Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Introduction: The Sexual Body

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Introduction: The Sexual Body

Article excerpt

Recalling Edouard Manet's painting Olympia (1863), one contemporary art critic writes, "She wasn't a goddess or an angel or a shy bather caught off guard. She was a contemporary woman-unabashedly unclad, unmistakably unallegorical. Her name was Victorine Meurent, but Edouard Manet called her Olympia. And she changed everything" (Schambelan 2002). Of course the author of this account of Olympia refers to the way in which Manet's work has purportedly changed the reception of the female nude in the history of art. During its first exhibition in 1865, the portrait of a reclining nude with a black maid standing behind her caused such a scandal over questions of art and decency that the painting required two police officers to protect it. The nude's enigmatic smile and unaccommodating, direct gaze suggested a subject whose sexuality and naked body needed no apologies. Its contemporary viewers wondered if Manet had confused a concubine for a queen.

The sexual body functions as a challenge to bourgeois normativity, but to end with Olympia and her maid as emblems of sexual deviance is to foreclose critical engagement. Olympia and her maid exist at a moment when the terms of race, sexuality, and racial violence were contested and particular-political economic arguments about the slave trade and abolition situate the passive gesture of Olympia's maid in a material context that we ignore at our peril. Simultaneously, Olympia's glib refusal of the black woman's offerings raises questions about race, sexuality, and hierarchy in nineteenth-century Europe. It is in this broader context that we must situate Olympia as an image around which myriad issues about the nature of the body, of sexuality, of racial hierarchy, and of licentiousness convene.

We chose Cox's photograph for the cover of this special issue on the sexual body precisely because Cox forces us to grapple with the notion that a sexual body might signal an expansive change. Has "everything changed"? Both Manet and Cox's images portray confident nudes whose looks turn the objectifying gaze back onto the viewer and articulate their knowledges of sex. But the bourgeois black female subject featured in Olympia's Boyz reminds the viewer that the sexual body is a cipher for interrogating the theoretical and practical discomforts of pleasure and power. When they were exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 2001, Cox's images, like Manet's canvas, required police protection. But by 2001 viewers and critics had found new ways to express their discomfort. This time, the black woman in the frame became an example of "political and sexual audacity" (Moylan 2001). Standing behind the Olympia figure in Cox's giant Cibachrome print are two boys-they replace the black maid in the original paintingwho, rather than proffering a suitor's flowers, wait with spears ready to defend their mother. The scandal of this work is that Cox places the black female body-herself-at the center of history and the traditions of Western art. One reviewer writes that the photograph's realism forces the viewer to confront everyday assumptions concerning what matters about the body (Schambelan 2002). Another reviewer casually comments, "And, one can't help but notice, amidst the many references to Cox's African heritage, that her husband is white, the children posed elsewhere in African garb are of mixed race" (Moylan 2001). More than one hundred years after Olympia, the scandal of Cox's unaccommodating nude continues to mobilize responses laden with the issues of race, miscegenation, reproduction, and the specific terms of sexual pleasure. Viewers understood Manet's Victorine Meurent as an unapologetic prostitute; Cox's Olympia is somebody's wife. The children are legitimate in a patriarchal logic, yet the naked body and its confident sexuality defy easy categories. How is it that an evaluation of a work of art becomes a question of the race of the subject's husband? What is salient about the mixed-race children in African garb? …

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