As long as humanity has existed, art has followed in its wake. Whether to tell a story, send a political message, decorate an environment or simply depict what we can see; art has documented society’s development through the ages. Today, we have ascribed unwarranted elitist connotations to art and its formal study, strengthened by the fact that our curriculum perhaps places more value on STEM subjects. By implementing this distance, it is often difficult to realise that many of the themes addressed in this way remain just as relevant today. Our modern age is obsessed with image in so many different contexts, from social media to marketing. Given this, it is actually surprising that more attention is not given to the way that our ancestors used the visual to comment upon their own times. The best thing about art is that it is predominantly created to be seen, and we are so lucky to live in a world which invites us to look on the work of the past through galleries and museums. The wonderful fact is that you do not need a particular level of understanding to enjoy a work; it invites the viewer to draw their own conclusions, which may be separate from those intended by the artist. The experience of art can be a highly personal one, one which will never fall out of style, constantly renewing the relevance of sometimes ancient work. It brings us in touch with our humanity in a way like no other.
This week I am looking at the ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles’ best-known work, the Knidian Aphrodite (shown as a plaster cast above in the Museum of Classical Archaeology at the University of Cambridge). She invites plenty of conversation about the inherent sexualisation and objectification of the female body, a topic which resonates particularly loudly with the news of recent weeks. Praxiteles had produced one of the very first full-scale female sculptural nudes in history, setting a precedent for almost every other subsequent depiction of the goddess as well as other female nudes. A story circulated about the statue being rejected by the people of Kos, who considered the naked goddess to be gravely inappropriate and were in favour of another clothed version which the sculptor had to offer. This raises a couple of problems for me: firstly, the Greeks were more than used to seeing depictions of naked men, with phallus clearly on display, and muscles large enough to poke someone’s eye out. The nude was therefore by no means inherently sexual. Even in the case of Aphrodite, she is here depicted at her bath, a small water jar is placed next to her bent leg. At first glance, her pose does not seem to invite any sort of sexual response. She stands upright, clutching her clothing in her right hand and covers her genital region with her left. This is a private moment which we, as the viewer, seem to be intruding upon, immediately promoting any who gaze upon her as an intrusive voyeur. Already, we have seen that the people of Kos could not bear such a seemingly ‘offensive’ sight as a naked woman. How could they possibly expect the goddess of sex not to be fully clothed? Another story tells of a sailor who snuck into her sanctuary in Knidos at nighttime, commemorating his nocturnal adventure by leaving an ‘amorous stain’ on the goddess’ thigh. The goddess seems only to have caused feelings of disgust or acts of transgressive and unwanted passion. The male gaze seems to have imposed connotations which in turn are not reciprocated on a male subject. Her seemingly innocent pose has been further corrupted by subsequent male scholarship, who have emphasised the suggestiveness of the piece, arguing that Aphrodite is in fact dropping her robe in some kind of divine strip tease and pointing flirtatiously to her genitals.
The story of the sailor reveals the reality of attitudes towards the female body; because she is naked, she is automatically viewed in a sexual way. Praxiteles’ statue makes for the perfect victim: she is motionless, she cannot prevent her aggressor from inflicting himself upon her. But the harsher reality is that women face such abuse for the simple reason that they are women. When confronted by a nude male, society has never reacted so drastically. While the nude male represents manly perfection, athletic potential and virility, a woman provokes lust, disgust, and unwarranted sexual behaviour.
It is time to come up with a new way of looking at Aphrodite, one which may not fit the traditional context of the statue, but rather one befitting of women today. As the patron of sex, she herself should stand as a beacon of sexual freedom and liberation, instead of promoting a culture of shaming female sexuality. Aphrodite has the right to choose to drop her clothing or cover herself up, without provoking anger, disgust or lechery in the viewer. The different readings available to us should encourage equal validity of what a woman may choose to do to her body and how she may choose to present it. When I look at this statue, I decide to see it as an empowering symbol, to overturn how she is traditionally seen as nothing more than a sexual object.
A modern-day Aphrodite would certainly be an advocate for today’s more liberal attitudes towards female sexuality and the increasing control which women have over their personal image. However, she also exemplifies how the female form has always been tainted by male entitlement. This issue has become significantly better over the years, but the current news suggests that we are by no means clear of this problem. I hope we reimagine Aphrodite as a strong, confident woman and adopt a new way of looking at her Knidian depiction as a symbol of power rather than one of oppression. By viewing art in this manner, we pave the way for interpreting the naked female body as a symbol of power.
Image Credit: Museum of Classical Archaeology, University of Cambridge. Photographer: Alice Boagey. Aphrodite of Knidos, plaster cast, no.232. (Original: Munich, Glyptotek)