Content warning: This interview contains discussions of sexual assault and eating disorders.
In Women in the Picture: What Culture Does With Female Bodies, Catherine McCormack offers an approachable and refreshing introduction to Western art history and its legacy in pop culture imagery. The author, an art historian who teaches courses on gender, race, and art at Sotheby’s in London, dissects the archetypes of women present in art that she studied getting her doctorate at University College London (UCL). The book, released in the U.S. this month, provides a fresh perspective on art history that challenges the normalization of violence against women and details the ways that visual art has created—for better or worse—our understandings of what women can be. Bitch talked to McCormack about her motivation for the work, contemporary artists who challenge the male gaze, and Emily Ratajkowski’s recent book, My Body.
The goal of this book is to take feminist art history out of the university. What inspired that?
I was working within the academic milieu, if you like, as a PhD student between 2010 and 2017. During that time I had two kids and my position as an academic and as an intellectual, I felt, became compromised because of that fact. I felt that I had transgressed somehow by becoming a mother and had lost some of my academic stripes in the views of my peers within the university. And in that time I became really switched on to feminist theory and feminist art history and feminist philosophy as a way of really processing and understanding what I was going through myself. Because I didn’t start off as a feminist art historian, it was always in the background of what I was doing where I studied [at UCL], which has always had really strong research on gendered ways of thinking about art and images of visual culture. So, this perspective always infiltrated the way I saw the world as a young person. I first went to university as a 19 year-old, and all of that has fed into my thinking and I realized that it hasn’t translated into mainstream presentations of art and our heritage. The sort of questions I wanted to ask weren’t being relayed to a mainstream audience in the public sphere, so I wanted to write something that translated some of those ideas—that I’ve had the privilege of being exposed to—to a non-academic audience. I really believe [these conversations] have a certain potential to illuminate questions about race and gender that we’re having today.
You’ve written about images that “can’t be unseen,” which made me think about Sara Ahmed’s description of feminist perspectives as “living in proximity to a nerve.” Choosing to take a feminist perspective is a difficult process and can be eye-opening. The project became rather personal as well, right?
The key thing for me really was becoming a mother. [It] was definitely a moment of change and identity shift both as an intellectual and as a woman [and] I realized that there were no images that mirrored who I was at that moment. As someone who was a parent, who was a woman who wasn’t yet old but no longer young—no longer the archetype of the ingenue or venus or the maiden as I formulate them in my book, but not yet ready to be the kind of crone and monstrous woman and the witch. So I felt that my personal experience wasn’t reflected in the images around me. I don’t identify with the MILF or the angel in the house, the sacrosanct desexualized virgin mother. I love what you’ve said about the connection between “what can’t be unseen,” which I talk about in terms of violent images, and the relation to feminist philosophy being always close to this exposed nerve. I think that’s an interesting thing to explore because feminism itself is not monolithic. It often touches nerves because of the different interests of certain parties under the whole umbrella of feminism, which results in very vigorous interactions and debates. I like this idea of a live nerve, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, you know. It can be a good thing.
Digging into all of this imagery must’ve been like a sensory overload. Did you feel like you were suddenly seeing the connections between your research and pop culture all over social media?
Oh, definitely. That was part of my rhetorical strategy in a very conscious and direct way from the beginning. I could see how thinking more about a Renaissance Venus by Botticelli, or a classical Venus, would shed some light on the acres of space that are devoted to Beyoncé or Kim Kardashian’s display of their bodies in the public realm. And that’s what I have loved in dethroning art history from its, at times, elitist and inaccessible presentation, by being able to make those connections in a way that is not traditionally scholarly—in terms of the sorts of academic articles and journals—but it has a level of scholarliness, without being wrapped up in inaccessible baggage, so that anyone can read and think about it.
Out of the recent writings on women’s bodies in pop culture, model Emily Ratajkowski’s recent book, My Body has made a big splash. Has that factored into some of your thinking as well?
Right! The whole Ratajkowski thing keeps coming up, and I haven’t read [her book] yet, but I spent last night reading articles [like] Andrea Long Chu’s recent piece [“The Emily Ratajkowski You’ll Never See”] in the New York Times, which [author] Lauren Elkin sent me and we were talking about and dissecting it. I found it really interesting how those ideas about self-objectification versus empowerment keep coming back, with the presentation of women in the public realm.
I was thinking of sending you that piece to talk about! It’s also been completely on my mind. There’s a history of consuming and capitalizing off the ownership of women’s bodies, which you cover in the book. Male artists paid women to model, but the fee paled in comparison to the value of their finished work—which, for some, continues to profit today. In this digital age, it’s large companies like Facebook, Instagram, Google, Twitter—generally owned by men—who have extensive rights to use images that we take and post of ourselves on their platforms. How does that idea of modern ownership relate to what you’re talking about?
It all relates to the commodification of women’s bodies in very straightforward and very continually pervasive forms. In the Ratajkowski saga of her body being continually reproduced and manipulated—either by her own volition and consent or without her consent, [like] in the case of the Richard Prince piece that he made [from] one of her Instagram images—she responded [by] making her own work. Or whether it is Modigliani, who was paying women a little bit more than what they would get working in a factory, to pose nude for him. One of the currencies within the fabric of our culture has for so long been based in the commodification of women’s bodies. For me, when women self-commodify, it takes us so far—so it does adapt the dynamic of power and control, but ultimately we’re still presenting a system of value that is based on commodity. It only works if your body conforms to very particular characteristics of things that can be marketable. That became apparent with Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s [“WAP”] video, where you had so much more of an outcry when women of color, who didn’t have the Western male gaze’s traditionally acceptable—let’s just say Emily Ratajkowski—body. Then it became even more problematic that they were getting rich by doing that. It’s also a very ableist system. So, going beyond that system of commodification, I’m really inspired by reading Marxist feminist critiques of culture from the 1970s and early 1980s. For me, it’s about going beyond that and creating new languages and new systems of value that don’t depend on that exchange.
You mention Kara Walker in the book, and I love her work because it’s like she is speaking in a new, beautiful language that plays with old forms that are the sites of immense harm. What artists are you interested in right now that are making work that reimagines ways of representing women and their bodies?
Kara Walker can be accessed on a very immediate and very arresting level for bringing up to the surface, with her incredibly scrupulous gaze, issues of colonial violence and its implications on discourses of history and women’s bodies. Her material is so, so rich. She has this ability to occupy both “high art” theoretical discussions as well as having this immediacy that’s very viscerally apprehended.
Someone else whose work I didn’t include in the book—and I really regret it now—is Hilary Harkness. She creates these works that have been called lesbian utopias, these very densely peopled narrative story oil paintings that challenge heteronormative depictions of work, of historical events. Her work can also be apprehended on a very immediate level, but also has a lot of depth and discourses behind them.
You examine the archetypal figures of Venus, the Mother, the Maiden or Damsel in Distress, and the Monstrous Woman. How did you approach choosing these archetypes to focus on?
[These examples] sort of follow an archetypal chronology of female life experience. Venus seemed to me the most predominant one. Venus is really the DNA for all archetypes of women as they’re expressed and contested in our visual culture. Mothers, as we spoke about [emerged from] my own personal experience. And the antithesis to that, or the next stage, is the idea of the Monstrous Woman, or the witch, the crone, the older woman, the hag. Jessie Jones, [whom] I included with her piece Tremble, Tremble, is another great artist. She alludes to Marxist feminism and Silvia Federici’s writing on witches and reproductive labor in a really dynamic performance piece. The Maiden archetype really jumped out at me because I’m really struck by this passive, sad girl that exists online and in—largely Victorian—painting. I wanted to talk about violence and mythological rape stories that underpin so many of the institutions that we invest authority in. Whether that’s the story of the Rape of Europa, which I write about, and how that story becomes a symbol for the geopolitics of Europe as a gesture of cooperation and harmony. When you boil the story down to its salient nuggets, it is about the abduction of a woman from outside Europe, a Phoenecian woman, in order to create a new nation. That is an incredibly rich thing to unpack. The maiden was a way to look at that sad girl and the rape victim that we see so normalized in our cultural images.
I really appreciate the way you talk about the very real-world, material influences of these tropes. It carries an enormous impact. It also speaks to the modern image of the sad girl that teaches women, especially young women, that it’s beautiful to torture themselves.
Absolutely. And I wanted to include in that chapter the glamorization of anorexia and the now out of fashion heroin-chic, which, when I was growing up as a teenager in the 1990s, was a very big aesthetic to imitiate. I really wanted to write about that and the figure of the Victorian consumptive as well, but there wasn’t enough space.
Yeah, the first thing I thought about was pro-anorexia spaces online, particularly for young girls on social media. Is there anything else you wish you could have included that you weren’t able to?
I’ve found a lot of art that I wasn’t aware of at the time that I would have loved to include in the witches section. One is a monument commemorating women killed under charges of witchcraft. It’s in Norway, and it’s the only European country that has a remembrance for this act of what some historians call routine genocide. Louise Bourgeois made these burning chairs, these steel structures with burning fire pits that are constantly lit. And it sounds like a wonderful environmental piece that lets in the snow, the extreme weather conditions, and keeps burning. I would like to write more about that, as well as how the figure of the witch resonates with the erasure of older women.
Has this project impacted how you will introduce your children to images or teach them how to read images?
Yes, absolutely. I dedicated the book to them, saying that they might see the world clearly. I absolutely feel like I’m in a position where I can encourage them to have a critical eye for what they see around them. We’ve touched on how the real power of images, whether they’re seen online or in magazines or music videos, they have a real power to shape our relationship with ourselves and our expectations of how we should look and how we should be. So, yes, I 100 percent feel like my kids will probably be very irritated by me always trying to encourage a critical reading of what’s around them. And already I find—this is not to boast—but I feel gratified that my daughter can see a Victoria’s Secret concession in an airport and comment on how that’s not how she sees herself, or not how she sees me. She can see that there’s a disconnect. I would really like to be able to extend this message out, so that other people can have the tools to talk to their families about it in that way.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.