The male gaze in contemporary art


“Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it's all a male fantasy: that you're strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren't catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you're unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
-Margaret Atwood

The effects of the male gaze are inescapable in depictions of the female body throughout numerous eras in history, and contemporary art is no exception. While there is nothing inherently sinister about creating art intended to be viewed in a sexual manner, it is the responsibility both of the viewer and the artist to be mindful that whether or not they are aware of it, we view sex through the lens of the patriarchy. Eroticized depictions of women with desirable traits that exist for the sake of the viewer's pleasure cater exclusively to male fantasy and can unintentionally further a narrative that a woman’s value in society is directly correlated with her looks.


It is impossible to find art with sex that does not cater to male fantasy, and to understand why, we must look at the role the patriarchy plays in the way the female body is passively viewed and hypersexualized.


Surreal painting of nude woman floating in a dark ocean surrounded by green and gold seaweed.
Bain uses people & landscapes to convey connection.

Cara Bain is an artist whose unique work often uses people and landscapes as a way to convey connection. When discussing the temptation to only create women who are considered desirable in her figurative art of the female form, Bain admits this is a point of growth for her as well, and details the crucial role that intent plays in creating art. “I think that [women are] objectified both by male artists and female artists too, and I think it really comes down to intent. Either you’re not thinking enough about what you’re doing through your art, [which can] can lead to objectification, or you’re just doing one thing.” Even if the woman is just a vessel for larger ideas to be portrayed in art, generally the woman portrayed will fit societal beauty standards. This is a result of messages spread through advertising, the media and other mediums that manifest subconsciously in the way we view women. A barrage of messages telling women a hundred different ways to be desirable to men and why this is necessary have shaped the way they are viewed.


Street art graffiti painting shows a topless Oprah Winfrey with her hands resting above her head, two masculine hands hold her breasts and cover her nipples.
Sexualized street art made for/by the male gaze

Because of this, women are objectified by both male and female artists in contemporary art. In regards to realizing this, Bain mentions taking a deeper look at artists she once looked up to and noting “they’re not really saying anything about [the woman’s] humanity or humanity in general, or really expressing another idea. It's just, ‘Here’s a sexy lady. Here’s another sexy lady. Here’s a sex-symbol woman,’ … [and] for sure there’s a place in art for sex, and a place in art for expressing sexuality. But if all you’re saying is, ‘Here’s a sexy person’ over and over again, you’re not really saying enough.”

Sex and art will forever go at least partially hand in hand. Art focused on sex and sexuality is key to the way we view sex and has become a cornerstone of numerous civilizations and cultures scattered across the globe. However, the necessity for women to be seen as desirable in art, regardless of whether the subject is sex, is a quiet reminder to be mindful of the role the patriarchy plays in the way art is created. It’s a note to remember as viewers, we should be aware of the role we play in the objectification of women, and as artists, in the words of Cara Bain, to note that “If you do see a repetition with the same type of person being portrayed over and over again [in your art] you have to ask yourself, ‘Why?’ and make sure you have a good answer for that.”


Paintings by Cara Bain.


Visit Cara Bain’s social media to explore more of her work:

Instagram: @art.by.cara.bain - Facebook: @artofcarabain


By: Kiran Bassi