gaze in art

Siri Hustvedt has accomplished a rare thing. A Man Booker nominated author with a PhD on Charles Dickens, Hustvedt nevertheless finds herself giving lectures to scientists and writing papers for journals on neuroscience. Over her 40-year career, Hustvedt has published a body of writing that spans novels, essays, non-fiction, papers, and poetry. She has truly transcended the arbitrary boundary separating the humanities and sciences.

In her latest collection of essays, titled A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, Hustvedt displays her spectacular range of knowledge with pieces covering the male gaze, Louise Bourgeois, hairdressing, suicide, psychoanalysis, and the mind/body conundrum. A consciously feminist writer, Hustvedt ponders the relationship between gender and art in her new collection. At the Edinburgh International Book Festival, she speaks to The Skinny about the complexity of a gendered gaze.  

In A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, you write about the relationship between the spectator and art. Why has this traditionally been a gendered relationship?
I’ve always thought about the relationship between the person watching and the object as an intersubjective rather than a person-thing relationship. The work of art carries with it the traces of a human consciousness rather than an unconsciousness so that the way we treat art objects is not the way we treat a chair. Even if it’s a very beautiful chair, it still has a different function. Art is only to be looked at. The other part of this is that no one comes to a work of art completely neutral. The intersubjective relationship that is between a person and a 'quasi' person or thing is always necessarily loaded with our biases, our expectations – all of that becomes part of the scene. The only way to undo some of that is to spend a very long time in front of the art piece itself because some of this then starts to fall away.

But, in terms of sexism, all of this came out of the idea of the female nude and the first person to really write well about this was John Berger, a man. Then, it was picked up by feminists and elaborated – hugely elaborated – so that the idea is that the painting itself assumes a male viewer rather than a female viewer and then the representation becomes the object of desire for this presumed fantasy spectator. Of course, women, especially heterosexual women, find themselves in a different position in relation to the nude. But it becomes pretty complicated because very often our cultural attitudes are to adopt the position of the fantasy spectator, especially women – women are much more flexible because we’ve had to be – and so, women just as easily fall into the position of the male protagonist or into a kind of male spectatorship.

We call it the male gaze but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a man doing the looking. It can be a woman looking but occupying the same problematic power relationship.
Absolutely! And then what does that mean?! That’s complicated.

Many feminists have recently described a female gaze as a response to the male gaze. How do you define the female gaze?
There are probably two things: one, that you haven’t learned to have the kind of mastery that assumes the male position, so you’re left out of the story; or, you automatically adopt the position that the painting implies, which is the male universal gaze. So, I think both of those things happen. And I guess a feminist position would be a position of ideally tremendous consciousness where you understand what you’re looking at.

Do you think then that consciousness and being aware that you’re under this universal male gaze is the way to subvert it?
So in the real world, just forgetting about paintings for a minute, the idea of young women as living life as an object of desire, of, you know, the male gaze… this is real. This is tough stuff. Every walk down the street becomes a performance – that’s a hard thing. I’m an old lady now. You sort of age out of this, you know, you’re in another zone. But for young women, negotiating that is extremely difficult.

So you think this is about age? Because we sexualise young women?
Yes, totally because we sexualise young women. I confess, there’s a certain relief that arises with age because you’re no longer being defined in the same way: by your cuteness or lack of cuteness or overt cuteness. Whatever it is! I remember when I was first on book tour and I was in my 30s, so I wasn’t really young, but I wasn’t really old either, and every article that was written always reviewed my clothes. “She walked in, she sat down, she was a tall blonde wearing this or that.” People really don’t review my clothes in the same way that they used to 12 books later. But it’s also because I’m old and that sexualisation has diminished. But you shouldn’t have to get old to be treated with some modicum of respect.

What you’re saying reminds me of the presidential election in the US and what happened to Hillary Clinton. And women journalists were doing it as well.
Women journalists participate. And that’s the other thing – you really can’t limit this to one sex or the other. We’re permeated by these ideas. And they can’t help but go inside. It’s not as if the barriers are absolute, they’re not at all.

Do you think there’s a difference between the male gaze in visual art and literature?
First of all, in painting, it’s all there at once. It’s temporal and only in the sense that you can stand in front of a picture for a long time. So it’s temporal for you but the image is there all at once. Cinema is a temporal form. But literature is abstract in the way that language is always abstract. It’s little symbols. It’s little markings on a page that you have to learn to interpret. Of course we interpret visual art and cinema too. But nevertheless it’s using more than one sense: in painting it’s visual, in cinema it’s visual, auditory, and it’s temporal. It gives you the illusion of either visual or auditory reality. But literature is more abstract – you invent your own images… It takes place over a long time. I think that every reader invents the book.

I once wrote in an essay ‘every painting is two paintings: one you see and one you remember.’ And this goes for novels too. I don’t remember novels word for word, none of us do, except those with exceptional gifts. You remember images, you remember feelings you had when you were reading the novel… cinema, painting, the novel – they all have conventions. We see the world through those conventions. Perception is about expectation. Our brains learn from the past and they go through a kind of automatic pilot. And that’s one of the problems with sexism, right? Because biases are built into our perception of the world so we do not expect young, especially lovely but not just lovely, fertile women to be physicists. Our world does not make room for that. You need to reorient your vision. 

Other than being self-aware of sexism, do you think there’s any way for women to take back that power of being the object of the male gaze?
You know I think there’s a couple of interesting things about this. I have a double position. In the US, and certainly [the UK], women weren’t given full suffrage until 1928. And before that, earlier there was a sort of partial suffrage for women. In the US it was 1920. So that means that we haven’t even been able to vote as full citizens of a country for a hundred years! A hundred years is one very long lifetime. And so in one sense that isn’t a very long time and we do vote. So there is genuine progress! And rights.

Even until the 1970s, women needed a father or husband to approve a credit card. And that was true in many places in Europe as well. Now that’s way into my lifetime. I was a young woman. So this also gives you pause. No way that would happen now. But at the same time, there is the deep ongoing sense that a woman isn’t worth quite as much as a man. I don’t mean just in terms of payment for work but also just in general. And I don’t think that automatically gets better, I think people have to fight for it. And I think that there has to be a real cultural dialogue about what it means to do that.


A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex and the Mind is out now in paperback, published by Hodder & Staughton, RRP £9.99