Why Can't We Stop Staring at Naked Ladies?
“Beauty is a beautiful woman” said Hippias to Socrates when asked what beauty was. To this day, his simplist response is relevant. You just have to look at our visual culture: if you want to attract the human eye, use an image of a young, symetrically faced and preferably lightly clothed woman. It’s so obvious it almost sounds like a joke, yet it’s a joke no one is getting tired of…well maybe not no one.
So, what is beauty, and why can’t we stop staring at naked ladies? I don’t think these two statements are completely separate, even though they seem like they could be. After Hippias’s answer, Socrates responded with another question, “What about a beautiful tureen? Isn’t a beautiful tureen an object of beauty?” Hippias was baffled and forced to agree. How can we feel beauty for things as different as a woman and a tureen? The answer may lay in the way we experience beauty… it’s a feeling. It’s a positive or stimulating brain reaction that neuroscientists have been calling “aesthetic pleasure.” According to a field of study called neuro-aesthetics, our brains get positively stimulated by things that we perceive as good for us. We have known for a while that our brains are wired to pursue sex and food, but why do we also feel positively when we see a color we like, a pretty sunset, or listen to a great song? What we do know is that there really is something happening and it may be connected with our constant seeking of aesthetic stimulation, or if you prefer, our constant quest for beauty.
What does that quest look like? In beauty, the look of things change, while the fundamentals remain the same. Let’s go back to our naked lady example: humans have been creating images of them since humanity exists, yet their looks have widely evolved. In fact, even if we look at fashion photography from the 1980’s, it can seem a little silly. This means that naked ladies continue to turn on (mostly, but not only, heterosexual males), yet the frame in which we enjoy them continuesly changes. According to "Qu'est-ce que l'esthetique?" by Marc Jimenez, aesthetics is constantly changing because it reflects the value system of a specific time and place. In the book, the author discusses how in Italian Renaissance times, people were obsessed with rational thinking, and what people responded to was art that would function like complex puzzles. Then people got tired of that way of thinking, and started craving strong emotions: suddenly baroque art appeared. Now don’t get me wrong, both of these art periods showed naked women, but they showed them quite differently.
Ultimately we can’t ever get tired at looking at naked women because our patriarchal society values what hetero sexual men want over the wants of anyone else. Many feminist writers have argued that a women, being an object of desire, can never transcend her status as a muse. In other words, the female body is bound to be a vessel for ideas and ideals, because patriarchy has shaped our visual language. The way it works is simple: men are galvanized by the sight of an attractive woman, they project onto her their profound desires and value systems, and the woman becomes a metaphor for these concepts and feelings. This also works for negative feelings, by the way. This means that we cannot perceive women as anything other than tropes, because the female form has shaped our understanding of the world, and the language we use to make sense of it. So beautiful women are here to stay at the center of our visual language, even though this means that women are not really seen as people.
Loraine Wible was born in Paris in 1984. She is the daughter of a print making artist and a filmmaker. She started her education in the world of film and obtained a BFA in video documentary at the Ecole Superieur de Realisation Audiovisuel in 2006. After a short career in television she decided to attend graduate school and turned to visual arts. In 2009 she obtained a MFA in electronic arts from the University of Cincinnati where she then established her artistic practice.
Wible is passionately involved in the artistic life of her community where she has successfully carried on multiple gallery and curatorial projects. In 2009 she launched Museum Gallery/Gallery Museum, an experimental art space that playfully challenged art institutions. In 2014 she initiated a new curatorial collective called NEAR*BY that organized shows in local landmarks.
Wible currently lives in Philadelphia, and is a professor of film studies at University of the Arts. She formerly taught at Northern Kentucky University in the New Media department. She has taught a wide variety of digital art classes as well as some experimental special topics classes such as Internet Culture, Video Installation and Performance Art. You can see more of her work at lorainewible.com.