22 April 2006

The Lebanese Gaze

For about a week now, I’ve been out running on the Corniche (Beirut’s big boardwalk by the sea) every morning at six. I love it, but I don’t love being gawked at. Every day, I get at least one shouted “Welcome to Lebanon!”, with a few other random, often lame comments, and I turn quite a few male heads. Such behavior irritates me, but my response to it has always been to act as though I am both deaf and blind, under the proverb that “If you don’t play, they all go away.”

This approach bothers me for a few reasons. First, it doesn’t do nearly enough to condemn their behavior. Second, I’m neither deaf nor blind. I can see them staring even if I act like I can’t. As always, art has been through the same thing, and I think it might provide a solution.

Gawking is the real-life expression of the gaze, which is a major issue in art history. At its most basic level, the gaze is the point of view behind any given work of art. Who is looking, and why? That is the gaze. With some subject matters, like 19th century landscapes, the gaze might not be such a big deal. Most of us have at one point or another been awed by, or felt the serene gentleness of nature, and that’s not at all unlike the way these painters gazed at nature.

Depictions of people are another matter, and depictions of naked people go a step further. The issue of who is looking, and why matters quite a lot in these cases, probably because men and women, children and adults look at each other differently. What a man sees in an image of a woman is not necessarily what a woman or a child sees.

Now when you consider that men were the primary producers of art for almost all of its precious history, we have to conceded that it is predominantly the male gaze that we are talking about here. So, when Eduard Manet painted this image, he was addressing a long, long line of gazing men.

The fact that the nude woman looks back at us and back at Manet puts her in a class of her own. She looks at you as you look at her, and that challenges your ability to simply enjoy looking at her. I think it is high time I started staring back when I run, and I'll do it with about as much unimpressed boredom on my face as is on hers.


Anonymous said...

Wait until I get there, I want to see the expressions on the men's faces when you give them the unimpressed boredom look. Try to sneak a camera to capture the moment or at least do a pencil drawing of the event for posterity. Maybe this could be the start of an art career. Central theme "gaze of bewildered Lebanese men". Grandpa Dan

katperkins said...

I am also plagued with stares from men. It comes from being really, really ridiculously good-looking.

Mary Ann said...

Hey, dan, you're welcome to run with me while you're here. But, I imagine that having you along will influence the number of men who feel comfortable looking.

Kat, in my case I know it has nothing to do with being good looking. It has everything to do with being white.