A Poem about a Painting about a Myth: The Female as Allegory

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“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats

As an undergraduate, I fell in love with the British Romantics — in part, I think, because of their melodramatic bombast about Art! and Poetry! and Beauty!

“I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” writes Percy Bysshe Shelley, who I must confess I preferred among the lot.

And all this stuff about art and beauty has not left me as both a poet/writer and a teacher because I do believe in art for art’s sake as well as art as activism.

Between the two, however, I have grown to recognize a serious tension that is problematic for my critical consciousness. The art-for-art’s-sake crowd has always pressed and continues to press, both consciously and unconsciously, I think, for the possibility of art that is somehow apolitical — to which I say poppycock.

So as I was reposting a poem of mine about a Knut Ekwall painting, which is itself a rendering of mythology, I was drawn again to the painting that depicts a fisherman flailing against the clutches of a prominently nude siren who is pulling him quite literally into the vortex of her seduction:

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Knut Ekwall (Swedish, 1843–1812) A Fisherman engulfed by a Siren, c. 1860s, oil on canvas, 194 x 149 cm, private collection. (Source)

And here we are confronted with aesthetic beauty, the question of whether it can exist in something like an objective context. The siren of Ekwall’s painting is but one of uncountable thousands of such representations of women in literature as well as visual art — Pandora, the sirens, Eve — that reduce the female to seductress and centers that seduction in her nudity.

The female nipple has been tabooed to such a degree in contemporary Western culture that we are now more frightened of the exposed female nipple than gun violence. But while Ekwall’s nude siren is from a much different era, viewing this painting today must also recognize the role of taboo in defining beauty, must confront the very white representation of the siren and beauty as well.

The female as allegory — whether Hester in The Scarlet Letter, Eve in the Garden of Eden myth, or a tempting but unnamed siren in a realistic painting — persists in so-called serious art but also in pop art. Our films in the U.S. remain an endless stream of functional females serving the needs of the white male savior: the fetishized Eastern woman; the white, blonde, young Girl-as-Trophy.

So in 2016, we can have a painting of this siren, nipples and all, yet women cannot by choice post pictures on Instagram that include their nipples, even if the photographs are deemed art — the first, of course, proclaimed as art by a man, and in the case of social media, let us not honor a woman’s right to choose if and how the world views her own body.

In 2016, as well, we are witnessing the demise of nudity in Playboy, that perversely sophisticated publication of objectifying an incredibly sterilized and idealized female as allegory. Some have noted that Playboy‘s no-nude policy has simply shifted how the publication panders to fetishes that continue to dehumanize women by reducing them to mechanisms of those fetishes.

The Internet has neutered the tabooing of nudity and graphic sex so Playboy has had to shift its game plan — but it is the same old game plan rendered in a really thin veneer (likely often to be quite literally a really thin veneer).

As a critical white male, I am confronted, then, by the world of art and the world of pop art as they have shaped my perception of females, from the female form to the fully realized female as a real person walking this planet.

That is my vortex, I believe, and thus, my poem sought to wrestle from the painting and the myth some balance that may occur between two lovers, caught in their love and desire but also trapped in a wider vortex that shapes them as unequal.

Love and desire, like art, are never apolitical — as Laurie Penny recognizes in her musing about Valentine’s Day:

Buried under the avalanche of hearts and flowers is an uncomfortable fact: romantic partnership is, and always has been, an economic arrangement. The economics may have changed in recent decades, as many women have gained more financial independence, but it’s still about the money. It’s about who does the domestic labour, the emotional labour, the work of healing the walking wounded of late capitalism. It’s about organising people into isolated, efficient, self-reproducing units and making them feel bad when it either fails to happen or fails to bring them happiness.

And in her Drawing Blood, Molly Crabapple connects the dots:

Artists are not supposed to care about commerce. The lies told to artists mirror the lies told to women: Be good enough, be pretty enough, and that guy or gallery will sweep you off your feet, to the picket-fence land of generous collectors and 2.5 kids. But make the first move, seize your destiny, and you’re a whore.

My poet/writer Self, my teacher Self, and my authentic Self as a man have always recoiled in fear that none of us can ever pull free of the very real vortex that is patriarchy, that casts and recasts the female as allegory — to be worshipped, to be owned, to be guarded.

But it is my poet/writer Self who continues to believe that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and hopes there is love and desire that can honor lovers as equals who rise above the larger failures of humanity.

My Romantic side persists — despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Originally published at radicalscholarship.wordpress.com on February 15, 2016.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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