Mar 112013
When is it appropriate for us, as members of the public, to eroticize the persona and creations of a public person who did not intend sexualization just because that is what we would prefer to consume?
No, that isn’t want I want to ask.  I already know my opinion on that one.  How about this, instead:
Who owns your public persona, and the public interpretation of the things you create and do, once you’ve released them to the public?
No, cross out that last question.  The focus is warped toward to the artist.  Let me try that again:
How can we, as a society, stop ourselves from restricting a woman to a purely eroticized persona at the loss of every other part of her being, especially if we have seen her willingly sensually portrayed?
Maybe I could distill it one step further from a question to a directive: 
Listen to what she says about her sexuality.  Hold yourself to a higher standard when the message is that she is not being sexual and you find yourself saying “Yes you are” in response.  This is true even if you have exchanged resources to consume her sexual side in the past.   This is especially true if you don’t want it to be.
It sounds simple, and you would think that I know better by now, but I owe somebody an apology.
I went to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum because I am in Santa Fe, NM (USA) attending an intensive professional training.  It seemed to me that every sex educator should make the pilgrimage across the plaza to the museum if they are in town.  I visited her collection because I wanted to see her beautiful paintings of labia and clitorises and vaginas and all things juicily vulvic.  Although I was aware that Georgia O’Keeffe had protested the eroticizing of her work, I had always responded with a knowing nod.  No need to be so coy, Georgia.  You’re among friends here.
Before delving into the paintings I stopped into the little theatre to watch the aging documentary short of O’Keefe’s life.  I was ready to hear the voice and learn the history of this amazing woman who gave the world lush, colourful, undulating, asymmetrical, enticing images of forbidden femininity like nobody else I had ever seen.  Instead, I got an education.  While I am no expert on O’Keeffe, I’ll do my best to sum up what I learned.

She made gorgeous art, much of it abstract, that caught the eye of a fellow artist and photographer that happened to own a prestigious gallery in NY City.  They became smitten with each other, and as part of their personal and professional partnership he showed her art in his gallery, inviting the world to know her creative brilliance.  Nobody made a peep about anything looking sexy.  As the movie said, “she painted her joy” and it was evident in her brushwork and colour.

Their relationships progressed on both levels, and she posed for a series of photographs taken by him.  The images were sensual, and as I sat there with a few other strangers in the little theatre we were treated to an image of her nude torso, invitingly displayed without her face for our unabashed viewing pleasure.  Another image followed, showing her topless, casually looking the viewer in the eye.  And then they returned to her nude image one more time, for good measure.  Finally!  Evidence that Georgia O’Keeffe loved oozing sex in her artwork!  I smugly awaited the next bout of information from the movie, but wasn’t what I expected.

Critics evidently thought the same thing I did about her photographs, and they didn’t forget that impression when they next saw her artwork.  Without asking her, they deemed it a steamy pile of sex and spread their assumptions about her saucy artistic endeavours far and wide.  The thing is, it wasn’t erotic art; it was a pack of eroticly primed and expectant viewers.  O’Keeffe was painting her joy, not her pussy, and she did not intend them to be one and the same.  She told them they were mistaken, but nobody listened and nobody cared.  Come on, Georgia.  No need to be coy, we’ve seen you naked.  We know what you’re about, we’re in on your little game and it’s delicious.

I was agast with her critics of the time and ashamed of my smug sexual pushiness and sexism.  I listened as the movie showed me what happened next.  She was so upset by the way in which her art was received that she abruptly changed her style, painting only realistic images of things like fruit that could not be misinterpreted.  Eventually she moved to flowers, which were painted in a largely realistic way, and again she was forced to assert the non-sexual nature of her work to ears that didn’t want to hear it.  She moved on to landscapes of New Mexico, frequently painting a very realistic image of the view before zooming in so that she could always point at the former to defend the latter.  No matter how many times O’Keeffe non-judgmentally insisted “It’s not me, it’s you” people winked in response and declared it not just a painting of a canyon wall but a giant crotch canyon of smouldering wanton lesbian lust.   After all, we saw her naked and in the picture next to that one she looked us right in the eye while topless.
Well, what the farts?!  Those clandestine pussy portraits weren’t pussies after all.  Close-ups of flowers’ sex organs were eroticized by me, not the her.  I didn’t listen when she directly told us that we had misinterpreted our sexual intent for hers.
I don’t have a problem with smiling to myself when I see her art.  I did it throughout the gallery.  However, that’s on me, as it should be.  Suddenly her art took on a new set of aspects for me as I searched for additional sources of meaning.  Two and a half hours later, I walked back to my hotel in the cold rain, thankful for having learned a great deal about myself as well as one of my brave heroes.